Focus is on 'how we get out of this'

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Friday, December 12, 2014

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Lakers are struggling at 6-16 and got off to the worst start in franchise history. They've lost three key players to season-ending injuries and have few assets to use to noticeably improve the current state of affairs.

Magic Johnson, one of the most beloved players in team history, recently said, "I hope the Lakers lose every game."

But tank? As far as Lakers president Jeanie Buss is concerned, tanking is "unforgivable" and "irresponsible."

"I think the teams that use that as a strategy are doing damage," Buss said as part of a wide-ranging ESPN The Magazine joint interview with her brother, and Lakers president of player personnel, Jim Buss. "If you're in a tanking mode and you're doing that for three years or whatever, that means you've got young players from the years that you were at the bottom that 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."

The Lakers would keep their 2015 first-round draft pick if they finish among the five worst teams in the league. Otherwise, it's owed to the Phoenix Suns. Thus, the question: Should the Lakers aim to make sure they're in the bottom five?

Jim Buss, who along with general manager Mitch Kupchak put the current roster together, called it "insulting" to even question whether the Lakers would consider tanking in order to hold on to what could be a top-5 pick.

The Lakers were projected to win 31.5 games before the season by the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. That was before season-ending injuries to Steve Nash, Xavier Henry and prized lottery pick Julius Randle. They are now projected to win 30.3 games by -- the fewest wins of any team except the 2-19Philadelphia 76ers.

Jim Buss said that he accepts the responsibility for the way this season has gone thus far but has "to focus on how we get out of this."

"I understand the pain of Lakers fans," Jim Buss said in the joint interview, which will run in the Dec. 12 issue of ESPN The Magazine. "I feel the pain of losing, too. But I have to focus on how we get out of this. And when I look at the flexibility and the position that we're in, we can't be in a better position to move forward and get back on top."

Why has this season gone so badly for the Lakers?

"We knew we were going to have to deal with the economics of the new collective bargaining agreement," Jim Buss said. "By correcting our situation it was going to be painful. Unfortunately, on top of correcting we had some severe injuries that knocked top players out for a year at a time. It's not something that was two or three weeks. It was Steve Nash for a year, Julius Randle for a year, et cetera. Injuries on top of correcting is not a good formula.

"Our fans are understanding that there's a process. They believe in the process. The coach [Byron Scott], Kobe Bryant, the draft pick [Randle] that we got, and the flexibility we have going forward. If we were handcuffed with some contracts that weren't good going forward, I think there would be problems."

There is one large contract they do have going forward -- the $48.5 million the Lakers committed to Bryant this year and next. But both Busses stood firmly behind Bryant during the interview.

"I think there's maybe a handful of guys in the league that are worth as much as he is and we're lucky to have him," Jeanie Buss said of Bryant. "I think he's worth every penny."

Said Jim Buss: "I just believed in Kobe's ability to play at a high level. He deserves it."

Bryant is second in the NBA in scoring, averaging 25.5 points a game. He is also averaging five assists and five rebounds per game. But the heavy workload and usage rate has taken a toll on his shooting percentage (39 percent). Thursday, he lashed out at practice, calling his teammates "soft."

There has been speculation that the losing would eventually wear on Bryant, or that the Lakers would be doing him a favor by trading him to a contender. Bryant has a no-trade clause in his contract and has given no indication -- either publicly or privately -- that he'd ever ask for or even consider a trade from the city where he's played for 19 years and won five NBA titles.

"I love Kobe Bryant. I think L.A. loves Kobe Bryant and he deserves to play here. He loves it. I don't envision him going anywhere else," Jim Buss said. "I don't see it."

Said Jeanie Buss: "I don't want to see Kobe Bryant ever leave. If he was 100 years old and still playing, I'd be happy. But we have survived many changes including retirements and trades. We understand the realities of the sports world.

"Take Shaq for example, he was traded from here and went on to several other teams after that. But once he was 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, I still have to remind myself that Kevin Garnett is in Brooklyn and not in Boston.

"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."

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