Call him Scrooge if you like, but Jim Buss believes in Lakers

I show him the picture of the grandkids screaming and sobbing after Santa Claus tells the twins it's up to Jim Buss to bring them a Lakers' championship, and Jim Buss laughs.

"Look at this one," Buss says pointing to the 7-Eleven Kid, who is standing there all smiles.

Why should she be different from every other Clippers fan?

And so it goes, the potshots flying, a guy on the radio calling him "stupid" and a blogger referring to him as an "idiot."

After all, Scrooge is ruining the Lakers, now aren't you?

"Wow, that's quite the punch to the gut," Buss says.

Well, how about this? The Clippers have made the Lakers appear old and less athletic.

And what about losing Lamar Odom, getting nothing in return and irritating Kobe? Won't it take Dwight Howard to save the franchise?

There's no hesitation from Buss. "I think we have a championship team, and that's without making another move."

Now the newspaper guy is telling him he's nuts.

"I'm not as worried about this team making a run for the championship as maybe everybody else is," he says. "I know people are shook up and especially after Lamar left, but give it time."

He's got 66 games.

And that's possibly with a slow start, what with three straight games to open, Andrew Bynum suspended for four, some pup named Devin Ebanks to start and a new coach still teaching.

"I don't know what our record will be during the first half, but I believe over the last 33 games going into the playoffs we will have the best record in the West."

He must be counting on the arrival of Howard.

But he shakes his head, no.

"I don't understand the thinking that we need saving as a franchise," Buss says. "We have three All-Stars, and we need saving?"

There's an Internet report suggesting Orlando was willing to trade Howard for Bynum and Pau Gasol, but now he's shaking his head as if in pain.

"Where does this stuff come from?" he says. "You'd have to be kind of silly to give up two All-Stars like that for Howard. Zero truth to it. We have never been asked for Andrew and Pau and we've never offered them. I think they know we'd either say no or they would sound crazy for asking."

There are some who contend Buss is so enamored with Bynum he would be blind to all trades with Bynum's name mentioned.

"Let's just say this," he says. "You have to give up something to get something. And I'm willing to give up something to get something."

But nothing is happening.

"We've done everything within the rules that we could to explore this situation until we were just spinning our wheels," he says. "The player is still in control of his own destiny; he can block a trade just by saying I'm not going to sign a new deal and stay where he is.

"I personally believe now that we have the team that we will be playing with all season long."

Blindfolds, please.

"I believe in this team," Buss says with conviction. "Our job is to always look to improve, but I really like this team."

Kobe was saying the same thing after the first preseason game, and shockingly so, considering his dismay over Odom's departure and the bench fodder hired by the Lakers.

Does Kobe really believe the team has the players to win another ring, or is he "livid at Jim Buss" as one ESPN screamer has been claiming?

"What is Kobe supposed to say? 'Thank God, we got rid of Lamar'?" Buss says. "Of course he's going to be upset; everybody is going to be upset. Fans are upset and I'm right there with them. I'm a Lakers fan and I'm upset.

"But it's a business; decisions have to be made. Lamar felt deeply hurt he was being traded. I'd feel the same way. It was a bad day and we expected him to miss practice because it was a bad day. I'm sure Pau was upset too. But it was more than that with Lamar.

"He told us he didn't feel he was going to be a Laker anymore even if he played with us. He said the same thing in an interview after he went to Dallas. We had to do it; we lost him. I'm sorry the trade was leaked publicly before it was completed. It wasn't our fault, but we lost him mentally."

And got nothing in return?

"When people say that, I don't understand. We were still trying to make another trade, and if we had acquired two players for Lamar, we could not have traded them in a package for 60 days. That would have restricted us. A draft pick allowed us more flexibility to make a deal."

But aren't the Lakers weaker without Odom?

"It's a fair argument to say so," Buss says, "but I don't believe that. I think what we've done to open up the floor with the outside shooting that we've acquired — it will only make Bynum and Gasol that much more dominant."

OK, so at the very least it was a salary dump.

"If we wanted to dump salary we could have gone amnesty with Metta World Peace or Luke Walton. But we never considered it," Buss says. Call him names as some do, but he does answer questions directly.

"I still like Luke. Mike [Brown] likes Metta, and I love him. We need to keep our pieces together, and maybe later by using pieces in a trade we can figure out how to get under the luxury tax."

The Lakers will still have the opportunity to amnesty one player in the next couple of years. But right now this is it, the very same roster left trampled by the Clippers.

Ho ho ho.

"Did you think the Clippers would come out with no momentum or excitement after adding Chris Paul?" Buss says. "They needed to show everyone how much they improved, while we were learning our system, rotations and doing what you do in preseason games."

But the Clippers looked better and deeper.

"I think the Clippers have the best bench in the West," he says. "The new collective bargaining agreement makes it interesting putting together a bench. If you have three big players, and we had four with Lamar, you're maybe not going to have as strong a bench."

Some say the Clippers will win more games than the Lakers, but Buss is not one of them.

"Are we as athletic as the Clippers? I'd say no," he says. "Are we more talented? I'd say yes.

"But here's what I took from the preseason: Kobe skying over everyone, cutting and moving on those knees. I've never worried about him aging, because he can make adjustments. But he was youthful the other night; I think he's going to have a stellar season."

Kobe would have no problem going one on five, but should he opt to pass on occasion, who can he count on?

"I think the folks of L.A. are going to love our acquisitions," he says. "Mike Brown emphasizes the big guys and he likes to spread the floor for them. Our job was to get outside shooters, and I think we have in Jason Kapono and Troy Murphy. And I think fans are going to just love Josh McRoberts.

"Now if Andrew has as good a year as I think he will have, he'll be the starting All-Star center for the West. …"

Dream on … the guy just disappears at times.

"I've noticed too," Buss says. "But if you remember the games where Phil [Jackson] or Kobe would try to establish the big men early, later they would go away from them. All of a sudden Andrew would be deflated; you could see it. But now you should see the energy Mike is pumping into him with the intention of getting him touches throughout the game.

"And you know Kobe will be an All-Star; Pau could be the starting power forward. So I'm not following the thinking from those who say we don't have the pieces to win a championship."

There was so much more to discuss. He says his father, Jerry Buss, is doing better after a hospital stay and was asking for hourly updates during trade talks.

"I live to help him," says Buss, who was staying in a nearby hotel during trade talks so he wouldn't lose time driving home. "I still take my marching orders from my dad."

There was one happy night when Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss parted after believing they had an agreement to acquire Paul.

"We had an agreement on one level, but we were still bickering over other pieces to make the numbers work," he says. "We never submitted a signed, sealed deal to the league. As owner of the Hornets, [Commissioner] David Stern didn't think it a fair deal for New Orleans. I could see that. I would have kept both Lamar and Pau.

"It was our job to pick up the pieces and go on."

The Lakers, $21 million over the luxury tax last season, will be over again, Buss says, and next season as well. Three straight years doing so will prompt severe financial penalties.

"This is a family business," he says. "This is how we make our living. Our job is to learn the new rules and still keep us in a position to win championships. But it's a new ballgame. We're going to have to put on the brakes because the system is going to make us do it.

"There's going to be an emphasis on getting younger and having rookie contracts to get out of the tax situation. We're fortunate to have someone like Devin Ebanks, who is going to be a very good player. It's all part of moving forward.

"Now we've always had fantastic fans, but in this new ballgame we're all facing, we might need them more than ever to get after the other teams. They may have to be our sixth man."

Merry Christmas, and a ring for everyone if the Lakers and their fans somehow pull this off. If not, Scrooge will have some more explaining to do.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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