Jerry Buss says this might be his best Lakers team, and that’s saying a lot


Jerry Buss looked relaxed, maybe even amused, as he showed off his new Hall of Fame ring and then stared down the latest threat to the Lakers.

“Suddenly, there’s this juggernaut out there that we have a chance to play against and that excites me,” Buss said of the Miami Heat, who signed free agents LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade. “Quite honestly, I think we can beat them and I’m looking forward to playing them.”

Buss, 77, was in good spirits a few days after being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, and he was lively in his assessment of the Lakers and their possible playoff opponents, not to mention his ever-growing player payroll and the fact that Shaquille O'Neal has a new team, the Boston Celtics.

The Lakers’ owner met with reporters Tuesday at a casino in Bell Gardens, where he was hosting a charity poker tournament for the Lakers’ youth foundation. The locale made perfect sense because Buss had successfully bluffed just about everybody over the last two months.

The Lakers were expected to conserve money this off-season because Buss was overly conscious of presiding over the NBA’s highest payroll, but he continued to spend when free agency began last month and now has a player payroll of $95.6 million, up from $91.3 million last season.

He’s expecting a lot. “As of now, I feel there’s a good chance this could be the best team we’ve ever had,” Buss said.

The Lakers added free agents Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff, re-signed Derek Fisher and Shannon Brown, and picked up a pair of lively forwards in the second round of the NBA draft, Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter. Throw in contractually stipulated raises of about 10% for Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and the rest of the core of last season’s team, and the money adds up quickly.

“You sit there and you say, ‘No, we really can’t afford this.’ Then somehow the next day we end up spending some more money and getting another player and signing a new [contract] extension, etc., etc.,” Buss said. “At least it has softened my attitude towards women in the mall because I can’t turn down things either.”

But if the Lakers don’t win a third consecutive championship, Buss might have some buyer’s remorse.

“You hate to say it that way, but that’s what it comes down to. You get to a spot where you have to win it all to be happy,” he said. “Some time ago, I’m talking to some people and they wanted a bonus if the Lakers make the playoffs. I said, ‘If they don’t make the playoffs, you don’t work here anymore.’ ”

In a fairly busy off-season, Buss came to terms with Phil Jackson for one more year, though the veteran coach, who turns 65 in a month, has already called the upcoming season his “last stand.”

Buss was hoping that would change a year from now.

“Hopefully 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,” Buss said. “He says no, but who knows?”

Buss also discussed Magic Johnson, who owns just under 5% of the Lakers, but is reportedly interested in seeking solo ownership of a different franchise, perhaps the Detroit Pistons.

“Earvin is a whirlwind, you know,” Buss said. “He does so many things and I wouldn’t doubt that he could do 10 more things. Anything that Earvin says probably wouldn’t surprise me, but I have not talked to him specifically about that.”

Buss still seemed to be enjoying the glow of the Lakers’ championship victory in June over the Celtics, cognizant of all the times the Celtics had plundered the Lakers prior to Buss’ purchasing the team in 1979.

“When I bought the Lakers, that was obviously uppermost in my mind: We’ve got to catch up and do to them what they did to us,” he said. “So Boston has always been very, very special and beating them is always and forever will be special.”

The Lakers have won 16 NBA championships, one behind the Celtics, who are trying to win another one with a veteran-laden team that now includes a certain ex-Lakers center.

“Shaq and Kobe [Bryant] have a little thing going as to who wins the most rings, and so Shaq signing with Boston sets up a potential showdown,” Buss said. “I like the drama. I think it’s fabulous. You can’t help but love Shaq. He’s 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 it.”

Buss will soon take off on a cruise to Alaska to complete a lifelong goal of seeing glaciers up close, but he didn’t leave without updating reporters on his day-to-day duties with his franchise . . . and providing one final punch line.

He said his daughter, Jeanie, was completely in charge of the business side of the Lakers, and that he checked in with his son, Jim, for personnel decisions at least twice a day.

“In terms of the decision[s], 80% of it goes with Jim and I throw in my two cents here and there,” he said. “Pretty much I’m on the listening end of a lot of things.”

But isn’t Buss still the bottom line for all major decisions made by the Lakers?

He chuckled.

“They still have to kiss the ring.”

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