Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register wrote:
For Lakers fans who might disagree on or debate every little decision made with their favorite team, there has been one constant:
They would love for Jerry Buss to be the Lakers' owner forever.
That's one of the few moves Buss can't pull off as he winds down what has been a show-stealing career in sports ownership. So as far back as when Jerry West paced the Lakers' hallways, Buss has been grooming second son Jim to learn and take over.
These days, although it's Mitch Kupchak's basketball insight helping keep the Lakers at the top, Jim Buss is as close to in charge as anyone but his father ever has been. Jerry Buss, whose health problems kept him away from Staples Center and out of the team photo last season for the first time in 33 years, is still "the final hammer," according to Jim. The patriarch's days as the Lakers' visionary, however, are over.
Who is Jim Buss? Not the next Jerry Buss or Jerry West or Mitch Kupchak.
He is his own man with his own ways – preferring to analyze his way through a life that outsiders might assume has been fed to him via purple and golden spoon, figuring out which can of food was the best deal per ounce before anyone ever stuck it on those supermarket price labels, contributing to the Lakers' success with his statistical analysis that he summarizes with confidence: "I use a system that has proven to be right."
Buss, who turns 53 next month, sat down for an exclusive interview with The Register as the Lakers prepare for their latest run toward an NBA title.
"I've felt the last two years, we had a chance to win the championship," Buss said. "Adding two Hall of Famers, basically, to this squad? To me, you kind of erase that 'we're taking steps' idea. We're here. Do what we're supposed to do."
The Steve Nash and Dwight Howard bombshells after the 2011 home-run trade for Chris Paul barely sailed foul have reassured many fans that Buss is more than some case study in nepotism who still wears a baseball cap everywhere and Phil Jackson derided for sleeping in.
"It comes with not knowing me – and the uncertainty," Buss said. "Laker fans are passionate about the game. They want to know who's going to help lead this team to championships. And that's what I do: I help lead the team to championships."
Buss slips in those kinds of self-assured statements without pompous air. He mostly speaks matter-of-factly, devoid of drama. There is no traceable venom or bitterness toward those who've called him names in recent years when the Lakers have still, frankly, been winning.
"They were uneducated as to what I do," Buss said. "They just spoke without knowing. And basically I look at the people who judged me that way, and it's unfortunate and foolish. They should've known me first. But it was half my fault because I wasn't readily available to put those kinds of opinions to rest."
Buss won't ever be the carefree type to toss that cap skyward like some slaphappy schoolboy. But in recent years he has become more attentive to his reputation, more willing to explain himself through the media and more aware that it can even enrich his life to feel more tightly connected to Lakers Nation.
"I'm not a real public kind of guy," he said. "So to me it was natural just to do my job. I do regret not informing everybody of what I do, but that's only in hindsight."
Kobe Bryant always thought if he simply went about his business in the early 2000s, people would identify a bigger picture and figure out Shaquille O'Neal wasn't some big, blameless sweetheart. Bryant took a lot of bullets before he decided he should open himself up, strap on his own vest and stop hiding from confrontation and misunderstanding.
"That's exactly how I feel," Buss said. "Exactly."
There's a deeper Bryant similarity in that Buss never did allow that misunderstanding to plague him. He has come to spend far more of his time privately analyzing, computing and projecting basketball values than sweating public opinion.
"It doesn't really affect me as much as one might think," he said. "I feel that I do a very good job. I'm the harshest critic of myself. If I feel I'm doing the job properly and to the best of my ability, and as long as we're winning and winning championships, I think we're OK."
Here's the basic format at the highest level of the Lakers' front office, before Jerry Buss is asked for the final verdict on a player (which still sometimes might be a simple veto ending with: "Can't stand the guy," Jim said with a laugh):
"It's a collective effort on every step," Jim Buss said. "Mitch might have his own thoughts. He might make some phone calls to see if it's even possible. And he'll introduce it to me, and I'll say, 'Give me a day to work out some numbers and see if I think it's a fit.' Basically it's the value part I do.
