There’s a reason there have been three — count ’em THREE — television series rolled out revolving around Laker Land this year alone. And despite the disaster that was last season, when they went just 33-49 en route to missing the playoffs for the seventh time in the past nine tries and (messily) swapping Frank Vogel for Darvin Ham at the head coaching spot, the fact remains that the combination of their continued star power (LeBron James and Anthony Davis) and championship credentials (tied with the Celtics for the league-lead at 17) mean they remain as relevant as ever.
So when Lakers owner Jeanie Buss agreed to discuss the Hulu show that pulls the curtain back on the massive part her family played in this basketball drama, the project titled “Legacy: The true story of the L.A. Lakers” that was directed by Antoine Fuqua and which includes Jeanie and her longtime confidante Linda Rambis as executive producers, it’s safe to say I had a great interest in the conversation. Especially during these dog days of summer when Donovan Mitchell trade talks are the last frontier of remaining storylines.
The entire interview, in which Jeanie goes into great detail about the project that was seven years in the making and why she viewed it as such a worthwhile venture, can be found here and at the end of this piece. But for the sake of everyone who isn’t looking to go down the Lakers’ memory lane, I wanted to pull out some illuminating parts about the inner workings of the league’s most fascinating franchise.
The Lakers are a constant source of intrigue for readers and writers. And as Jeanie hinted at during our chat, it just might be a source of occasional irritation for those who live it too. More specifically, Jeanie openly discussed the Lakers’ current power structure, their decision-making process, and why she pushes back against the idea that she shouldn’t still be relying on old friends like Magic Johnson and Phil Jackson as unofficial advisers.
It has been four summers since her choice to fire her brother Jim from the front office led to the Lakers landing LeBron. Fast forward to this month, and his decision to sign a two-year, $97.1 million extension was as clear a sign as any that he feels good enough about the franchise to keep the partnership going. Add in the recent trade for Patrick Beverley that raised all sorts of questions (again) about a possible Russell Westbrook exit, and there has been no shortage of Lakers topics to talk about since they bowed out (again) in April.
But … will they be any good? Even Jeanie, who is sidestepping any attempts to inspire predictions, admits she doesn’t know.
The following, provided with context when necessary, are highlights from the interview that either relate to the organization’s modern-day machinations or relate to the campaign that is to come. They’ve been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
“We’ve always been an open book”
Regardless of whether people agree that the above quote is accurate, Jeanie is making a calculated choice to be more transparent than ever nowadays.
The “Legacy” series is impactful in that way, with all the historical framing and reminders of the deep relationships therein informing the way their world works in the modern day. And again, it’s almost immaterial if you approve or disapprove. It’s as if the goal — beyond the entertainment value, of course — is to destigmatize some of the subplots that have (with good reason) captured the spotlight in recent years.
I think (the show) kind of helps people understand our process, and what our commitment is to fulfilling (her father, the late Dr. Jerry Buss’) legacy, which was to make the Lakers the best team in the NBA. … It’s a lot of personal stuff, but that’s just kind of how my family operates. And I think this process has been very healing, especially for the things that have happened the last few years with my siblings, and it’s kind of brought us all together.
To me, I think we’ve always been an open book. We’ve never really tried to hide anything. Then there became this fascination with the role that Linda and Kurt (Rambis) play. Where did they come from (laughs)? As if they hadn’t been there (all along). Like I was hiding them all these decades or something (still laughing). So I don’t know what led to that, what caused people to be curious.
Kurt, the former Lakers forward whose prominent role in four Lakers championships in the 1980s is featured heavily in the show, is now the right-hand man of general manager Rob Pelinka (his title is senior basketball adviser). Linda, meanwhile, is widely seen as one of the most powerful people in the organization (her title, which is hardly reflective of her level of influence, is executive director of community relations and special projects).
But absolutely, like I said, I feel like we have been an open book. There is nothing that we’re hiding, and we can tell the story so that people can have context and know where everybody came in, (and) at what point. I think there are people that don’t realize I have two younger brothers. They hear about my two older brothers (Jim and Johnny) just because of all the situations that took place and their roles over the years. But I have two younger brothers and we meet them.
Joey Buss, who has been the president and CEO of the team’s G League affiliate (the South Bay Lakers) for 15 seasons, is the Lakers’ vice president of research and development. Jesse is entering his eighth season as assistant general manager and director of scouting.
