LAS VEGAS — Just like her father, who oversaw 11 NBA championships, Lakers governor Jeanie Buss remains consumed with collecting rings.
Unlike her father, Buss does not consider herself much of a poker player. No surprise then that she has spent most of her time here this week in meetings instead of casinos. Buss, the team’s controlling governor, has plenty to address. The Lakers missed the playoffs last season, only two seasons after winning their 17th NBA title.
“We still have work to do. We’re not done,” Buss told NBA.com. “Until training camp starts, we’re not going to rest until we’re satisfied that we have the best chance for success.”
Buss addressed plenty in an interview with NBA.com, including her support for the team’s front office, collaboration with LeBron James, new head coach Darvin Ham, last season’s shortcomings and more.
Editor’s note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
NBA.com: Understanding things are fluid and that you had limited spending tools because of the salary cap, how would you evaluate the team’s offseason moves?
We’re in a league that has a salary cap. There is movement we can make within the rules. Since we’re a luxury-tax team, that comes with a lot of restrictions with what you can do. After last season, it was clear we needed to make changes because we didn’t make the playoffs. Darvin and Rob [Pelinka] can talk better about the building of the roster. But it’s very thought out and purposeful on how they’re going to put together a roster that is going to play the way that Darvin Ham wants to play.
Are you pleased with these moves?
Absolutely. I’m a big believer in Darvin Ham. When you’re at the Board of Governors meetings and governors say to you, ‘We interviewed your guy, you got a great coach.’ Or, ‘He worked for us, you got a great guy.’ His reputation around the league brings me a lot of pride to hear other people say how much they admire him. We got a really good coach.
I know you can’t discuss specifically, but philosophically do you expect at some point before the season starts that more deals get done?
We have to fill out a roster. So I think that Rob knows that every opportunity we can get to improve our team, he has to look at it. Those are the kind of moves that we’re going to make because we want to be back in the playoffs and contending for a title.
Do you expect a major move to happen?
Nothing would surprise me. We’re not making change for the sake of change. It has to be good, basketball decisions that help us now and doesn’t compromise our ability to deal in the future.
Where do you draw that line with how you value Draft picks and any other asset?
When we made the trade for Anthony Davis, we gave up a lot, especially young players that we were very fond of and have promising futures in the league. But as I said then, in order to get great talent, you have to give up a lot of great talent and value in Draft picks. Every team is sophisticated and smart. Nobody is just asleep at the wheel. Everybody is just trying to make their team better. Some teams are pivoting from a path they were on and want to deal because they have players that don’t fit what their plans are. So it’s a fluid situation. You always have to stay on top of it.
When you weigh any trade possibility, how do you factor in a player’s availability or leadership history?
I really defer to the basketball operations on putting together a team that can play together, make sense and make our fans proud of watching them play and working hard. I really defer to the basketball minds for that. But they know the values that I have, which are to uphold the standards that the Lakers and fans come to expect from a Lakers team.
What are those standards?
Hard work, competing for a title and doing everything we can to put ourselves in a position to make a run at a championship.
You recently tweeted about Kobe Bryant. What prompted that thought and what’s the message behind it?
I miss KB. He would understand and explain everything that I’m not allowed to. Honestly he was the greatest Laker ever. He understood team over self. Meaning your rewards would come if you valued team goals over your own then everything would fall into place. All can reply.
— Jeanie Buss (@JeanieBuss) July 4, 2022
We’re getting ready to start promoting our 10-part docuseries on Hulu and we’re immersed in all things Lakers. There are so many people I miss. But the person I miss the most is Kobe. We miss his voice, his friendship and everything that was taken away from us when we lost him. What I know is Laker fans feel the same way I do.
So when I feel down like that, I know when I say something, the response that I get makes me feel not alone. That’s how a community comes together to grieve. This grieving process with losing Kobe will go on for the rest of my life. It’s a void that can never be filled and was never expected.