"I'm not going to question if he likes a guy. Maybe I'd say, 'Mitch, by my numbers, the guy's a $3 million player. Right now, the market's dictating he's getting six. We just can't do it.' "
Buss said he more often defers to Kupchak's feel for team building, though.
"That's the area that is gray for me," Buss said. "Mitch is fantastic at saying, 'Well, he's a good player, but he doesn't fit our team.' Breaking down a player, you can do so much number-wise. But you need that extra 'does he fit?' "
Kupchak describes Buss as "a student of the game."
"We collaborate on everything," Kupchak said. "Like his dad, he has his opinions on players. Like his dad, he's good with numbers. And he's got his own way of looking at the game and how he evaluates players."
Buss' numbers system is constantly tweaked and updated, he said, with separate breakdowns of offense and defense. He mentioned a player's plus-minus statistic (team points gained or lost while on the court) as an example of something that requires refinement into five-man units and game-situation context.
"To me, a ridiculous stat is plus-minus," he said. "I think it's just useless. I needed to weed out and understand what affects the game of basketball. In the past five years, those applications of numbers came into play where I believe them. It took me years to believe they do have an effect."
Both Howard and Nash are renowned performers, but it's worth noting that Buss rates Nash among the top 10 guards in the game today. Buss said it might even be top five.
"The intangible with Steve Nash is he's a winner; he's dedicated," Buss said. "He's just a phenomenal facilitator. My numbers take that all into consideration. I'm not concerned about his defense, because he's the oil to make this whole thing run, and I think the guys will help out defensively. And I don't see as bad of defense as everybody talks about."
In the "Moneyball" sports-management era, when talent evaluation has evolved beyond scouts, Buss is taking advantage of his inherent analytical nature and meeting the needs of Lakers management with dot-com-stock timing.
Or maybe ol' wise man Jerry Buss is the one who actually timed it.
Joey Buss, the third son and president of the family-owned minor-league D-Fenders, looks at it this way: If everyone trusts his father on everything, why haven't they trusted his trust in Jim?
For Jim's birthdays, he used to go with his father to horse-racing handicapping tournaments. Joey said Jim, who spent nine years training thoroughbred racehorses before joining the Lakers' front office, is uncanny in his skill at handicapping – something their father noticed.
"That kind of statistical analysis and preparation should have some positive effects in his ability to pick players and determine basketball decisions," Joey said. "It's not a perfect one-to-one correlation, but I think people overlook the skills required to do what he did with the horses. I think they translate very well in some capacity with basketball."
Everyone agrees it was the right choice to put daughter Jeanie in charge of Lakers business operations. More time will tell better about one-time horse trainer Jim, but he has already made up considerable ground.
"I could never be compared to what my dad has done, that's for sure," Jim said of Jerry, now 78.
The majority ownership will stay in the family in the future, Jim said, no matter what happens with Philip Anschutz's 27 percent currently up for sale: "There's no question in my mind we want to continue."
And Kupchak is straightforward when it comes to who is representing Lakers ownership in basketball decisions already.
"He has gradually taken the place of his dad," Kupchak said. "It's almost been a complete transition, really."
Six years ago, Jerry Buss sat in his living room and said: "Slowly I would like to turn it over to Jim to see how effective my strategy is while I'm still alive – and still have time to correct it if I didn't do it right."
Asked about his father's feelings today – with two more NBA titles banked since then, the Lakers positioned so well for the coming two seasons and angling for a new free-agent superstar such as LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony to join Howard and Nash in 2014 – the emotion within Jim was palpable as he said: "I think he's relieved. If you had to put it in words, I think he's extremely happy with what the family is doing with the business that he built."
With father-son issues as common in this society as pick-and-roll plays in basketball, Jim Buss will acknowledge how much he cares if one person out there thinks highly of him and his work.
"It does feel good," he said. "It feels very good. Because you can read it without him saying."