Jerry Buss sat back in his jeans, casual shirt and an unlaced pair of high-tops, perched comfortably in his living room and flanked by an army of Remington statues as he discussed the future of the Lakers.
He acknowledged starting the gradual process of transferring control of the team to his daughter, Jeanie, and son Jim. He said he wanted the recently repaired Phil Jackson to stay beyond the length of a contract that ends after next season. He spoke glowingly of General Manager Mitch Kupchak and firmly maintained he is two-thirds of the way to a championship blueprint with Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom in the fold, lacking only a “dominant center.”
The Lakers begin their 28th season under Buss’ ownership when they open Tuesday against Phoenix. There have been eight championships and five other NBA Finals appearances, a legacy whose future the 73-year-old Buss has begun to ponder.
Buss ultimately wants to shift all of his holdings to his children, a process he began recently by transferring to them a small portion of his shares in the team’s privately held stock. On Sunday, with a view of Playa del Rey spilling through the bay window behind him, Buss singled out Jim, the team’s vice president of player personnel, and Jeanie, executive vice president of business operations.
“That process will continue,” Buss said of the stock transfer. “I cannot foresee the fact that anybody but our family will have the Lakers. In terms of passing the torch, Jimmy is certainly taking a much more active role in the basketball fortunes. I think you can lay at his doorstep the fact that we gambled and took [Andrew] Bynum. He was the one out of all of us that said, ‘Hey, let’s not fool around. We’ve got to go with this kid.’ Some of the others wanted Channing Frye, but Jimmy kept going, ‘Bynum, Bynum.’
“Slowly, I would like to turn it over to Jim to see how effective my strategy is while I’m still alive and have time to correct it. Of course, for the business aspect of the Lakers, Jeanie’s been doing that for a long time and I have every confidence in the world, and she seems to do a phenomenal job, so I’ve got no problems there. I’ll give Jimmy more and more decisions every few months from here on out until he’s making all of them. But I’ll always be right there by his side to make sure that I’m in agreement, let’s put it that way.”
Buss also revealed he was hoping to reach an agreement on a contract extension with Jackson. Sitting in the same room where he told Jackson he wanted to go in a “different direction” after the Lakers’ 2004 Finals collapse against Detroit, Buss conveyed a newfound respect, if not need, for Jackson, who is in the second season of a three-year, $30-million contract.
“We hadn’t brought it up because of the hip surgery, but now that’s done and when I see him walking around, we’ll talk to him and see what his wishes are,” Buss said. “If he wants to coach longer, then we’ll certainly want to have him.
“I think once and for all we might have ended the myth that he only can coach when he has great players, although he has Kobe, who’s a great player, but he wasn’t deep at all [last season]. The job he did in turning Kwame [Brown] around is an example and getting Smush [Parker] to play much better than he had in previous years, I think you begin to see the real Phil Jackson there.”
Buss floated similar compliments toward Kupchak, who is in his seventh season as the team’s head of basketball operations.
“I’m really pleased with what Mitch has done,” Buss said. “If you look at the entire Laker roster, I think that the best we had in terms of a draft choice was a No. 10, for Bynum. Smush was not a high draft choice, [Jordan] Farmar wasn’t a high draft choice, Luke Walton wasn’t a high draft choice, Ronny [Turiaf] was not a high draft choice, Sasha [Vujacic] was a low draft choice.
“In other words, I guess what I’m saying, outside of the Shaq [Shaquille O’Neal] free-agent thing, we haven’t had any draft choices better than 10. If you look through the league, that may well be unique, and therefore, my hat’s off to the front office. I think Mitch has done an absolutely incredible job.”
The Lakers lost to Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs last season, becoming only the eighth NBA team to lose a series after leading, 3-1. Buss sat down with media members a few months before last season, saying with optimism that the Lakers could be in the Western finals “in a couple of seasons.”
He remained bullish Sunday about the franchise’s future.
“I think to be a championship team, you’ve got to have three really great players,” he said. “Probably one at each position -- guard, forward, center, that seems to be the best formula. Now you’re saying, well, how far can Kwame come or will Bynum be that missing ingredient? The last couple of [exhibition] games, where I saw Bynum, I was pretty impressed. With Kobe and Lamar, I think we’ve got enough ingredients that if we get the dominating center, I think we could win it.”
“With Phil Jackson, I think you have a chance any year,” he said. “I think we were a lot closer to it than people realized last year, just that last nine seconds [in Game 6 against Phoenix]. We would have won that series and we would have played the Clippers after that, who the last game of the year you probably remember, we dominated. Dallas, we had beaten two out of three. There’s some luck involved and some skill involved, but I like to put my money on Kobe and Phil.”
The Lakers remain hemmed in by the salary cap until the summer of 2008, free to try to improve themselves via trades and the draft but facing the reality that an impact free-agent signing probably won’t come for another two years, if at all.
Last year, they hoped Yao Ming and Amare Stoudemire would decline contract extensions and become free agents, but both players signed long-term deals to stay with their respective teams. This year, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade signed contract extensions with their teams.
“We were disappointed when all the big free agents re-signed,” Buss said. “But the way the dice are loaded, the about-to-be free agent who doesn’t sign the extension is taking a very big gamble if he should be injured during that period of time.
“It probably loads the dice where unless somebody’s really unhappy where he’s at, that most of the big players will stay with the respective teams. Therefore, I think our strategy has changed a little bit. But with certain things, you can create cap space too. You could take one of the players we have under long-term contract and large salary and we could trade him right away for people who have one-year contracts, so suddenly at the end of this year, we’d be up to $18 million, $20 million, just as much as it costs to sign a free agent. The strategy’s not dead -- it just means that we’re not going to put all the eggs in that basket, as perhaps we did.”
Of the highest-paid Lakers players, Bryant has five years left on his contract, Odom has three years and Brown has two years.
Buss said his relationship with Bryant “is closer now than it has ever been.”
“I think we’ve always tried to keep all the great players here to finish their careers,” he said. “I think he has subscribed to that. But you never [can] tell. In five years, that’s when there will by flying automobiles and wrist telephones and all those kinds of things.”
The Lakers were seeded seventh in the Western Conference playoffs last season and, despite the collapse against Phoenix, Buss said he was looking forward to this season.
“Being up on Phoenix ... I was enjoying that, really enjoying that,” he said. “I’d say I look forward to this season as much as I ever did. The summer seemed longer to me now in anticipation. I don’t think my enthusiasm has waned at all.”
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The Lakers’ starting lineups in season openers since 2003, which includes this year’s projected lineup (a-probable starter if Kobe Bryant is unable to play; b-Bryant sat out the game because of a sore right knee).
*--* 2006 vs. Phoenix C Andrew Bynum F Lamar Odom F Vladimir Radmanovic G Maurice Evans-a G Smush Parker 2005 vs. Denver C Chris Mihm F Kwame Brown F Lamar Odom G Kobe Bryant G Smush Parker 2004 vs. Denver C Chris Mihm F Lamar Odom F Caron Butler G Kobe Bryant G Chucky Atkins 2003 vs. Dallas C Shaquille O’Neal F Karl Malone F Devean George G Gary Payton G Derek Fisher-b