In sitting down with Bill Plaschke of The L.A. Times for a tell-all interview, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss was looking to clear the air on a number of topics. And while some things were made clear — including discussing Kurt and Linda Rambis, Phil Jackson and Magic Johnson’s roles in the front office — the thing that was made clearest was how much Jeanie doesn’t get it.
One of the biggest criticisms of ownership last season, and at various times throughout recent years, was an unwillingness to spend money and cutting costs on very important edges.
But in a stunning lack of self-awareness, Jeanie attached her disappointment of the last season to the team’s payroll, saying she expected the Lakers to be more competitive because of how much money was spent on the season.
“I’m growing impatient just because we had the fourth-highest payroll in the league. … When you spend that kind of money on the luxury tax, you expect to go deep into the playoffs,” she told The Times. “So, yeah, it was gut-wrenching for me to go out on a limb like that and not get the results that we were looking for. … I’m not happy, I’m not satisfied.”
There’s a laundry list of moments you can point back to where the Lakers refused to spend the extra dime that could have put them over the top. Alex Caruso’s free agency will always top that list as the Lakers’ offer to him was WILDLY under market value which led to a valuable role player walking with the team getting nothing in return. The reports around his free agency involved the team hoping he would take less money on his deal to save the team’s luxury tax bill.
There are other examples, like when the team wanted Scott Brooks on the coaching staff this past season but got outbid by the Trail Blazers, or when they let longtime training staff member Judy Seto leave without replacing her position more recently. And all of this doesn’t even bring up the fact the franchise literally was granted a PPP loan meant for small businesses during the pandemic and only returned it after reporters asked about them being the only NBA team to do so.
So, while Jeanie isn’t wrong that the Lakers had the fourth-highest payroll last season, citing that as a reason for disappointment is a truly, truly stunning lack of self-awareness. And it underlies why fans have begun to lose faith in ownership and whether the team can even get back to title contention under Jeanie.
Jeanie at least said the right things on that front when it comes to contending, stating that she would make changes if the Lakers continue to fail.
“We don’t like to be missing the playoffs, I understand the fans anger and frustration,” she said. “I’ve got to make it better.”
Even if this means eventually making changes?
“Absolutely, if we are not living up to the Lakers standard, absolutely I will look at everything,” she said, later adding, “I will make the hard decisions, because that’s what you have to do.”
This does go in line with previous reports that general manager Rob Pelinka would have one more year to get things right. Jeanie still reportedly fully supports and trusts Pelinka, but it was noteworthy that he established himself as the main decision-maker during his exit interview, putting himself up directly for blame or credit depending on how the upcoming season plays out.
But for all the missteps Pelinka has made, and may yet make, Lakers fans have high standards that come with their illustrious history of titles. Lakers owners are held to high standards that came from the success of Dr. Jerry Buss. Under him, there was never any concern about whether the team would spend. He was notorious for spending whatever was needed to build a contender.
Today’s NBA is a different, more free-spending league, but the reality is that under Jeanie, that same sense isn’t there. The Lakers may spend as they did this season, but they cut costs and corners along the way. There’s a tradition of outspending everyone put in place by Dr. Buss, and it’s become the expectation amongst fans. With Jeanie now in charge, that tradition has eroded and the Lakers don’t look like the franchise they once were.
Having the fourth-highest payroll isn’t something a fan is going to applaud when you cut costs along the way to it, especially when that cost-cutting so clearly hurt the team (it also, importantly for ownership, led to the team losing out on playoff revenue). If Jeanie wants to avoid that moving forward, maybe the lesson to learn is the same one as any Laker fan likely was reminded of by watching “Winning Time”: You have to spend money to make money. Whatever it takes is the only acceptable expense, and anything less will be judged.