Early on Wednesday, the ESPN Los Angeles' diligent Lakers beat man Dave McMenamin published a fascinating interview with Jim Buss, the son of Lakers owner Jerry Buss and current … something … of the team. Both are fascinating reads (here's the first, and here would be the second part of the interview), and I couldn't help but talk back to my laptop as I made my way through the Q and A session.
In the process I annoyed the wife, lost a few Twitter followers, and said enough to the point where I believe it's only fair that I relay my conversation with the conversation that McMenamin and Buss had recently.
Q: Start with Andrew Bynum. He could be the best player on this team in the second half of the season, all due respect to Kobe.
"I'm not a guy that judges players in different positions against different players. It doesn't make sense to me to compare a center to a guard. It doesn't make sense at all. So, to say Andrew Bynum was the best player in the second half, I wouldn't be comparing him to anybody. You got Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace, Ramon Sessions, Kobe [Bryant]. ... I think they all are the best player on the team in their position."
Ooh, actually, you could totally do that. It's not like baseball and football, where different players are asked to pick up statistics exclusive to their position. Kobe and Drew and Metta are all asked to score efficiently, rebound when called upon, hit the open man, not turn the ball over, and play good defense. Ramon and Pau, too. Most of those things are quantifiable, and you can actually compare the abilities of relative small men (your guards) doing big man work (rebounding) with other small men. It's totally cool. We can compare Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard, and our brains won't explode.
It is also a fantastic stamp of approval for Mike Brown that you pointed out that the five starters on the Los Angeles Lakers "are the best player on the team in their position."
Q: You would agree, though, that his performance on the court in terms of production has been the best it's ever been.
"Yes, of course. If you wanted me to compare him to himself, he's having his best year."
Compare him to himself, compare him to Kobe, compare him to the artichoke hearts you put on your pizza last night. Just stop blowing my mind with your steely, focused logic.
Q: If you go back to that draft, the lottery centers that were picked were Andrew Bogut No. 1 and then Channing Frye at No. 8, Fran Vazquez was at No. 11 and Bynum at No. 10. At the time, Bynum might have been considered the biggest question mark out of that group. I think today you'd say he's the strongest one.
"Oh yeah. I think I'd take him over the rest."
You are allowed to compare these players because they are all centers. Save for Fran Vazquez, who will probably end up on the Lakers at some point because they have a "Ramon" and a "Pau."
Q: Let's go on to Kobe. I know he's compensated very well by your franchise. He's the highest-paid player in the league. Can you put a numerical value on what he actually means to this team?
"I think that's impossible. I really do. I couldn't put a figure on it, for sure. Obviously it goes so far reaching, you know? Just the image. Even Magic Johnson still is participating in the franchise's wealth. It makes the team that much more valuable. Because Magic Johnson, we don't pay him. So, to say what Kobe is worth would probably be impossible because he's a Laker for life and who knows what he's going to contribute later on, which could be an incredible amount."
Is that like a modified version of asking Kobe to play for free when you realize he'll be playing for over $30 million when he's 36?
Q: Do you feel like this season you've learned a lesson about communication, because you also told the L.A. Times if you could do the coaching search again you would reach out to Kobe more?
"I think so. It's a fine line. I definitely should have called him, and I'm not going to back down from that. I should have. But, you know, hey, I make mistakes."
We all do. You don't have to hand the keys to your franchise to Kobe, but it's probably a good idea to consult someone who has been on the court with just about every potential NBA head coach since 1996.
Q: Let's jump into the new collective bargaining agreement, because I think it's important.
"Yes, it's my favorite [laughing]."
Q: It changes everything, I think, for you guys.
"Absolutely. We can make a lot of money and still lose money? [Laughing.] That's not a good thing. Especially when it's a family-run business. I mean, my God, we don't have Carnival Cruises behind us or Kohl's Department Stores ... and Microsoft up in good, old Portland. This is it. If we lose money, we lose money."
(I so want Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen to write a song called "Good, Old Portland.")
(Other owners in relatively tiny markets like Milwaukee and good, old Portland probably don't like it when you talk about the way they worked hard to make the money that made it possible to own their own NBA team, and keep it in that small market and from potentially moving elsewhere. Especially not from someone who inherited his wealth.)
(Nobody told you that you couldn't be independently wealthy, Jim. There's still time to pick up that gig on the side in order to help you run a basketball team that will be printing its own money even after Kobe Bryant is forced off the court by armed guards sometime in 2020.)
Q: Under the old paradigm, obviously you made prudent front-office decisions for the last 30 years since your father took over the franchise. You've had great Hall of Fame players. Obviously that went into it. Sometimes you drafted them, sometimes you traded for them, sometimes you signed them. You did all that right. But also, you spent a lot of money. And the new CBA is going to prevent you, or make it very punitive toward you, to do that. So what is the new approach to staying as an elite franchise?
