It was team photo day at the Los Angeles Lakers' practice facility this week. Sitting smack dab in the middle of the front row of smiling participants was Jim Buss, wearing a black baseball-style Lakers cap with a line of players wearing yellow jerseys to either side of him.
Buss, the Lakers’ executive vice president of player personnel, was occupying the spot his father, Lakers owner Jerry Buss, usually takes when it’s time for the team to annually say, “Cheese.” It was a fitting scene, illustrating just how much the younger Buss has been thrust into the forefront of the Lakers’ franchise decisions as his father has watched him assume greater control over the family business.
Jerry Buss is still “the boss,” as Jim Buss says, and his absence from the team photo wasn’t an orchestrated move to pass the baton to his son or anything -- he was simply feeling under the weather the day of the photo shoot, according to a Lakers staffer -- but there will come a time when the Lakers are truly Jim Buss’ team.
Following the photo session, the normally reticent Jim Buss sat down with ESPNLosAngeles.com for a wide-ranging interview. As Buss sipped on a black coffee with three Sweet 'N Lows and scratched his beard that he decided to keep after growing out his facial hair for the first time in his life during the NBA’s 161-day lockout, the conversation spanned his increased role with the Lakers, the team’s championship aspirations, how the new collective bargaining agreement and revenue sharing arrangement will affect business, his relationship with Phil Jackson, and much more. (See Part 2 here.)
Q: What are your thoughts on this season?
“Well, I think it’s coming along just as we anticipated with the changing of the guard of coaches [and] new players. I felt that the second half of the season would be better than the first half. As far as up and down, every season has its ups and downs. To me, this is a normal up and down, so it’s OK. But I like how we’re hitting our stride going into the playoffs, so I’m happy.”
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.”
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.”
Q: Has his attitude or any of his actions on and off the court taken away from some of that production?
“I don’t think so. I like what Phil Jackson said the other day [to the Los Angeles Times]. I thought that was the best way to look at it. The kid is coming into his own and there’s going to be some growing pains and just let him grow. So, I’m good with it.”
Q: Going back to 2005, how involved were you in making sure the Lakers picked Bynum?
“How involved? Extremely involved. It was not that I was pressuring to change peoples’ minds, it was there were other options that we could have done, and I was the one -- basically Mitch [Kupchak] and I got on board together on this, and then we convinced everybody that Bynum is the guy. Where the convincing part came was not picking him. The convincing part was to basically tell him to stop his workouts. That’s where you basically are guaranteeing that you’re taking him.
“The actual picking process was not, ‘Oh, should we take him or not?’ It was, ‘Do we shut down his workouts or not?’ And that’s where I came in. The final call was basically Mitch and I were talking it out, and we said, ‘Let’s stop the workouts.’”
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.”
Q: Do you look back at that as a franchise-changing moment?
“I personally don’t. In [Bynum's] second year, my dad said, ‘You know what? This might be a franchise changer.’ Because you could see his potential in probably his second year. Unfortunately he’s been injured, to show what he really has. But, as far as me looking back on a franchise changer, I don’t look at it that way. Obviously he’s going to be our center for a long time, but I just don’t look at things like that. Because, we’re always winning and we always want to stay on top. I don’t know how you change a franchise from winning to winning.”
Q: You stated that you intend for Bynum to be your franchise center for the future, so his injury history and any attitude issues [aren't] really holding you back?
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.”
Q: Part of your job requires you to be in the moment of the season but also plan for the future. Have you guys even begun to think about life post Kobe as a player?
“I don’t like to, but we have to. So, yeah, it goes through our minds but we don’t really [dwell on it]. We can’t anticipate what is going to happen. We can’t talk to him like I said, so I don’t know what he’s thinking. I don’t know if he’s thinking he wants to play a year more or two years more [after his current contract expires] or retire. I don’t know. I have zero idea.”
Q: In an interview with 710 ESPN’s “Mason & Ireland Show,” you did say that you thought he would play longer than two more years ...
“That’s me thinking him. I can’t read his mind. What I said is I think he’s playing well enough to not hang them up. I think a caller asked me if Kobe is going to hang them up and I said I just don’t see that. I mean, he could have been the minutes leader this year. I don’t see him slowing down.”
Q: But an extension with Kobe has not been addressed yet?
“It can’t be.”
(Editor's note: Per league rules, a player cannot sign a new deal with his team until three years after his last contract extension or signing. Bryant signed his current extension in April 2010 so he will not be able to negotiate a new deal with the Lakers until April 2013 at the earliest.)
Q: Magic Johnson came out this year and said that you and Kobe should sit down and have a talk. Did that happen?
“Yes, we had dinner. We talk all the time now. What it is is, be it my fault, I should communicate more with the players in a certain way. I’ve always felt that when it comes to decisions that it changes every 10 minutes when it’s actually going to happen. To inform a player or ask a player’s opinion about this guy or that guy, it would bore them to death and drive them crazy. So, I was under the impression that it was better to wait until the very last moment and then talk to him. But, Kobe is cool about it. He said, ‘Just let me know.’ Keep me in the loop, kind of thing. And I said, ‘OK, I have no problem with that.’”
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.”
Q: You’ve said before that Kobe is part of the Lakers’ family, and you mentioned how Magic continues to represent the team. Have you thought about where Kobe could be in relationship to the franchise when he’s done playing?
“I know he’s going to be the face of the Lakers for a long, long, long, long time. Like Magic, obviously, 25 years later.”
Q: Could you see him having some kind of equity in the team or anything like that?
“I don’t know. Those are things where I have no idea what he’s thinking. I don’t know.”
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.”
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.
“People were throwing it back in our face with the new television deal, and it’s basically kind of wiped that out. Fifty million dollars extra per year just kind of went out the door.
“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.”
Q: You have a family business, and businesses across the country have suffered in the last five years because of the downturn in the economy. Have the Busses been immune to that, or have you guys felt that as well?
“Of course we felt that, and that’s another consideration that we have to take into [account] when we make the decisions that we do. There’s a downturn in the economy. But, that’s part of the [lockout]. We’ve gone through that. It seems like we’ve come out of the [lockout] spending more with the revenue sharing. It looks like they hit us and everybody else made the adjustments. I think the CBA adjusted for that, and yeah, we’ve definitely felt that because it changes your decisions.”
Q: How much does the new CBA restrict you competitively as a luxury tax-paying team?
“If you’re over the tax, you can’t make trades at certain levels. You can only get the mini-midlevel [exception] so you can’t improve your team [as easily]. There are a lot of restrictions, and that’s what they were trying to do, just restrict us from doing what we do.”
Q: I know you said that David Stern is still someone you hold esteem for, but did you ever feel like the Lakers were being targeted?
“David Stern I thought did a fantastic job. I thought he tried to keep it calm and fair. I think most of the other teams were pointing at the Lakers. They were saying that the Lakers do this, it’s not fair. The Lakers do that, it’s not fair. But, in the end, I think David Stern kept it all calm and did the best he could.”
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.”
Q: Getting back to the family business, obviously the Lakers is what you guys do, but do you have outside interests or businesses that are also part of your portfolio?
“No. This is it. It is a little time consuming [laughing]. So, I don’t know if we’d really want anything else.”
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. So, we had to do what we had to do. It’s not fun; there’s no question about that. But, I think all in all we did pretty good as far as keeping the people we needed and rehiring people that we wanted to.”