The universal condemnation that has hit Jim Buss this season is being called inaccurate by one person in particular. The guy who works with Buss every day.
Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said Buss was being unfairly assailed, part of an in-depth interview Kupchak granted Monday to The Times.
Buss’ title is executive vice president of player personnel for the Lakers, but he’s drawing more power every year as per the wishes of his father, team owner Jerry Buss.
“Jim gets way too much criticism and not enough credit with the success this team has had,” Kupchak said. . “He is following in the footsteps of the most successful owner maybe of all time, which is hard to do. But since he’s gotten more and more involved, which has been about seven or eight years, we’ve had some pretty good moments.”
Buss was responsible for the Lakers’ ill-fated hiring of coach Rudy Tomjanovich in 2004, but he also helped nudge the team into drafting Andrew Bynum in 2005. It’s too early to tell the results of Buss’ latest decision, hiring Mike Brown to succeed Phil Jackson, even though Kupchak and Jerry Buss said they agreed with it.
Kupchak, head of the Lakers’ basketball operations for 12 seasons, disputed Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s recent comments that Jim Buss was running the team.
“It is inaccurate because there are three of us that are involved in all the basketball decisions,” Kupchak said. “Dr. Buss still makes, to my knowledge, all the final decisions in the organization. He’s always deferred basketball decisions at some level to his basketball people, and Jimmy is a part of the basketball people.
"[Johnson] played at a time when this sport was taking off. There was one scout and a GM. Here we are almost 30 years later and it’s different today. There’s a lot more people involved and a lot more at stake [now].
"[Johnson] is a fan now too. He’s no longer a part of ownership. He and I still speak, but we used to speak a lot, bouncing ideas off each other and stuff that he would hear. Like the rest of us, when you lose a game you shouldn’t lose, or lose a couple, you get emotional. This is the only thing he’s ever loved — the Lakers. It all comes from the heart with him.”
Johnson sold his 4.5% stake in the Lakers in 2010, but he remains on the payroll as a vice president.
Kupchak said he still handled the daily chores of the franchise that had won 16 NBA titles, 10 since the elder Buss bought the team in 1979.
“Jimmy doesn’t have any contact with the league or other teams or agents — the stuff that’s day to day. He leaves that to me. That’s what I do,” said Kupchak, who added he spoke with Jim Buss almost daily.
“Jimmy and I brainstorm. He’ll have an idea or I’ll have an idea. I’ll call him or he’ll call me. We’ll play with the numbers — the salary cap, the new rules, all that stuff, and see what makes sense. If we get somewhere, then it would be brought to Dr. Buss for his opinion.”
Another legendary Lakers player also spoke out recently about the front office, Kobe Bryant publicly telling Lakers management last month to figure out what to do with Pau Gasol, who has been twisting in rumor winds since being part of the nixed Chris Paul trade in December.
Bryant went public with a trade demand in 2007 but had since cooled his opinions because he had “great faith in the organization, the front office and ownership,” Kupchak said.
“There was some frustration a few weeks ago, but really, that’s the first time he’s spoken out. I’ve sat with [Bryant] and talked to him since then, and our relationship hasn’t changed. I’m not any more inclined to tell him what’s going on day to day, although I’ll ask his opinion from time to time on a player, which is what Jerry [West] would do with Earvin or Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. I think that’s what most general managers do.
“But you can’t keep players in the loop day to day. He doesn’t want that. He wants to be remembered as one of the greatest players with the most championships of all time. He doesn’t want to be involved in the criticism that may come with being a part of something that runs” a team.
Bryant was mainly looking out for Gasol when he told the front office to make up its mind, Kupchak said.
In a weird way, Gasol has earned Kupchak’s sympathy, even though the four-time All-Star isn’t guaranteed to remain on the Lakers’ roster until Thursday’s trade deadline passes.
“This has been a really hard, hard period for Pau,” Kupchak said. “He’s been ridiculously professional. I can’t imagine going through what he’s gone through the last two or three months. The way the whole thing unfolded with what took place in training camp, it’s just been one big unavoidable mess, and unfortunately Pau’s in the middle of it.”
Kupchak didn’t divulge what the Lakers would do before the trade deadline, but he noted the quiet landscape across the NBA.
“Just judging by what you see, and here it is Monday and there hasn’t been a deal made anywhere, it looks as if either there will be no deals or all of a sudden people are going to get really serious in the next two days,” he said. “I don’t know which it’s going to be. I really don’t.
“Teams understand it’s a different year. We didn’t have training camp. Do we know our teams well enough to make a blockbuster trade? I think a lot of teams have to be a little more careful because they haven’t had the window that they normally had to judge their team.”