"Well, let's see. Let me think about that for a second. The timeline with the new CBA, the first two years are basically dollar for dollar, which is still costly, but we're used to that. The revenue sharing is what hurts us. The revenue sharing [from $4 million-6 million in the past to $50 million-80 million a year in the future] kicks in next year, and that's not part of the new CBA, but you have to take that into consideration.
"To keep the franchise going in the right direction, we just have to make prudent decisions on everything. As far as extending players or keeping this player or taking a chance on this player, and we have to get a little bit more aggressive in the draft even though we had to get rid of our first-round picks this year. So, I think those two are the main streams. Just more prudent decisions and more aggressive in the draft."
That's well and good, Mr. Buss. Nobody should expect you to pay through the teeth, forever.
But under the old plan, when you got to keep all that money for yourselves, you made commitments to certain players, and a championship-level roster. You also made ungodly sums of money along the way, as the Lakers played deep into the playoffs for three consecutive seasons (just since the acquisition of Pau Gasol to go alongside Bynum and Kobe) and into the second round last year. This team has gone without playoff revenue just twice since Jerry Buss bought the team in 1979.
That should have left you enough goodwill — and, frankly, capital — to keep Lamar Odom last year, and not trade him away in a purely cost-cutting move. Would an out of shape Odom have been as good as the version we saw in 2010-11? No, but he would have been at home, motivated, and helping.
It should have left you enough goodwill — and, frankly, capital — to decline on trading Derek Fisher. The Lakers haven't exactly fallen apart in his absence, and the Thunder aren't exactly rolling in the rings with him just yet … but it's DEREK FISHER. The guy probably could handle coming off the bench after you traded for Sessions in a separate deal. Pretty confident he's not going to pull a diva move.
And it should have certainly left you enough to make it through last summer, as you attempt to be "more prudent decisions and more aggressive in the draft," without having to eliminate just about all of your scouting staff save for Buss family members and a former bartender named "Chaz." That was the cheapest move of all, and ironically it was the least cost effective. Keeping a lot of big basketball brains on staff to ensure that the next millionaire athlete you acquire won't be stinko is the best low-investment/high-return move a son of a team owner can make.
Q: There are clear challenges. So, are you confident with this new landscape that the Lakers can still be "the Lakers"?
"I am very confident. I think we set ourselves up to be competitive past the new CBA, and we were waiting for the new landscape, and with this new landscape, like I said earlier, we just have to make the right decisions all the time to be competitive, and I think we're capable of doing that."
Dumping Lamar Odom for a payroll cut? I can understand that. Scouting staff and coaches? Come on. Some are driving the sorts of cars that sports writers drive. When we get our license back, I mean.
Q: One more question on the finance front -- do you have any regrets about how the team handled its business during the lockout?
"You mean letting people go? Well, my God, we didn't think there was going to be a season. I felt we were fair in our decisions. Where contracts were up, we didn't renew them. We just didn't know. I was confident going into September, October, but then we lost all confidence and we thought the season was pretty much over. When I went to the league meetings, the atmosphere was more like we're not going to have a season."
I'm sorry, but did the NCAA cancel its season last summer? Did international basketball cease to be a thing? I was sort of caught up in the Cardinals getting to the World Series, and my Arbor Day party, but what does a lost NBA season have to do with deciding not to follow the sorts of players that might have to be hired by your team, eventually? Especially when those sorts of players are the cost effective rotation-builders that you'll need around Kobe's contract (which takes up about half of the team's salary cap).
Q: No, not if you're prepared. Is this your moment? Do you feel like you have more responsibility, more say?
"It's like watching your kid grow up. Somebody that you haven't seen in a year comes in and all of the sudden says, 'Holy crimminy! Look how tall they've gotten!' I do this every day, so I don't think it's one day I walked out and started doing this [Buss flaps his arms] kind of thing.
("Holy crimminy" and mimed wing-flapping. This guy has definitely got me back in his corner.)
(Joke about Bird Rights.)
Q: Have you ever consulted with or reached out to other people like George Steinbrenner's sons or anyone else in a similar position in terms of just talking about the experience?
"No. The reason is because it's basically a family-owned business and this is all we do. So, I don't know if they're in the same position I am. They have other businesses. They're CEOs of other businesses. I'm not. I think my main focus, obviously my whole focus, is on the Lakers and theirs might not be (solely on their teams). I don't reach out like I'm in a position where you can relate to me, no."
Remember the part in "Step Brothers," where the doctor father of John C. Reilly's definitely-not-a-doctor character sighs as he recalls his son talking up his eventual role in "the family business"? That was a funny scene.
Q: You told Lakers.com, "I'm a numbers guy." Can you get into that with me?
"I'm not sharing my numbers with you (laughing). Jeez. Wow."
