BELL GARDENS, Calif. -- Los Angeles Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss claims he did not green-light the team's active summer of free agency with the Miami Heat specifically in mind, but he's certainly excited to see how Miami's big three will measure up to what he believes could be his best team in 30-plus years.
Speaking at The Bicycle Casino before the Mariani/Buss Charity Open, a no-limit hold 'em tournament to benefit the Lakers Youth Foundation, Buss didn't do a very good job of keeping his poker face.
Buss, 76, said the Lakers' moves were motivated by the constant goal to improve and that the Heat weren't a clear-cut threat, mentioning Orlando, Boston, Chicago, Denver and Utah as fellow foes. However, when questioned about LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh & Co., he couldn't help but get worked up a little.
"Suddenly there's this juggernaut out there that we have a chance to play against and that excites me, that really excites me because, quite honestly, I think we can beat them and I'm looking forward to playing them," Buss said. "I don't think it's automatic that Miami will be our biggest opponent come the end, but on the other hand, I must admit they have the world's attention and that means we're going to be on center stage when we get a chance to play them."
Still, Buss maintained that all of the personnel decisions were independent of the Heat.
"Our intentions were to sign those players prior to Miami coalescing all of the talent that was left over," Buss said. "I don't think we reacted to them. Once the season is over, we look backwards on the season and say, 'Were there any weaknesses? Could we do something to improve this team?' And we did that quite independently of Miami. ... I think we just prepared ourselves for the general war, not specifically for anyone."
Speaking to local reporters for the first time since being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor last Friday, Buss reiterated a remark he made to NBA TV that the 2010-11 Lakers could be the best team he's had since acquiring the franchise in 1979.
"I think that's really called camp spring fever," Buss explained. "Every time I've ever gone to camp, everybody starts talking and saying, 'This team could be the best team we've ever had,' and I guess I fall into that same trap because when I look at this team, every single individual on that team seems to me capable of playing a very important role next year and as of now, I feel there's a good chance this could be the best team we've ever had."
The label of best Lakers team of the Buss era is no small achievement. The 1999-2000 Lakers, led by Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, won 67 games en route to the first of three straight championships. The '08-09 team, led by Bryant and Pau Gasol, won 65 and started the team's current string of two straight trophy ceremonies. In '86-87, a team led by Hall of Famers Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy won 65 games to capture what would be its second title in three years, en route to three in four years.
The common thread between those teams, of course, is capturing the championship; which is something Buss has accomplished 10 times in his tenure.
And championships aren't cheap. The Lakers have approximately $95.7 million committed in roster salary next season, which is well above the league salary cap of $58 million and significantly higher than the luxury tax line of $70.3 million. Spending above the luxury tax warrants a dollar-for-dollar penalty paid to the league office, meaning that as of now, Buss would owe an additional $25.4 million to David Stern.
"We are spending way too much money," Buss said with an exasperated laugh. "It's tough. You sit there and you say, 'We really can't afford this, we can't afford this and we can't afford this,' and then somehow the next day we end up spending some more money and getting another player and signing a new extension, etc. etc. At least it has softened my attitude towards women in the mall, because I can't turn down things either."
The Lakers were tops in team salary in the league last season, with a roster that cost more than $91 million, and that expense has only grown with the addition of free agents Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff and the retaining of guards Derek Fisher and Shannon Brown.
Buss said the expenditures create a championship-or-bust mentality for his team that has made it to three straight NBA Finals. The Lakers pocket approximately $1.5 million in profit per home playoff game.
"It's very helpful to get a lot of games in and go to the Finals," Buss said. "If we don't go to the Finals this has been a very expensive undertaking. ... You get to a spot where you have to win it all to be happy. Sometimes you talk to people and they say, 'Wow, we made the playoffs,' and I think to myself, 'If we don't make the playoffs ...' As a matter of fact, talking some time ago to some people, they wanted a bonus if the Lakers made the playoffs. I said, 'If they don't make the playoffs, you don't work here anymore.'"
Buss, who speaks to the media infrequently, made the most of his nearly 25 minutes with reporters Tuesday, touching on a variety of topics.
• On O'Neal signing with the Celtics: "I think there's a lot of rivalry and a lot of emotions in these things. Shaq and Kobe have a little thing going as to who wins the most rings and so Shaq signing with Boston sets up a potential showdown. I like the drama, I think it's fabulous. You can't help but love Shaq. He's still Shaquille O'Neal. He's still a very funny man, sometimes he gets a little carried away in his analysis of former employers, but outside of that he's quite a guy and we look forward to [playing Boston]."
• On the renewed rivalry with Boston after facing the Celtics in the Finals twice in the last three seasons: "From the very beginning, the Boston thing to me was the real issue because I was a big fan of the Lakers and sat through all those miserable moments when Jerry West and Elgin Baylor and even Wilt Chamberlain were getting beat and we came so close in those days, so very, very close and the frustration as a fan was terrible. And so, when I bought the Lakers, that was obviously upper most in my mind -- we've got to catch up and do to them what they did to us. And so, Boston has always been very special and beating them is always and forever will be special."
• On the possibility of Magic Johnson becoming a majority owner of the Detroit Pistons: "Earvin is a whirlwind. He does so many things; I wouldn't doubt that he could do 10 more things. He seems to have unbounded energy. One day I see he's playing an exhibition game in Sweden and the next day he's on a business trip in New York and he's just all over the place. So, anything that Earvin says probably wouldn't surprise me, but I have not talked to him specifically about that."
• And on the chances Phil Jackson coaching beyond the "last stand" that he is calling next season: "He will go through this year and find out that he's discovered the fountain of youth, and who knows, he may continue after that. He says no, but who knows?"
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.