So, here’s what happened…
Phil Jackson is a bit of an asshole. He is one of, if not the best coaches of an organized sports team in history, and as is almost always the case with people who don’t just excel but exceed almost every meaningful metric in their chosen path—the 1% of the 1%–he has both positive traits that make it possible for him to approach those lofty heights, and negative ones that actually allow him to reach them. Arrogance, hubris, condescension of anyone who dares to view themselves as comparable to him, an active alpha-dog mentality that doesn’t just respond to displays of challenging dominance—perceived or actual—but actually seeks them out to squash them before they can do anything…those sorts of things.
There are lots of talented, smart, insightful, hard-working people in the world. Generally speaking, only those with a bloody, honed edge of aggression and desire to dominate rise to the very top; you don’t have to crush people to get there, but you have to be willing and able to do so. And PJ is just about a textbook example of this.
For crissake, he’s the guy who ran Jerry West out of town, away from the franchise that he had helped create and push to levels of success beyond what any other sports franchise has ever achieved, a labor of love and passion that lasted nearly 40 years, ended ignominiously just so PJ wouldn’t have to put up with a possibly contradictory viewpoint on the same team.
(Not that Jerry West was an angel, he was pretty much cut from the same cloth as PJ, he just lost that battle.)
And so, when PJ came back to the Lakers for his second go-around in the Kobe/Pau era, he knew he was in a place of unprecedented power. Not only had the team come crawling back to him after letting he and Shaq go their own ways, and that he was returning to the team as the Savior (proper-noun status intentional), the one person who could undo the mistakes they’d made without him and return them to glory…but he also returned just as Jerry Buss was retreating from the day-to-day handling of the Lakers’ business and turning the basketball reins over to his son Jim Buss.
Now, no one—including himself—has ever called Jim a basketball genius. I think he’s far more knowledgeable and savvy about the sport and the Lakers in particular than most give him credit for: he grew up surrounded by a culture of excellence and success, which does tend to leave an imprint on you, and adding Nash, Howard and Jamison to the team this summer within a little more than a month, without giving up Gasol or any other critical pieces…that’s not the move of a dummy playing pretend in his dad’s shoes, however much the credit is split amongst him, his dad and Mitch. But he’s not PJ, or Jerry West, and has admitted as much.
Which must have made it even more difficult for him when PJ returned, the Savior, and took over the biggest and nicest office in the Lakers organization (which might, you know, normally go to the guy tasked with actually running the team by the owner), and proceeded to do whatever the hell he wanted to.
Imagine, if you will, a grown man being forced to put up with “Hey there, Jimmy boy, that’s an awfully nice chair you’ve got there, don’t you think you should let one of the grownups have it? Now go and play with your toys and computers and keep quiet while adults are talking.” Followed by a pat on the head and a rustling of the hair like you do to a six year-old.
Did that actually, literally happen? Nope, not likely, PJ’s much too subtle for that. But metaphorically? Yeah, no way it didn’t happen. And Jim had to bite his lip and endure. And, hey, it was worth it…three more finals trips, two more championships, the canonizing of the phrase, “The Lakers don’t rebuild…they reload.”
But at the end of PJ’s second go-around, things went south. Swept out of the playoffs by the Mavericks in the second round. And while you can point to Kobe’s injured knee (he’s said he was basically, “playing on one leg” that entire year), Bynum’s (as usual) injured knee, or just their flow going cold at the exact moment the players on the Mavericks finally clicked and were playing at a level way above their heads, their whole vastly greater than the sum of their parts, it was clear that PJ was checked out mentally and emotionally. There was no fire on the bench—the cameras would often catch him not even looking at the end of the floor where the play was actually happening—and he was sticking with rotations and line-up decisions that clearly weren’t working, long past any reasonable measure of “let’s see if they can figure it out.” And all of those brilliant, chess-grand-master adjustments that he would make in the past that led to all those championships, in between games and during games and from one timeout to the next…there was no sign of them. And he was far more vocal about all the difficulties he was having to put up with—didn’t want to coach road games, didn’t like the travel, didn’t like what they were paying him, wasn’t all that excited about the roster—than he was about the team and its gameplan.
So, when his contract was up, and he officially retired (again), it was time for a fresh start. It would have been great for there to be a graceful transition, full of mutual respect on both sides, admiration for what everyone had accomplished and a merging of those philosophies and personalities into a bridge to a glorious new future. But that’s not the kind of game these guys play, as we’ve already seen. I mean, he ran Jerry Freaking West out of Los Angeles.
