The Los Angeles Lakers headed into the weekend with an unfamiliar and uncomfortable 6-16 record. Their three-game trip to San Antonio, Minnesota and Indiana was bound to be memorable, with Kobe Bryant closing in on Michael Jordan‘s NBA points total. But it also figured to be more of the same as far as struggles – the Lakers were dragging on the road with them the league’s worst defense (114.6 defensive rating) and a mediocre offense (106.5 offensive rating) too dependent on Bryant. And for all his skills and achievements for the storied franchise, and his profanity-laced blistering of teammates in practice as presumed motivation the other day, coach Byron Scott‘s crew has played better with Bryant off the floor than on it (a minus-18.8 swing per 100 possessions).
It was against that backdrop that Jeanie Buss and Jim Buss, two of late Lakers owner Jerry Buss‘ six children and the two most heavily involved in running the team, sat for a joint interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com. In their answers to Ramona Shelburne, the Buss siblings gave a thorough state-of-the-Lakers snapshot. Here are a few excerpts:
There’s been a lot of talk that this season is going so badly that you should trade Kobe. Set him free, so to speak. Is there any chance that happens?
Jim: No. I love Kobe Bryant. I think L.A. loves Kobe Bryant. I don’t envision him going anywhere. I don’t see it.
Jeanie: I don’t want to see Kobe Bryant leave. But we understand the realities of the sports world. Take Shaq, for example. He was traded and played for several other teams. But once he retired, he asked us to retire his jersey. He wanted to be remembered as a Laker. So while I get attached, I know what the realities are in this business. It’s never going to change what we’ve accomplished together. But I don’t look forward to the day that Kobe Bryant’s not in purple and gold.
Your 2015 first-round pick is owed to Phoenix as part of the Steve Nash trade unless it’s in the top five. There is already talk that you should tank to try to keep that pick. How do you respond to that?
Jim: It will never happen here, period. The question is insulting. Our fans understand there’s a process. They believe in the process — the coach, Kobe, the draft pick [Julius Randle] and the flexibility we have going forward.
Jeanie: The teams that use tanking as a strategy are doing damage. If you’re in tanking mode, that means you’ve got young players who you’re teaching bad habits to. I think that’s unforgivable. If you’re tanking and you have young players or you keep a short roster, you’re playing guys out of their position or too many minutes, you’re risking injury. It’s irresponsible and I don’t think it belongs in any league.
Jim, in 2012 you made some decisions that were praised initially — trading for Steve Nash and acquiring Dwight Howard — but they didn’t work out and you were criticized. Is that what you mean as far as owning up to your decisions?
Jim: Do I deserve all the glory if it works? No. Do I deserve all the blame if it doesn’t work? No. But I’m accountable for it.
Jeanie: With the Steve Nash situation, I think we did everything in good faith. We sacrificed to get him by giving up draft picks. We made sure he was one of the top-15-paid players at his position, and we hired a coach that specifically suited his style of play. So from our point of view, we did everything right. You go in with good intentions, and it didn’t work out.
Jeanie, you have been on record as saying that the Lakers let Dwight Howard down. What did you mean by that?
Jeanie: It came down to hiring a coach. [The Lakers hired Mike D’Antoni in November 2012.] When you have a big man and a guard, you have to decide whom you’re going to build your team around. The choice was to build it around Steve Nash and what suited Steve Nash instead of what suited Dwight Howard.
It sounds as if Jeanie has a difference of opinion on who should have been hired as coach.
Jim: I’ve been on record as saying [hiring D’Antoni] was my dad’s decision. I know that makes Jeanie uncomfortable, but I’d sit down with him for hours going over Laker decisions. In my opinion, he was sharp.
Jeanie: [Interrupts] Dad was in the hospital. I would always run things by Dad, too. But he was in the hospital, not feeling well, and that is why he counted on us to make the decisions. So I agree that he would have input, but he needed my suggestion or Jimmy’s suggestion or [GM Mitch Kupchak’s] suggestion because he was confined and did not have access to all the information that we did.
Jim, you were quoted in the L.A. Times last year as saying that if you can’t turn the Lakers around in three years, you’d step down. Why did you say that?
Jim: That’s been the plan all the way through. If I don’t get to that point, then I’ve derailed it somewhere. I’ll stick to that, and I have no problem sticking to that because everything is on track for us to be back on top.
Jeanie, what did you think when you read that?
Jeanie: There’s no reason to worry because he feels confident that he’ll be successful. So really, there’s no reason to announce a timeline. But I think that, just like any business, if you’re not meeting your expectations in an organization, you should expect a change.