Jim Buss has become a caricature to many Lakers fans — the media shy, hard-partying son of a legendary owner who stays in the shadows, doesn’t get the tradition and doesn’t get how to run a franchise like his father. Nepotism at its worst.
But like most caricatures that is a two-dimensional representation that distorts the truth.
Ask people around the league and they speak of Buss as smart and measured. Listen to him speak — or read an in-depth interview with him such as the one Ramona Shelburne did at ESPNLosAngeles.com — and you get the sense of a guy who gets the incredible shadow he is living in, the near impossibility of living up to his father’s successes, and a how much he wants to do the job right.
That includes owning up to the disappointment of last season.
“My dad was disappointed, just as all Laker fans should be disappointed that we didn’t get to realize the dream of four Hall of Famers on the same team,” Buss said in an interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com. “But hey, we went for it. What the hell. …
“You fix it, and you move forward. You don’t dwell on the past. You fix it, and you move on.
“We could’ve sat there and cried and said, ‘Boy, oh boy, we just lost this kind of money.’ We could’ve done this or that. But we were all on board. Every decision was made as a team. And we went down as a team. We’ll live in the future the same way.”
Buss talks in that story extensively about the lessons he learned from his father. About value, and gambling at the right time. He’s been the guy making most of the calls for a few years now, but with the death of Dr. Buss things are different. Feel different.
Dwight Howard and his flame out in Los Angeles is not what will define Jim Buss as the Lakers owner. But how he bounces back from that the next few seasons will — under his father the Lakers were never down for that long, they made the smart plays to get back to good quickly. And great not long after.
However, Jim Buss faces challenges rebuilding his father did not. Ones that will make carving out his own legacy (and that of the Buss children) much more difficult.
For one, the new CBA was set up to prevent teams like the Lakers from just outspending their opponents for the elite talent. Next summer — once the Lakers re-sign Kobe Bryant (they hope at a significant discount from the $30 million he makes this season) and once they make a decision on Pau Gasol, two things they have to do quickly to free up the cap holds that will hold their spending hostage — they will have money to go after free agents. Not as much as some Lakers fans think, but they will have money. And they will have the lure of Los Angeles. And tradition (although that matters less to players and their agents than you think).
It is not going to be easy to get free agents to come to the Lakers — LeBron James is almost certainly not coming. Even the Lakers front office knows this, a source told Henry Abbott at TrueHoop. What’s more, look what other agents told him about coming to these Kobe-centric Lakers.
“Pau is a two-time champion and a five-time All-Star and he’s one of the most disrespected players ever,” notes one agent. “He gets bad press all the time.”
Another agent says: “The Lakers are Kobe. You have to understand that. It’s not the organization for you if you want the ball or the spotlight. All that glitters ain’t gold.”
I asked a third agent, who has a Laker client right now, if he thought Bryant might be a sticking point for free agents. His immediate response: “Uh, duh. Yes.”
The Lakers are going through a transition. It’s going to take time — not just one year, not just two.
Because of that Jim Buss can’t be and shouldn’t be judged right now, you need to wait five years to really begin to fairly assess him as an owner. And even that will be preliminary. We don’t really work that way in a 24-hour news cycle, but that those quick judgments tend to put things in just two dimensions.
Jim Buss is a three-dimensional person with a lot on his shoulders. We’re about to start learning how well he can do the job ahead of him.