Only a few months ago, Magic Johnson stared into an ESPN camera and offered a stern warning directed at one specific figure in the Lakers’ front office.
“Jim Buss, brother, you have a job to do,” Johnson said. “I’m telling you right now because if you don’t do it, you’re going to hear from me.”
Well, Buss has done his job.
The Lakers acquired veteran elite point guard Steve Nash, a move General Manager Mitch Kupchak partly credited to Buss since he prodded Kupchak to pursue him even if it seemed unrealistic.
The Lakers also acquired Antawn Jamison, who should do wonders in two areas: With career averages of 19.5 points and 7.9 rebounds, Jamison should significantly elevate a bench that averaged a league-worst 21.3 points per game in the regular season. Despite earning $15.1 million last season, Jamison signed for the veteran’s minimum ($1.4 million) in the hopes of winning his first NBA championship after 14 seasons. And in another move to ensure a more consistent bench, the Lakers re-signed Jordan Hill to a two-year deal worth $7 million after becoming a pleasant surprise late in the season.
Under that backdrop, Johnson sang a different tune about Buss. Well, at least a little different.
“Jim Buss has done a good job,” Johnson said in an interview with The Times moments before a recent brunch at the Skirball Cultural Center for his self-named foundation. “He hasn’t done a great job yet, but he’s done a good job. If they get Dwight Howard, then he’s done a great job.”
There isn’t much clarity on whether that will happen. Various reports suggest that the Orlando Magic is in no rush to trade Howard to ensure maximum value for any deal. The Times’ Mike Bresnahan, among others, has reported that the Lakers are willing to absorb the contract of Jason Richardson (three years, $18.6 million), but not Hedo Turkoglu (two years, $23.8 million). Both sides may need a third team to help facilitate the deal as Andrew Bynum’s possible destination and/or another place for Orlando to dump salaries.
These variables may be beyond Buss’ control, but Johnson argued that a bloated payroll and restrictions stemmed from the new labor deal shouldn’t inhibit the Lakers from acquiring Howard because it would give them their next franchise player. Johnson praised the Nash and Jamison moves but believes they will only be enough to finish second behind the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference.
Clearly, Johnson still has some reservations about Buss, who has gradually been handed more power over the years by his father, team owner Jerry Buss.
“I think what happens sometimes is when you pass the torch to somebody, they don’t know how important the team means to the city and how important winning is to the city,” Johnson said. “Jim is not his father. We all have to understand that. I had to understand that. But at the same time, the Lakers are about winning and that’s why we have the most fans around the world. People live and die by the Lakers, just like I do. So I want him to make every move, of course, because I want to win every year.”
Stlll, Johnson’s qualified praise marks something of an improvement compared with earlier in the season.
He suggested that Buss runs the team and that Kupchak is supposed to “follow the direction he wants,” a charge Kupchak disputed to The Times’ Bresnahan. Johnson suggested Buss needed to meet with Bryant to keep him in the loop on the front office’s thinking, something both Buss and Bryant have publicly said has happened. Johnson also tweeted this off-season, “If I were Kobe, I’d be calling Jim Buss every day until the Lakers make some changes."
Of course, Buss is no stranger to criticism. He was involved with the Lakers’ hiring of Rudy Tomjanovich as coach in 2004, which lasted less than a season due to health reasons. Buss was instrumental in hiring current Coach Mike Brown, a move that’s too premature to judge. The front office, including Buss, also earned criticism for trading key reserve Lamar Odom to the Dallas Mavericks for a $8.9-million trade exception and a first-round pick.
Still, he was an early proponent for the Lakers drafting Bynum in 2005. This past off-season, Buss showed plenty of involvement in upgrading the team’s roster while still keeping their core lineup in Bryant, Bynum and Pau Gasol intact.
Johnson, like many Laker fans, seems to be warming up to Buss’ presence.
“We like Jim,” Johnson said. “It’s going to take him a little while to get to where his father was because Dr. Buss was the best in the business. But I’m supporting Jim.”
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