They’re very important. And so it’s just kind of letting people be introduced and understand and know that we aren’t trying to hide anything. And we’re not trying to create any false narrative. I mean, this is — we’re a family business. People can relate to that. Seventy-five percent of the businesses in this country are family owned and operated. So we’re just like every other family. There’s conflicts, and we work through them. But the overall goal is to continue what my dad started. … As their voices become more influential, I rely on them because they have the exact same desire. (It’s) to live up to the legacy that Dr. Buss created. So those are important voices in our organization.
Last but certainly not least, Jeanie discussed the part that Lakers legends Magic Johnson and Jackson still play in her process and the criticism that has come as a result of that revelation (these relationships, not surprisingly, play a prominent part in the Hulu show). As we reported in mid-February and early March, respectively, Jeanie continues to rely on both of them for advice long after they’ve formally departed the franchise.
When I lean on Magic Johnson (who abruptly resigned as president of basketball operations in April 2019), when I lean on Phil Jackson (the former Lakers coach and former fiancé of Jeanie’s), that’s advice that I’m getting for me in my decision-making process. It’s not that Magic is making a decision on who we’re going to hire as coach. It’s not that Phil is telling me who to hire as coach. It’s talking about process, talking about experience, what happened when you approached a problem like this. These are just people (she trusts). Everybody has them, those people in your life that you trust, you believe in (and) that you know are going to give you a straight answer, (and) that there is no separate agenda when they’re talking to you.
(You know) that they’re going to give it to you straight. (Late NBA commissioner) David Stern was also a person that I would lean on. And of course, (late Lakers legend) Kobe Bryant. So, unfortunately, I don’t have my dad any longer, Kobe, David Stern, these voices (who) were really important to me. And, you know, I’m sure if people sit in my chair, they would do the same thing. They would call upon people in their life that have been consistent and straightforward and aren’t afraid to tell them, ‘You’re off course here.’ (It’s) those people that aren’t just saying, ‘yes,’ to say ‘yes’ and get you out the door, people that are trusted to me. But are they running the Lakers? No. I’m running the Lakers. But if people want to know who I go to and talk to, I have my circle of people that I trust.
“From my point of view, (Westbrook) was our best player last year.”
Yes, as you might imagine, I did a double take when Jeanie shared her viewpoint that Westbrook was the best the Lakers had to offer last season. By most accounts — yours truly included — his debut season with the Lakers was an unmitigated disaster.
So after the interview ended, when I realized that I’d failed to follow up quickly enough to get total clarity on this stunning take, I decided to send Buss a note asking if this was her actual belief.
“The word I should have used was ‘consistent,’” she wrote via text message. “He played 78 games last season.”
The point, it seems, is this: LeBron only played 59 games because of a late-season left ankle injury, while Davis (left knee injury; right ankle) logged just 40 games (after playing just 36 the season prior). If those two aren’t available, the Lakers have no shot at being a playoff team — let alone legitimate contenders. For better or worse, at least Westbrook was able to stay on the floor.
The question now, of course, is whether he’ll still be in a Lakers jersey by the time this season rolls around. And when the Lakers did the deal with Utah for Beverley last week, sending Talen Horton-Tucker and Stanley Johnson to the Jazz in exchange for the 34-year-old agitator whose decade-long rivalry with Westbrook has been well-chronicled, there was no shortage of speculation that it meant Russ’ time with the Lakers was unofficially over. Jeanie, however, pushed back against the notion that Beverley and Westbrook couldn’t co-exist.
Yeah, I remember all the video that circulated when the Lakers brought in Matt Barnes, (with) his relationship with Kobe over the years (and) being one of the best defenders on Kobe. And now he becomes teammates with Kobe. We’ve seen these storylines before. Pat Beverley was brought here to play defense, to be that guy that knows how to push his teammates, (who) sets an example with how he approaches his job. The day of the trade, he was already here after work hours working out. I got a chance to say hello to him as I was leaving for the day. He just brings that work ethic that we value, that coach Ham values and is going to be a leader in the locker room. So it has nothing to do with Russ. And like I said, I think that people, they love to pull up storylines and create something and that just isn’t the case.
