Buss Family Kremlinology

Kurt —  November 23, 2009

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Jerry Buss had his annual early-season media sit down last night before the Lakers destroyed the Thunder and said… basically nothing new.

As it tends to be with the Buss family, it becomes less about what he said and more about what can be inferred from what he said. It’s the Buss family Kremlinology, but without all the fur hats and vodka (well, there probably is vodka). And so what follows are a few of his comments followed by some thoughts.

This year marked the first time that Jim Buss joined his father for the annual sit-down with Lakers beat reporters, perhaps symbolic of the ownership transition the franchise has undergone the past few years. Not only does Jeanie Buss run the business side of the organization, Jerry Buss also revealed that Jim has taken over “around 90 percent” of the day-to-day operations of the franchise.

It’s clear that the power is shifting, although since Jerry Buss still owns the team he is in on all the fun — read big — decisions. But as we knew the grooming is well underway, and maybe farther along than we thought. Someday, Jim will take over as the head man but Jeanie runs the businesses side and has pull as she orchestrated Phil Jackson’s return (something needed at the time not only on the court but to calm angry season ticket holders in the wake of the Shaq trade). There are other Buss children in other roles — running the D-Fenders — and some of that could change when the power fully vests in Jim.

So far, the transition of power seems to be going smoothly, possibly in part because Jerry is still around Hopefully the longer he stays in that role, the smoother things will go when he does pass the baton. That, as Lakers fans, is all we can hope for. A Buss family power struggle behind closed doors would severely harm this franchise (I’m a big believer that good ownership is the key to long-term winning). And if there is a power struggle, we fans would be about as helpless to change it as Russian peasants were to stop infighting in the Kremlin. You just have to hope for a benevolent ruler.

Although Buss admitted he’s not thrilled to have the league’s highest payroll this season, he described $91.3 million in player salary and $21.4 million luxury taxes as money well spent if it delivers a 16th title. … “If we could find a way to save some money and stay at the level of competition we’re at, obviously we’ll try to do that,” Buss said. “But I think in this particular case, all the dollars were well-spent.”

Not sure there is anything new here outside of the Buss pattern we have seen for decades — he will spend to win, but you need to convince him it was a smart move. And get a good deal. Hence the drawn out Odom negotiations and jumping at Artest when Ariza balked. The tea leaves long term here is that while this team is in a championship window, we can continue to expect them to retain top talent.

Buss said he and Jim have spoken about potential replacements for Jackson should he retire after this season, but said he remains optimistic the future Hall-of-Fame coach will return. “He likes to wait until he sees physically how he is at the end of the season,” Buss said. “I think he’s healthier than he was. He was on his motorcycle this summer. That’s always a good sign.”

Not much to read into here, it’s all pretty logical and prudent. Everyone hopes Jackson stays on, but predicting Jackson’s health and the wear and tear of all that travel on a man who had both hips replaced is foolish. In the eventuality he does leave, you need to have a backup plan at least thought out Of course, no discussion of what that plan would be came out of the Buss family mouths.

Among the most pressing issues facing the Lakers is the status of Bryant, who has yet to sign an extension worth up to $91 million that would keep him in purple and gold through 2013-14. Buss declined to comment specifically on the status of the extension out of respect for Bryant’s wishes to keep negotiations private, but he left no doubt the Lakers intend to keep their star well after his current contract expires next season. “We certainly hope so,” he said.

Well, Duh. Who do you think fills Staples Center?

“If he wants to represent Spain, I think he’s entitled to that,” Buss said. “It would be nice if there was more time in between [the European championships and the start of NBA camps] so that he wasn’t overworked . . . . But I think there’s room for all kinds of basketball internationally.”

I’m with Buss here. The Club vs. Country debate is a long and storied one. In this summer’s soccer World Cup some club will lose its highly paid star player for the next season due to injury. But I don’t think that means you can tell a healthy player he can’t go play internationally. For me, that extends beyond the Olympics to other major events That said, I’d still hope Gasol takes this summer off.