Since taking control of basketball operations when his father passed away in 2013, Jim Buss has been a common punching for fans of the Los Angeles Lakers and pundits alike, an easy scapegoat for the futility of the franchise in recent years. Among the things Buss has been blamed for are the free agency departure of Dwight Howard, the decision to hire Mike D'Antoni, and the Lakers reportedly lackluster pitch meetings with free agents.
The decision Buss has probably been most criticized for, however, is probably his role in the decision to give Kobe Bryant a two-year, $48.5 million extension before he had even returned from the Achilles tear that ended his previous season. The decision was panned by many analysts at the time as a massive overpay for a 35-year old that had yet to return from a major injury, and the criticism only intensified when Bryant only played in six games before a broken leg ended his season prematurely once again. In a recent interview with Sam Amick, Buss claimed he is not losing any sleep over his decision to extend Bryant:
"You give Kobe Bryant $50 million for two years," Buss told USA TODAY Sports in a wide-ranging interview. "Are you kidding me? What did he bring us? In this day and age, what did he bring us, for 20 years? And if that isn't what you're supposed to do, then I have no idea what life is all about.
"You pay the guy. You believe in the guy. If he ends up (staying healthy), that's fantastic. Well everybody (in the media) cut me up for that, but I'd say over 200 fans have come up to me and said, ‘Thank you so much for letting my kid see Kobe Bryant for two more years.' And I'm like, 'You know what? I'm glad I can see him for two more years.' "
This is an interesting quote to unpack for a few reasons. For one, unlike David Stern, Jim Buss is willing to admit when a decision is made with more factors in mind then just "basketball reasons." He makes no effort to hide that the organization was intent on paying Bryant as much for the massive success and profits he has helped the franchise gain in the past as much as anything he would do on the court for the length of the extension. One could also point out that this transparent desire to push the narrative that the Lakers reward players for their past contributions could aid with the team's free agency pitch next offseason, when the front office is projected to have a league leading $65.8 million in cap space.
Buss also cites the fact that fans he has encountered in person have shown him gratitude for keeping Kobe around, which is another reason the franchise did so. Even if the team was bad, Kobe brings a gigantic, devoted fan base that is enough to sell out arenas league wide, get great TV ratings, and sell tons of merchandise (the third most popular jersey in terms of sales despite playing in just 35 games last season) even as his on court skill diminish.
Satisfied fans on the street is something that Buss seems to take pride in. "Pictures, letters - all positive; the negative is always a minority," Buss told Amick in his earlier post about their discussion "They love me. They really love me."
That earlier post also made it clear that Buss is very optimistic that the Lakers are on the right track in their rebuilding efforts:
"I think we've done a great job (rebuilding). Yeah, I think we're in dynamite position. Not good position - dynamite. I think we've turned the corner. I don't know if you discount that terminology, ‘turn the corner.' But when you're headed down the wrong road, and you can finally get off that road and turn the corner, that's huge in my opinion."
Though some remain skeptical of the Lakers' young core of Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and D'Angelo Russell, Buss sounds relatively giddy about the players he and his front office have drafted. The rest of the interview makes clear that he believes this group of young players, combined with a free agent can help him have the team in contention by his self-imposed deadline of the 2017 offseason. Both pieces are worth a read for a full picture of Buss' thinking as the team continues to rebuild, including some interesting notes on his views of analytics and his feelings about Magic Johnson and the rest of the media's criticism.