All I can say is that, from my point of view, (Westbrook) was our best player last year. He played pretty much every single game, showed up, worked hard. You know, I would have loved to have seen what this team would have looked like if they stayed healthy. It’s really tough to win when Anthony Davis isn’t on the court. LeBron was hurt a lot of the season. But Russ showed up every game and played hard every night. And, you know, I just really appreciate him for who he is and what he brings to the team.
So, I asked, any concern that Ham’s first season as a head coach might be unnecessarily complicated with these sorts of challenging personal dynamics?
You know, Darvin is fearless. He’s strong. It’s for coaches to figure out stuff like this. That’s what makes them coaches. You know, I lived with a coach for 17 years by the name of Phil Jackson. And you know, this is what the challenges are. It isn’t just about putting out a game plan and just letting them take over. It’s about managing personalities. And Coach Ham is prepared and fearless when it comes to stuff like that.
When Darvin (who was a Lakers assistant from 2011 to 2013) walked into my office that day (after the coaching search), he kind of overwhelmed me with his presence and his confidence in feeling that he was coming back to the Lakers — a place where he knew he could be successful and knew he was needed. (He) brings a strong voice to the table, and I’m excited to watch what he puts together.
“It is a big vote of confidence when LeBron James signs a two-year extension.”
A quick reminder: It has only been six months since James’ All-Star weekend musings about a possible Cleveland reunion led to an emergency meeting of sorts in late February with his agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, Jeanie and Pelinka to discuss the state of affairs and their uncertain future together. Yet independent of the Lakers’ dynamics, it was the revelation that LeBron was determined to play with his son Bronny when he eventually (and presumably) entered the NBA that mattered most in Jason Lloyd’s report.
So while the Lakers have every reason to celebrate the extension agreement, the reality remains that James’ deal has a player option for the 2024-25 season, which lines up with Bronny’s first year of eligibility (James, whose birthday is on Dec. 30, would be 39 at the start of that season). The plan, it seems clear, is for LeBron to retire with the Lakers. But if Bronny can make the transition from Sierra Canyon High in Southern California to the Association, there is more to be resolved on this front.
First of all, I’ve been warned that I can’t talk about an underage player or a player that is, you know, part of the (amateur level), so I don’t want to ruin anybody else’s eligibility or cause any problems like that. (But) LeBron is a very passionate person, and he wants to be put in a position where he can succeed. And it’s up to people like me and Rob and our front office to put him in those kinds of positions. He felt that what he heard (in that February meeting) was what he wanted to hear and made him feel confident going forward and I couldn’t be more happy that he sees that we want to win just as much as he does and that there’s a lot of great things that are going to happen while he’s a Laker. …Whatever our private conversations are, he showed his faith in us by signing that extension.
At the end of the day, we’re all judged by wins and losses. And last season, which will not be part of the documentary — the documentary ends in 2020. (But) last season was a huge disappointment. I think if you look back, exactly a year ago there was a lot of media who predicted us to be at the top. We certainly didn’t live up to that expectation, and it was hugely disappointing because you can’t possibly contend for a championship if you’re not even in the playoffs. So we made some changes. And, you know, I think changes needed to be made. … We have a new coach, and I’m excited to see what he brings and I want to give him all the time and resources that he needs to build a successful program. And I’ll stay cautiously optimistic, but it is a big vote of confidence when LeBron James signs a two-year extension, when he had many months to do so (he had until June 30, 2023, to sign this deal). And you know, it was a priority to us. It’s a priority to the Laker brand that he retire a Laker. We’ll probably enjoy watching him as he approaches becoming the all-time leading scorer in history. And Episode 4 … shows the celebration that we had when Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) became the all-time leading scorer, and (late Lakers broadcaster) Chick Hearn even says, ‘A record that we’ll never see broken.’ And I honestly believed that that was going to be the case, that nobody would ever touch Kareem’s record.
As it stands, LeBron is 1,325 points behind Kareem for the league’s all-time scoring record (38,387 to 37,062). For the sake of simple math, he would have to average 16.2 points in 82 games if he never missed a game to break the record (or average 22 points in 60 games, to cite another possibility).
So there’s, I think, a lot of things to look forward to in this upcoming season. But I’m not going to go on record and say we’re gonna finish first or second or third, fourth. I’m just — I’m optimistic and believe that this is always a work in progress. And you’ve got to make changes as needed.
(Top photo of Buss: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)