When Phil [Jackson] left to go to the Knicks, the NBA made us sign a letter because we’re on two different teams. He said, ‘This means I can’t help you anymore. But you always have Kobe. Kobe has your back. Talk to him if you ever need advice. You’ll always have Kobe.’ That’s what Phil said to me. So, the idea that we don’t always have Kobe is hard to accept.
There was some interpretation on social media that this was an indirect message to LeBron or something pertaining to the offseason.
No. It was that my heart was full of sadness. You look to people surrounding you that feel the same way to commiserate. That’s all it was. It wasn’t intended at anything other than I had sorrow in my heart and I was trying to lighten my load.
Are there any plans you can share on when Kobe will have his statue?
Those are all things we are discussing internally. Rest assured, we haven’t forgotten anything. But it has to be done the right way and at the right time.
Earlier in the summer, you also tweeted about your father and the partnership he had with Magic Johnson. Different circumstances then and now, but how do you view that in terms of the role you’re in with LeBron and anyone else?
It’s clear my thoughts on this show. To see the real story watch the Lakers docuseries coming to @hulu later this year. Meanwhile, someone sent me this clip and asked if it was accurate – it is. When a star player and owner align winning happens. 💜#DrBuss pic.twitter.com/KEBk0wcavd
— Jeanie Buss (@JeanieBuss) May 14, 2022
It’s reflective back on our docuseries. The docuseries takes place over the time period of my dad’s ownership and subsequently winning a championship in 2020. The reason why is that my dad really was unique in how he approached the sport and how he made Magic a partner in his vision. You didn’t see that at that time. Someone at his age and level of success was able to connect with a rookie in a way that was profound, significant and inspired each of them. They learned from each other.
So given your familiarity with your father and how he formed a relationship with Magic, how has that shaped your approach with having a relationship with LeBron James?
For a person in my position, it’s important to have a relationship of mutual understanding of what the values are and how can I help you achieve your success and how you help the organization achieve success for the team and the community. Those kind of conversations are important. There are some people in my position — governors of teams — who don’t want to have those kind of relationships with the players on their team. That’s how they do business. But that’s not how I do business.
I believe in having strong ties to the players in terms of understanding what motivates them and what their goals are. I’m in a position that can provide the resources and the platform that they’re looking for to amplify their message and what they’re trying to do in their career and their lives.
How would you characterize what the collaboration is with LeBron and his representatives at Klutch Sports?
He’s the highest profile player in the game right now, and he’s on our team. We’re one of the highest profile teams in the league. That’s what people see because he draws so much attention. But I have relationships with all the players and all the agents. It just seems people want to focus on that relationship. He’s the most important voice on our team and our league.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) July 9, 2022
You mentioned Phil. What feedback has he given you this year that you found helpful?
People want to focus on that relationship, too. I have a good relationship with him. He spends half of his time in L.A. and half of his time in Montana. So I see him for lunch, breakfast or coffee. He’s a person I can always bounce things off of, and I value his friendship and his experience.
Any specifics on how he was helpful with any decision or moment this season?
The stuff that we talk about is private. He doesn’t have a job with the Lakers. It’s more philosophical and bouncing things off of somebody. He’s not the only person that I do that with. I think people have people in their lives they can lean on just as they are going through making decisions and weighing options. My mom is not here anymore. My dad is not here anymore. David Stern is not here anymore. Kobe is not here anymore. He’s just a person who has known me a long time and he knows how I think. He knows the challenges that I have because he’s been in this business.
Similar question on Magic. What has he done?
Magic is there anytime I need to talk to him. He has been a friend for most of my life. He is somebody that loves the Lakers probably more than anybody I can think of, and he’s a valued resource. He knows basketball, and he loves winning.
You obviously know Phil and Magic, and they have sharp basketball minds. And so do the people in the basketball operations. But there has been this school of thought that with all of this collaboration and input, there are too many cooks in the kitchen. How do you look at that issue?
