SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Jeanie Buss isn’t sure what this pivotal free-agency period holds for her team, but she wants to see the Los Angeles Lakers return to the postseason for the first time since 2012-13.
Speaking to reporters on Monday before the NBA Awards show in Santa Monica, the Lakers’ co-owner and governor expressed her confidence and “complete faith” in team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka’s rebuild as the franchise heads into a long-awaited and potentially fortune-altering free agency.
“In the young core and the new guys that we’re adding, I have complete faith in our front office — no matter how they want to build the team, whether it’s through trades or free agency, trades or through the draft — that they’re going to build on the style of play that you saw throughout this year,” Buss said. “Coach Luke Walton has defined what it is to be Lakers basketball going forward and the style that we play. I just want to see continued growth, and I’d really like to be in the playoffs next season. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The Lakers are hoping to lure two max contract free-agent stars, such as LeBron James and Paul George, when free agency opens in July. Johnson and Pelinka are armed with a load of cap space, a promising young core that includes Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma and the glitzy history of one of the biggest brands in sports to sell to stars like James.
Even NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he will be “like a fan” next month, anticipating what James will do next.
“Of course, I’m curious,” Silver said when asked about James’ decision. “I’m like a fan when it comes to watching what our players do. But I’ll be watching just like everyone else.”
The Lakers have found themselves at the center of the NBA offseason universe between gearing up for the summer of LeBron but also being linked to San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard and his reported preference to play in Los Angeles and for the Lakers.
Choosing her words carefully, since the Lakers organization has been fined twice for comments that drew tampering charges worth a total of $550,000 in the past year, Buss talked about how she wanted Johnson and Pelinka to make the Lakers successful and attractive again.
“What I had asked them to do a year ago was to really identify a style of play, and once you identify the kind of basketball that will be Lakers basketball going forward, that every decision would then reflect that style,” Buss said. “I think it’s important as an organization that people understand what you stand for. There was a while there where we were a very defensive-minded team. And then we were an offensive-minded team. You really couldn’t really grasp what Laker basketball was about.
“But I think now we have our feet firmly planted on the ground and we’re showing people what we stand for. And the investment that the ownership has made to a training facility like the one we have continues to show that we’re backing up our words.”
The Lakers now head into a summer that their hungry fan base has waited a long time for. Lakers fans are so eagerly anticipating what happens in free agency that many jumped to conclusions after Buss sent out a cryptic tweet that read, “Do not ever underestimate … Nothing else to say.”
With a laugh and a smile, Buss set the record straight on the tweet.
“It was very innocent. I was out to dinner in New York. I was there on NBA business — league business — and I only had a few minutes to change, and luckily I packed a pair of leather pants,” Buss explained. “And I wouldn’t have had time to, like, iron or steam or anything. I put on my leather pants and it’s like a whole new outfit, and I was going to just tweet, ‘Don’t ever underestimate the power of leather pants for traveling because they don’t wrinkle.’ And I started writing it, and then I realized that just the first sentence was a great tweet even just the way it was.”
Starting late Saturday night, though, Buss and the Lakers can give their fan base something to truly get excited about when they open what might be their biggest free agency since landing Shaquille O’Neal in 1996.
“It’s nice to be respected in the industry, [but] I think we have to earn that respect, so it’s really about at the end of the day how many games we win and lose,” Buss said about being a destination for players. “We’re not there yet, and we’re not going to rest until we’re proud.”
“I feel very confident,” Buss added about the team’s direction. “All I asked when Magic came on board was that he defined who we were as a basketball team. And you don’t really see that just from somebody saying this is what it’s gonna be; you see it from the way the decisions are made and how they fit together. You can now see a vision and how things fit together and how it complements our coach in terms of what he wants to play.
“So I have complete confidence in that they know what they’re doing with building a roster.”