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Money Never Sleeps: The Meaning Of The Lakers' Offseason

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By opening his checkbook to retain Phil Jackson and improve the Laker bench, Jerry Buss has ensured that the Lakers will contend for another title and once again demonstrated his exceptionalism among team owners.

The NBA offseason is over. Not that the new NBA season is about to begin, mind you. That's still over two months away. But all relevant offseason events can be talked about in the past tense. The draft, the summer league, the free agency and trade cycles, turnover in the head coaching ranks - all have come to rest, meaning we now know, with about 98% certainty, what rosters will look like when play cranks up again in late October. The FIBA world championships will keep us distracted between now and when training camps open, but they're just a sideshow, however welcome and entertaining. Right now we're squarely in the NBA's non-season, a Phantom Zone devoid of news, where time slows to a crawl.

So this is as good a point as any to step back, catch our breath and evaluate the moves and non-moves the Lakers have made since June 17, when they finally subdued the Boston Celtics in Game Seven of the Finals. On that rapturous night, none of us knew exactly what lay ahead. We knew that the core on-court talent (consisting of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum) was under contract for three more seasons, but that's where our certainty ended. We didn't know whether Phil Jackson would be back. We didn't know what the team would do with its second-round draft picks. We didn't know what, if anything, the front office would spend to retain free-agent guards Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown. We didn't know whether they would take advantage of their mid-level salary-cap exception (MLE) to reinforce the bench in the free-agent market.

The theme unifying all of these questions was money. Team ownership has enjoyed the vast revenue streams that flow from back-to-back NBA championships, but the outlays have been massive as well. In the past two seasons the Lakers have had the NBA's highest payroll by no small margin. This spring, rumors gathered about possible cost-cutting measures: a substantial pay cut for Phil, a salary-dump trade of Odom, a reluctance to spend the team's MLE money.

We as fans have little ability to evaluate the need for such austerity. Unlike, say, shareholders in a publicly traded business, we have no right to inspect our favorite team's financial statements. There are estimates of financial performance available - for instance, in the annual Forbes franchise valuations - but those are just educated guesses. Ultimately, we're forced simply to trust our owners to do right by the teams we root for. Some owners reward that trust better than others.

And few have ever stepped up to the plate the way Jerry Buss has done yet again this summer. At every turn, Dr. Buss has opened his considerable war chest to bankroll the campaign for another title. Phil got paid his asking price, give or take a few ducats. Farmar was allowed to walk, but the cash the Lakers would've spent to retain him was deployed to sign Steve Blake, a superior player. Brown and Derek Fisher were re-upped at salaries they should be happy with. The MLE was used in full to upgrade the backup center (Theo Ratliff) and small forward (Matt Barnes) positions. With their two draft picks, which they could easily have sold off or used to select guys to stash in Europe for a couple years, the Lakers added Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter, both of whom look like they could contribute as early as this season.

The big sports story in Los Angeles this week was the Dodgers' signing of Zach Lee, their first-round pick in MLB's latest amateur draft. The event drew so much attention not because Lee is such an amazing prospect, though he's an excellent one, but because few thought the Dodgers would actually scrounge up enough spare change from under their couch pillows to lure the young man away from LSU football. Ever since news broke last fall that Dodger owner Frank McCourt was divorcing his wife Jaime, the epic costs of that divorce battle - along with what the proceedings have revealed about the McCourts' opulent, cash-incinerating lifestyle - have fed a powerful narrative about how Frank is sucking money out of the Dodgers to finance his non-baseball expenses. The Lee signing was cause for celebration among Dodger fans both because the franchise added a premium prospect and for its symbolic importance. It was a rare piece of evidence to suggest that McCourt isn't letting the team fall into utter disrepair while he maxes out his credit cards on attorneys' fees.

Laker fans don't suffer from such anxieties. We can't remember a time when one could reasonably question Dr. Buss's commitment to fielding a kick-ass team, and his stewardship this offseason has further validated our confidence. Which isn't to say we should thank him for his charity. He's running a business, and of the great sums of money he's spending on it, a goodly portion comes from us, his customers. Like any businessman, his decision making is driven by self-interest, not philanthropy.

The key, though, is that his is an enlightened self-interest. Buss wants to make money, but he understands that investing in superior talent, both on the court and in the front office, is a great way to do so. And he doesn't just want to make money. He wants to win, which means his interests are aligned with those of the fans. It helps that there don't appear to be any significant external drains on his personal finances - like, say, a grotesquely expensive divorce proceeding.

When George Steinbrenner died last month, the baseball writer Joe Sheehan observed of the late Yankee owner:

He showed that you could spend more money than anyone had imagined, but also that you could make more money than anyone had imagined. Moreover, he wanted the next win more than he wanted the next dollar. You can argue that he had that luxury, owning the team with the greatest backstory in the biggest city in the world, but I am quite certain that had Steinbrenner purchased the Cleveland Indians in 1973, he would have run them with the same ideology. It's essential for a sports owner to want to win more than he wants to make money; it doesn't require a commitment to losing money, just to have the priorities in the right order. Steinbrenner's priorities were always in the right order. If every professional sports team had an owner putting the next win ahead of the next dollar, sports fans across the board would have a better lot.

I don't think Jerry Buss has too much in common with Steinbrenner, for which Laker fans should be grateful, but that paragraph perfectly captures their shared philosophy of team ownership. And his exceptionalism in this respect is a main reason why the Lakers are fully geared up for another championship run, starting this fall.

Follow Dex on Twitter here. The Sheehan excerpt above is taken from his subscription-only newsletter of July 14, 2010. It costs something like $20 to subscribe, but I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who enjoys good sportswriting. You can sign up by clicking here.