Jim Buss knows he got it right.
His critics — and they are legion — would say he’s deluding himself, that he has made numerous mistakes that have set the Lakers’ franchise back. That starts with giving Kobe Bryant a massive two-year contract and comes around with other player/personnel decisions the team has made in recent years. Even the release of Robert Upshaw on Tuesday frustrated fans.
Buss knows this for sure — if the Lakers start to win and return to the top of the NBA, everything said about him will fade away. Winning cures all ills.
“You give Kobe Bryant $50 million for two years,” Buss told USA TODAY Sports in a wide-ranging interview. “Are you kidding me? What did he bring us? In this day and age, what did he bring us, for 20 years? And if that isn’t what you’re supposed to do, then I have no idea what life is all about.
“You pay the guy. You believe in the guy. If he ends up (staying healthy), that’s fantastic. Well everybody (in the media) cut me up for that, but I’d say over 200 fans have come up to me and said, ‘Thank you so much for letting my kid see Kobe Bryant for two more years.’ And I’m like, ‘You know what? I’m glad I can see him for two more years.’ “
The question was never “should the Lakers keep Bryant?” He’s an iconic part of the franchise, arguably the greatest Laker ever (at least in Jerry West’s mind). The question was the price. As has long been the conventional wisdom around the league, if Bryant had been offered and taken a Tim Duncanesque $10 million or so a year (and there is no guarantee Kobe would have accepted it), the Lakers would have had far more flexibility to make moves the past two seasons. Would they have landed a huge star free agent? Probably not. But their efforts to put together a foundation that would draw one of those stars in the next couple years could have been accelerated with some smart moves. We’ll never know how that timeline works out.
Buss sees paying Bryant as showing that next star the Lakers take care of their own. Plus, Kobe’s financial value to the Lakers — in terms of sponsors, ticket sales, luxury box sales, even television ratings (that massive local Lakers television deal is tied to ratings) — is far more than the checks they are cutting him. Even at that price Kobe is a good business deal.
Buss thinks the Lakers’ rebuilding is on course and the they are headed the right direction with D'Angelo Russell (selected over Jahlil Okafor, a move some questioned), Julius Randle, and Jordan Clarkson.
“We’re ahead of (the schedule), so I’m fine with it. I think we’ve turned the corner, exactly like we have (planned). Get a free agent next (summer), and then I think we compete.”
While there are certainly reasons for optimism, how good those three players turn out to be remains to be seen. Also in question is whether Byron Scott and the Lakers’ organization can develop those players, it has not needed to be an organization strong suit in the past. That said, the Lakers may have some good young players they can keep or use as assets to acquire more.
Saying Jim Buss is not his father is an unfair comparison — no NBA owner was his father. What’s more, the change in the NBA’s business rules over the last couple CBA’s have tied the hands of big market teams to a degree, removing some advantages. The Lakers for years were a combination of smart and having an enormous financial advantage; now the financial advantages have been drastically reduced.
Whether they are still smart in today’s, Buss feels he knows the answer to that.
If he’s right or not will become very clear over the next couple years.