And so, with PJ gone, it was time to clean house. No more plodding, elegant-to-purists-but mind-numbingly-slow-and-methodical Triangle offense, nor anything connected to it. Jerry Buss’s Lakers are Showtime, intense and entertaining and flashing a big smile as they steamroll all contenders. Which ruled out Brian Shaw as an option, no matter the ties within the organization. And with PJ and Shaw went pretty much everyone connected to them. Mike Brown, a young coach with experience dealing with superstars, multiple finals appearances, a great pedigree (he’s a former Popovich assistant coach), someone everyone seems to like and say great things about, is hired. Jim and Mitch make an astonishing trade for the best point guard of his generation, Chris Paul, shipping out two players for him that fit perfectly in the triangle but might not have as much success in a new system with a different coach…only to see the trade suspiciously vetoed. Then shipped out one of those two players anyway when he got all petulant.
If you’ve bothered to read this far, you already know what happened next. A strike-compacted season. More trades made, shipping out even more of the old guard, Luke and D-Fish and others who worked within PJ’s system but did not outside of it. A disappointing second-round loss to OKC, and then this summer’s whirlwind of Nash, Howard, Jamison, and a return to a championship-or-bust attitude that no longer feels like a stretch…
Here’s the thing about Mike Brown. Everyone, unanimously, praises him for his hard work, his diligence, his preparation. But no one talks about his passion, his genius, his intuition, his ability to lead and mold disparate parts into a thriving whole. You probably knew someone like him in high school. Studied harder than anyone else. Had volumes of notes thicker than the actual textbooks. Was in the running for valedictorian. But he ultimately wasn’t all that smart, not in the “holy hell that guy’s smart, he’s going to do something pretty special” way. He was just competent, and paid attention, and worked harder than everyone else.
When hearing people praise Mike Brown, you get the sense all those comments about his hard work and preparation were silently followed by comments like “and his binders are well organized, and he never shows up late to a meeting…just a swell guy.”
And you could see it on the court. The players played hard, because they like him, and are professionals, and love playing basketball, but there was never that gestalt, that sense that they were giving themselves selflessly to a vision that was greater than them, that they trusted that the guy on the sidelines knew more than they knew, saw more than they saw, and would lead them to the glories they were unable to reach without him. So out he went.
And now we come to last weekend. With Brown gone, there were really only a few options available. They weren’t going to bring in someone young and untested; this team is built to win now, both due to aging-but-still-amazing stars like Kobe and Nash, and also to impress on Howard what success with the Lakers can be like. He’s a free agent after this season, able to sign anywhere he wants, and if he’s staring at a young coach just starting to figure things out—he might be brilliant and go down as one of the all-time greats, but it’s going to take him a few years to get there—and a couple more years of first and second-round exits from the playoffs…there’s one of your major selling points to get him to stay in LA, dust in the wind.
Which rules out possibly bringing back Brian Shaw, or any other current assistant coaches. The Lakers are looking for someone with extensive previous head coaching experience and success. And they can’t currently be coaching, so the field is pretty narrow.
Jerry Sloan is a definite option, but he’s quickly ruled out. Old, crotchety, extremely harsh on his players, to the point that he already ran one superstar off his team in Utah…plus, if you think Jerry Buss—who’s still involved in the decisions, and has ultimate veto power—is going to look upon the former head coach of the Jazz, after all those heated, hateful battles in the 90’s and 00’s, as a desirable option, no matter the basketball acumen, you’re crazy.
Nate McMillan is another option: former player, tough and hard-nosed but connects well with today’s players, had a lot of success in Portland before injuries turned their “gearing up to challenge the Lakers” plan into a “burn it down and rebuild…again” plan. But he also prefers to play the slowest, most plodding and dull style of basketball seen since the Piston’s in the 80’s. And part of the whole reason Jim and Jerry want to go away from the Triangle is to get back to a high-octane, Showtime-style experience for them and their fans. So he’s out.
And now that you mention “high-octane”, there’s really only one option out there: Mike D’Antoni. Coached the Suns in the 00’s with one of the most potent and beautiful offensive approaches in the history of the game, superior in most respects even to Showtime. The defense was pretty good too, when you look beyond the raw numbers and start accounting for efficiency, pace, etc., and that was with players who at best were indifferent to defense, and at worst were actively opposed to it. The one time he had a strong defensive presence, Tyson Chandler in NY, the Knicks had a top 5 defense for the brief window before Carmelo showed up and blew that plan to pieces. Plus, you have the long relationship with Steve Nash (all those years in Phoenix), the long relationship with Kobe (he grew up watching D’Antoni as one of the premiere basketball stars in Italy, plus the two gold-medal-winning US National teams that D’Antoni was offensive coordinator for), two 7-footers seemingly created specifically for a pick-and-roll, spacing and passing offense…
It’s a perfect fit. But, there’s another name out there that needs to be dealt with first. PJ’s also currently unemployed.
