A little over a year since the passing of the late Jerry Buss, the Lakers offered some clarity on who’s ultimately in charge of the organization.
“I am the one voice and that one person,” Lakers president Jeanie Buss said Thursday on 710 ESPN. “I’m at the top of the food chain.”
Buss, who runs the Lakers’ business operations, then explained that she and her five siblings own the team in a trust established by their father. Although the Buss family remain majority owners, the Lakers have other investors, including Anschutz Entertainment Group, real estate developer Ed Roski and doctor Patrick Soon-Shiong.
Buss also said that, just like her father, she has deferred Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and vice president of player personnel Jim Buss to oversee basketball operations.
“They are empowered to do that. My job is to make sure, as a boss, that I provide them the tools to do the job successfully,” Buss said. “But it’s up to them to make the day-to-day decisions on how they operate their area of the business.”
But with Jeanie overseeing major decisions, why not push to ensure Phil Jackson has a role in the front office? After all, Jeanie admitted she had wished the Lakers chose Jackson instead of Mike D’Antoni to replace Mike Brown five games into last season. She had also revealed in her book last fall that the coaching hire both negatively affected her well being and strained her relationship with Jim.
Jeanie joked Jackson had a role with the Lakers instead of becoming the New York Knicks’ president “so we could carpool together.” But Jeanie also pointed out that, under her father’s wishes, the Lakers wouldn’t have been able to grant Jackson a front office role as significant as the one he has in New York. Knicks owner James Dolan has said Jackson has final say regarding basketball matters.
“People need to understand. It isn’t just Phil,” Buss said. “They don’t need anybody else. Everything is covered. There’s no additional need for anybody to come in,. Jimmy and Mitch have a like mind in how they see the game and what they want to accomplish with this team. They have it under control. They don’t need another voice.”
Plenty of Lakers fans disagree.
The Lakers (22-45) enter tonight’s game against the Washington Wizards at Staples Center destined to miss the playoffs for only the fifth time in franchise history. Although the Lakers have remained decimated by injuries most notably to Kobe Bryant (fractured left knee) and Steve Nash (nerve irritation in back), coach Mike D’Antoni has remained unpopular and has a divided locker room among role players and stars, post players and guards.
“I have faith that Jimmy knows what he’s doing,” Buss said. “He learned under my dad. He’s got a certain style of basketball that he wants to see this team play.”
How that pans out this offseason remains to be seen.
The Lakers are destined to have a top draft choice for this year’s star-studded class. But most experts don’t expect any of the prospects to make an immediate impact. Bryant also recently challenged the front office to be aggressive this offseason, scoffing at the notion suggested by Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak would spend conservatively this offseason. Kupchak has since said his plan currently aligns with Bryant, but that could be easier said than done.
That’s because the Lakers only have enough cap room to acquire one max-level free agent in the next two years. Miami’s LeBron James isn’t expected to leave and the Lakers are lukewarm on New York’s Carmelo Anthony. Meanwhile, the 2015 free agent class could include Minnesota’s Kevin Love and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook. Regardless of how that plays out, Bryant’s two-year, $48.5 million extension hurts the team’s ability to build a roster around him.
“You can judge that years from now when you look back,” she said. “I think he will be a huge contributor to this team going forward, in terms of mentoring young players, in terms of attracting other free agents who are like minded, that want to play, that want to win, that want to be successful. He’s an asset, I don’t know how anybody can doubt that, and he did take less money than he would technically have been entitled to.”
How will Bryant look after his injury?
“I believe that Kobe will come back from this injury and he will be the Kobe that we always know he can be,” Buss said. “He has so many different degrees to his game. I’m confident that he will be productive in the next two seasons.”
Will the Lakers be productive, though? Buss understands the fan pessimism.
“It’s a challenge, but I think we have to be optimistic and look at our position,” she said. “As we go forward, we’re going to have all those opportunities. We’re going to be a team that’s in the lottery. We’re going to find out our draft placement. We’re going to get excited about who we’re bringing in. And we’re going to be a player in free agency because this is the best place to play in the NBA, bar none. I don’t think anybody tells a better story of a franchise and to bring a player to come in here and be part of something as we’re building to the future.”