In Buss We Trust – Lakers’ Success Due to Solid Ownership

James Dolan, Executive Chairman of Madison Square Garden and owner of the Knicks, reminds us once again this week how lucky Lakers fans are to have Dr. Jerry Buss as the owner of their favorite team.

When it comes to players and coaches it’s all about performance. If either one underperforms there’s a good chance they’ll be replaced. Coaches get fired, players are either waived or traded or don’t have their contracts renewed. But ownership, for all intents and purposes, is like a dictatorship. Performance means squat. An owner sells his team when either he wants to sell it or when he dies. Much in the same way a dictator steps down either by choice or when he dies. Every once in a while an owner is forced to sell his team due to money issues, like former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt or former Kings owner Bruce McNall. But the fans have no say. They can talk all they want about boycotting stadiums and not watching the games on TV. They can fire off nasty letters to the editor in the newspaper that they want. But none of it really matters to the rich guy in the owner’s suite.

Fans can complain all they want about owners like Dolan or Donald Sterling, but even if they don’t sell a single ticket, there’s enough money in those licensing and television deals so they can still make a profit if they manage their finances responsibly.

Don’t get it twisted; the Jeremy Lin situation wasn’t a simple or an envious one to be in. You can’t ignore the financial implications facing Dolan in the third year of Lin’s contract. But his handling of the situation is what separates Buss from the rest of the owners in every professional sports league.

Can you imagine anyone writing about Buss what The New York Times’ Harey Araton wrote about Dolan this week?:

To that end, one season-ticket holder for decades whom I have known for many years expressed exasperation over Dolan’s unwillingness to do what he has asked of his fans over and over: keep the faith and invest in the potential for success, in this case that of the 23-year-old Lin. But on some level the fans will also know that what Dolan asks of his patrons is not necessarily what he demands of himself. He lets Lin walk and tells them to keep writing those painful checks and keep believing in a franchise that within a handful of months has managed to turn its most alluring episode in more than a decade into a requiem for a point guard.

As sports fans, the only thing we can ask of our owner is that he wants to win at least as much as we do and that, at the very least, he cares what we think. It’s a pretty simple equation: the more success an owner has, the less the fans get to complain about his decisions. The Lakers have won 10 championships in my lifetime. As a result, I’ve lost the right to complain about anything that the Buss family decides to do with their team for at least five years.

The majority of sports fans aren’t delusional. Most understand that sports ownership, at its core, is still a business. It’s easy for us to complain when an owner doesn’t want to spend more money because it’s not our money. Just this past week there were multiple reports that the Lakers don’t plan on using their mini mid-level exception. That news comes after a season in which the team gave Lamar Odom away for nothing and traded two-and-a-half first round picks so they could get Derek Fisher and Luke Walton off of next year’s payroll.

There were rumblings about whether or not Dr. Buss had become cheap in the wake of the league’s new collective bargaining agreement. There was talk about the enormous inheritance tax his kids will have to pay when he passes. It’s no secret that the league’s new CBA does this current roster no favors. In addition to upcoming tax penalties they now have so few chips with which to improve, at least for the next two years. The mid-level exception under the old CBA, the one that allowed them to sign Metta World Peace in 2009 and Steve Blake and Matt Barnes in 2010 despite  being way over the salary cap, has been replaced by a taxpayer’s mini mid-level exception that gives them just $3 million with which to add one player.

Does anyone really believe that if Buss had the chance to sign someone with that $3 million that would put his team over the top that he wouldn’t hesitate to do so? The one thing the Lakers have never been able to really take advantage of is signing any of the older veterans who get waived by teams before the playoff eligibility deadline. Other teams have been able to sign guys mid-season like Tim Thomas, P.J. Brown, or Sam Cassell. Who’ve the the Lakers signed? A 35-year-old Jim Jackson and Ira Newble.

Part of it stems from Phil Jackson and the complexities of the triangle offense. Maybe they didn’t push as hard because it might have been too difficult for guys to grasp the nuances of it with so little time before the playoffs. But a lot of it has to do with the fact that they’ve never had more than the veteran’s minimum to offer.

If the Lakers were to head into this upcoming season without having used their mini mid-level exception, they could use a prorated portion of it to bring in a veteran during the season, depending on how many games remained on the schedule. The mini MLE pays guys close to $40,000 per game. So multiply that by the 20+ games remaining on the schedule to see what it would actually cost Dr. Buss.

Some of the veterans on expiring contracts who might be available mid-season:

  • Jose Calderon
  • Kevin Martin
  • Earl Watson
  • Beno Udrih
  • Corey Maggette
  • Daniel Gibson

It’s not the most attractive list of names but each of them would instantly be the second-best player on the current bench.

The Steve Nash trade, the failed Chris Paul trade, and the reported attempts at trying to get Dwight Howard are all reminders that when Doc Buss sees an opportunity to go for it, like the poker player he is, he goes all in. Remember that the next time you want to complain.

We’re truly blessed to have him. And don’t ever forget it.

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