My style of leadership is to collaborate and to listen. I’m not a ‘my way or the highway’ person. I think it’s important to have good people and let them have a voice. Ultimately, I’m the controlling owner. That is what the NBA has, this designation for who’s accountable for all decisions in basketball, and that’s me. Ultimately, I am accountable for it. It’s my style of leadership to be collaborative.
Why is it important for you to have a collaborative leadership style?
My dad used to have me repeat, ‘What do they say about absolute power? Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ He used to tell me that all the time. This isn’t a dictatorship. This isn’t about my view. I get to hear every voice. Ultimately, I will do what’s best for the Lakers organization. Certainly, you are judged by your wins and losses when you’re talking about basketball. Since I made the change with my brother, ultimately the basketball [operations] is in my control. It’s the position I’ve been in for the last six seasons now. That’s what I have to look at.
Obviously, last season isn’t what you want or expect, but how would you evaluate it?
It was a huge disappointment. Certainly, the decisions that were made didn’t put us in a position to be better than we were the year before. The year before, we lost in the first round. It was disappointing.
Injuries were a huge factor. But several, including myself, also argued last season’s shortcomings stemmed from the roster construction with the Westbrook trade, the depth required to make that happen and having a veteran-heavy team. How did you view that part?
Many members of the media, when that trade was made, thought it was going to put us in the top of the conference. We didn’t live up to our expectations. The injury to Anthony Davis changes your whole dynamic because so much of our team depends on him. Now you’re missing a vital piece. Everything else gets thrown off.
I’m not here to make excuses. It wasn’t acceptable. We have to get better. Hopefully, injuries will not devastate us the way they did this past season. We’ve made significant changes. But we’re operating in a salary-cap system. So there are not a lot of tools that we have to make changes to our roster. As time goes on, you do your best. That’s what our basketball operations is doing.
And so even with last season, do you still have full confidence in your basketball operations?
What do you see in them that gives you that?
A championship ring from 2020 [laughs]. Not so bad. That tied us with the Celtics [for most NBA championships] which, for me, is important. My dad bought the Lakers with the idea of being able to compete with the Celtics and make the Lakers relevant in the NBA. I feel like I lived up to his legacy with moving us one step closer. But you can’t win another championship if we don’t make the playoffs. You’re not even in competition for it. Last year was a huge disappointment. But again, I have faith in our basketball operations and the people that we have that we will do better than we did last year.
And if things don’t proceed the way you expect moving forward, would you make changes?
It’s on me to provide the Laker fans the product they’re used to seeing. They want to see great Lakers basketball. Nobody in my position can promise a championship every year. It’s really hard to put all the pieces together, avoid injuries and get to the top. But you can’t start the journey if you’re not even invited to the dance and you’re not in the playoffs. We have to get there. That’s up to the coaching staff and up to the players. We give them all of the tools they need to be successful.
What do you expect that Darvin and his staff can do that you and the basketball operations staff believe Frank Vogel and his staff couldn’t do last season?
Darvin is a very impressive person and has powerful leadership. He was part of the Lakers’ organization a few years ago. I have always admired his work ethic as a player and as a coach. That’s what he is going to bring to this team.
What was your involvement with the coaching search?
Rob can answer in terms of process. But it is up to him to go through the candidates. As they get closer to making the decision, they want to make sure we’re all on the same page. But the decision was Rob’s, and I am in 100% support of that decision.
Obviously, things are fluid. But if your core roster stands the way it is, how would you characterize your comfort level for next season?
I can’t give you Xs and Os and how they’re going to play defensively or offensively. I will never be that person. But what I’ve asked Rob to do is to build a Lakers team that our fans can be proud of and that can work hard every night and make us competitive. I think that’s what he’s done. He’s hired a coach that can and will know how to get the most out of players and get us back to where Laker basketball should be.
Regardless of what the roster looks like, what are your expectations for next season?
I fully expect us to be competitive. The Western Conference is tough and includes the new NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors. Hats off to them. They’ve set a standard of excellence in the league. It’s up to us to raise our game to compete. I expect us to be competitive in our conference.
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