Q: Well, you don't have to be that specific (laughing). But, I'd like to know more about your advanced metrics. Obviously Daryl Morey gets a ton of credit, that being his reputation. What are you seeing that maybe everybody else isn't necessarily seeing?
"To separate my numbers from other people's numbers, basically I have a defensive rating, basically, that involves the offense, defense and then the impact depending on how much they play. A guy that plays 12 minutes a game might actually have a bigger impact (with my formula) than a guy that plays 30 minutes a game. Those are the ways that I find players that I think might be out of position or have not played enough or are out of coaches' favor with other teams and I start to focus in on those kind of guys. I think (Ramon) Sessions is a very good example. I think if you checked out, according to my numbers, the impact value was a lot stronger than what he was being played, so therefore he was under the radar to his own team. But we felt (he was valuable) and the rest is history with that."
This makes me feel a lot better about the "you can't compare a guard and a center!"-ideal.
Still, I really hope this isn't a very long way of saying "Ramon Sessions' per-minute numbers were good at Basketball-Reference.com, so we traded for him even though his coaches haven't always played him a ton."
Q: In 1998, you told "Sports Illustrated" magazine: "Evaluating basketball talent is not too difficult. If you grabbed 10 fans out of a bar and asked them to rate prospects, their opinions would be pretty much identical to those of the pro scouts."
"I didn't say that. What I said was exactly that and continued on. What I said, the point I was trying to make, was that it is so scrutinized, the top 10 picks, the top 15, there are services over and over and if you're a basketball fan you read these services. So, my point was, you can grab 10 guys and say, 'Who are the top 10 picks?' and they'll have that information. Where it becomes incredible, and that's where our scouts are incredible, is when we pick 29th, 30th, 28th. That's where scouting comes in to play because really (the top 10) is set, it's (the bottom 10) where you really have to know what you're doing.
"So, it was a compliment to our scouts and whoever wrote that, I forgot who it was, it was just completely unfair because he stopped (the quote). He put those three dots and that means it still goes on. He chopped it off there to make me look stupid. My point was it's so well covered, that the top 10-15 guys are pretty much picked and where your abilities shine are when you're picking 28th year after year after year."
Q: So it was taken out of context.
"Totally. But, I don't know how to get rid of it. Even you're bringing it up. It's attached and ... you know. I tried to inform people of exactly how that was. It wasn't misquoted. They just cut it off."
So maybe it is an issue with semantics. That a "prospect" can only be a top-10 player, and those guys at the bar will have just about the same opinion as the scouts about the top-10 players in a potential draft. And that scouts come in handy, which that jerk Franz Lidz cut off some 14 years ago (damn, I've got a high school reunion coming up. Time to start growing in these sideburns), when you're talking about the lower rungs of the draft. And that you love scouts. Which you fired last summer because there was no basketball, anywhere.
Let's just go with that.
It's still stupid.
I like beer, and I like basketball. I don't like to mix my beer and basketball, though a couple of times this season I have watched Friday or Sunday night NBA games at a bar for the first time since I was legally allowed to. Probably something to do with that high school reunion.
And the sheer disconnect between the Twitter feed (full of knowing fans, scouts, writers, columnists, and George Wallace) I read on my phone, and the comments that I hear from bar patrons? Patrons that live in Indiana, supposed home to the hoopfiend, and patrons that are way more in tune to the NBA than the barflies that were around in 1998? It's a startling difference. It's not a good "difference." Pardon to the punters, but they don't know what they're talking about.
Toss in the caveat that you only wanted to say that about the top players in the draft, and that just about everyone's mock draft (or, at least, depth chart) ends up the same. Go ahead, we'll allow it. It's still bunko, beyond belief.
This is cherry-picking of the highest order, and those who have to break free of the perception of nepotism often have the toughest burden you'll encounter in a day. It's not easy, and Buss has acquitted himself well with the Bynum hire, and he obviously appreciates X's and O's enough to hire Mike Brown. Though we still wonder if Brown's abilities are best served as a head coach.
This looks like we're being increasingly cruel with Buss, but we want to like the guy. We do. It's for the same reason we complain when Kobe takes a 21-footer early in the shot clock — we don't want to see something with great potential (like, Kobe Bryant with a basketball in his control) wasted. And we're trying hard to like Buss, despite the baseball cap. Come on, man. It's the Los Angeles Lakers, a historic franchise's team photo, and you're not 12. Lose the baseball cap.
The firings? The actual loss of employment? That's hard to get over. And until the Lakers get back to the top based around acquisitions surrounding Bynum and Bryant that Buss developed even with his newly-skinflint staff, then we'll be keeping this smart-alecky tone.
Unfair? Sure, but nobody has ever said life has to be fair to Jim Buss.
(Wait. Life has been INCREDIBLY fair to Jim Buss.)
Thanks again to Dave McMenamin for putting this monstrosity together.