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If Lakers basketball prez Jim Buss wanted to make Los Angeles fans feel any better about his team’s prospects by sitting for a rare on-record interview, he probably failed in that regard.
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The Lakers stink. They stunk two seasons ago, last season, and they’ll stink again this season. That’s OK! A lot of teams stink, and usually that sort of ineptitude leads to scads of high draft picks and a chance to clear house with salary cap space. The Lakers, though, are still a few years behind in that regard due to the triptych of calamities that were the Dwight Howard Era, the Steve Nash Trade, and the Kobe Bryant Contract Extension.
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This is part of the reason why Buss spoke with USA Today’s Sam Amick about his team’s fortunes heading forward, and his own role in those Laker champions of lore:
“(If) I would have taken credit for all the moves we won championships for, then I would have a resume; I don’t have a resume,” said Buss, who has been on board for five Lakers titles since he first joined and whose bio in the team's media guide is approximately one quarter the size of [Lakers general manager Mitch] Kupchak's. “So my resume is just me all of a sudden taking over, which isn’t true. It’s not true at all. The thing that most people don’t understand is that I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I worked with Jerry West. I’ve done this, and I’ve said these things. But it doesn’t have any teeth, doesn’t have any legs. I was very much part of the final decisions on all of the championships that we’ve won in the last 20 years.
“I was extremely involved on both the basketball and the financial side, but there was no point for me to go out and wave my flag. It didn’t make sense to me. Now I understand that I should have, to a certain degree.”
This particular batch of martyrdom (Buss mentioned the “bullying and everything” that comes with leading a struggling team) doesn’t scan all that well. He even tried to pin previous on-record remarks, remarks he said were misconstrued by mean media types like yours truly, on lacking sarcasm detectors:
“There’s no emotion when the words come across (digitally), so you don’t know what they really meant,” he said. “Was it a joke, or sarcastic? So unless you’re just stating facts, to me it’s dangerous … There’s no tone at all."
After detailing the nice things several famed NBA executives – and Buss’ friends, if we’re honest – like Jerry West and Pat Riley have said to him privately, Buss then dug in on Laker legend Magic Johnson:
“Magic Johnson going nuts on me?” he says with a laugh. “It’s like, ‘Really, dude? My Dad made you a billionaire almost. Really? Where are you coming from?”
Because why not go after the Most Beloved Laker Ever?
(The Magic Johnson-bashing is absolutely pointless. Johnson was, weirdly, paid to be an NBA analyst for a spell, and in a rare instance he made correct observations about a talented team that barely made the playoffs in 2012-13, and a less-talented squad that sputtered in the years that followed. Just as Magic should be above such things, so should Buss. It’s embarrassing to watch billionaires go at it, and we’re pretty sure Jim’s father Dr. Jerry Buss wasn’t the one spending hours working on inside-out dribbles in Michigan some 40 years ago.)
Fearing he hadn’t said enough, Buss then signed off on the Lakers’ current rebuilding project:
“I think we’ve done a great job (rebuilding). Yeah, I think we’re in dynamite position. Not good position – dynamite. I think we’ve turned the corner. I don’t know if you discount that terminology, ‘turn the corner.’ But when you’re headed down the wrong road, and you can finally get off that road and turn the corner, that’s huge in my opinion.”
Now, it’s every executive’s job to say cheery things with the media. Buss isn’t going to give USA Today a “we’re gunnin’ for 30 wins!”-assessment. With Buss, however, this doesn’t feel duplicitous. You fear that he actually believes … this:
The Lakers, picked by most to stick to the cellar of the Pacific Division yet again, are in a “dynamite” position, and they’ve apparently “turned the corner.” The team will most assuredly both miss the playoffs and lose out on its lottery pick (unless it falls in the top three selections, it heads to Philadelphia), but Buss believes the combination of two former lottery picks (Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell) plus cap room will be enough to set the Lakers straight moving forward.
Starting in 2016, of course. This year will be a bit of a bummer.
Buss wouldn’t be completely wrong in that regard were it not for the uneasiness – the uneasiness that he happily and literally signed off on – regarding Kobe Bryant. Bryant is in the last year of a two-year, $48.5 million extension that was politely ridiculed the day he agreed to it – and that was before he lost the next two campaigns to season-ending injuries. Bryant hasn’t completely dismissed the notion of playing beyond 2015-16, and neither has Buss.
If the Lakers want to make a stab at free agent greatness this summer, however, they’re going to have to suss out Bryant’s future well, well, well ahead of the July 1st free agent extravaganza. Not just because Kobe’s $25 million 2015-16 salary will create a massive cap hold. No, prospective free agents need to know if Bryant will be a future teammate of theirs, and his presence will dissuade players from hopping on.
Not just because of the “nobody wants to be Kobe’s teammate”-tome that has been so ubiquitous over the last few years (although, let’s be honest, that’s a big part of it). But because players want to know if they’d be tying their fortunes, however briefly, to a player who was drafted a few months before Sen. Robert Dole lost a presidential election.
As to Buss’ role in stocking the cabinet of several championship winners? It’s debatable.
Famously, it was Buss that pushed for the Lakers to draft Andrew Bynum, and though Bynum has rightfully turned in to a punchline in the years since he was dealt from Los Angeles, he was a damn good player for a while and nabbing an All-Star-level center in the low lottery was a huge move. Beyond that, however, the Lakers’ depth was rather thin even during the two different championship eras, relying on the star power of titans in Kobe and Shaquille O’Neal (brought on before Buss joined the front office) and Pau Gasol (acquired in a deal only a fool would turn down).
For him to kvetch about the lack of credit when things go right or a disproportionate amount of criticism when things fail (and they have failed) is asinine, however. Nobody has chided the Lakers for dealing for Steve Nash – what critics do lament are the needless draft picks thrown Phoenix’s way after Nash toothlessly offered the then-awful Toronto Raptors (who play three time zones away from where Nash grow up) as a free agent bargaining chip.
Nobody criticized the Dwight Howard deal then, and few would now. Critics won’t and shouldn’t take note of the fact that the Lakers failed to shield an obviously flimsy center away from Bryant, and the fact that the Lakers (read: Buss) hired a coach in Mike D’Antoni that was not suited for the slowed style the Lakers needed to play.
Everybody takes issue with the Bryant extension, but this is the “entertainment-first, basketball-second” realm the Lakers happily signed into.
Jim Buss deflected questions about the potential for him to fall on his figurative sword in 2017 if the Lakers aren’t “championship contenders” by then. Lakers business prez Jeannie Buss plans on keeping her brother at his word, and it’s tough to anticipate what sort of heady free agent or trade acquisition (even if they were to get, say, a disgruntled DeMarcus Cousins for peanuts) that would turn a team currently banking its future on two just-about rookies who have played a combined 14 minutes of NBA ball thus far alongside Mythical Free Agent Game-Changer into a championship contender in 20 months.
The Lakers will always be a destination program, in spite of the frustrations of the last few offseasons. How Jim Buss handles the upcoming Kobe nightmare will, if he stays true to his word, define the rest of his basketball career.
Do you trust the guy to define “championship contender,” Laker fans?
Uh oh. He's lost Flea.
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