So Jim called PJ up on Saturday morning and—out of respect for him and his history with the franchise (plus also knowing he’d be lynched if he didn’t)–asked if he and Mitch could come by and chat about the job. They didn’t expect PJ to do much more than have them over for a cup of coffee and send them on their way…he’d just a month earlier told Mitch how much he was enjoying retirement, he was clearly mentally and emotionally done with coaching when he left a year ago, the roster is no longer built in any way shape or form for his system, his dear friend and mentor Tex Winter wouldn’t be able to join him on the bench the way he used to (age and infirmity)…but it’s the polite, right thing to do.
Now, there are a lot of people saying they know what was discussed and what wasn’t during that meeting. And they’re all lying, they all have agendas, none of them were there except for Mitch, Jim and PJ. But I can speculate, with a pretty decent feeling of confidence.
They did not discuss what Phil would do with the team. You really think Mitch and Jim looked at him and said, “So, we’ve got this 2-guard, name’s Kobe. How do you see him fitting into this offense of yours, what did you call it, a Triangle?”
They also likely did not discuss any specific terms of what it would take to get Phil back in the chair. They weren’t expecting him to be interested in the first place, let alone to start informal negotiations.
What most likely happened was a bit of awkward small talk, a discussion of how some of the newer pieces (Jamison, Hill, etc.) could better be utilized than what Mike Brown was doing with them, and then some sort of comment from Phil along the lines of, “So, you know, if I were to come back, all those things we’ve discussed before [not coaching road games, compensation, personnel decisions, etc.], we’ll need to revisit those.” And at the end of it, Phil asked, “Can I think on this, let you know, say, Monday if I really want to pursue this?” And Mitch and Jim said, “Yeah, sure,” and shook his hand, and that was that.
And like two hours later, there were reports all over the place from “sources” and “someone not authorized to speak publicly on the situation” that it was Phil’s job to lose, that it was 95% likely he’d be coming back, that there was already a deal in place and they were just hammering out the fine details…judge for yourself where those were coming from.
I doubt it was from the Lakers. They didn’t want him in the first place. Once you set aside his track record—which is a pretty epic, magnificent thing to consider setting aside, but has less to do with the future of the franchise than you might think—almost all of the Pros line up on D’Antoni’s side of the ledger, and almost all of the Cons on PJ’s.
In addition to everything already mentioned, there’s one more critical element: Dwight Howard and Shaq’s shadow. DH has said multiple times that he didn’t want to simply keep following in Shaq’s footsteps for his whole career (drafted by Orlando, lead them to the Finals but fall short, go to LA, win multiple titles, etc.); it’s why he initially resisted a trade to the Lakers, even though it was obvious to anyone paying attention that it would be by far the best thing for him and his career, both on and off the court. Now, he’s finally mentally got his head around the similarities between him and Shaq, and you want to out of the blue drop Shaq’s old coach on him? All those old hesitations rear their heads again, making re-signing him at the end of this year that much harder.
So now Mitch and Jim are in a tight spot. Everyone in the world is saying that PJ is going to be the next coach, a glorious return, and it’s the best possible thing for them…and they never really wanted him in the first place. To their credit, they didn’t bend under public pressure: they reached out to the guy they wanted (D’Antoni), worked out the details with his agent, made a formal offer, and got the deal done as quickly as possible, damn the public sentiment. The aftermath is messy, and predictable, but not really all that related to the decision made.
I do think that there were conditions under which PJ could have come back and had it be a positive situation for everyone. A bit of humility, some concessions and forgiveness on all sides, a willingness to look to the future and consider new paths rather than just resurrecting the past…it might have been the greatest closing chapter of a great man we’d ever seen, showing a willingness and flexibility to change with the times, to return to dominance in a new way in a new era…and for the franchise, a chance to show that they were great-hearted, caring more about the team and the fans than any past personal issues, boldly embracing the past while looking towards the future…but that wasn’t going to happen.
I don’t know where all of PJ’s reported demands came from. “Sources”, again. Things more extortionate than just contrition: he allegedly wanted to choose whether or not he’d coach road games, have veto power over all personnel decisions, a percentage ownership of the team and—most importantly—the ability to hand-pick his successor, the next head coach after he left. Any of those taken individually would be a dear but understandable price to pay for one of the greatest of all time. Taken all together…here’s what I think happened.
PJ’s hubris finally caught up with him, and he misjudged the situation badly. He thought that the Lakers desperately needed him, that he was the first and only choice, and that he had them by the short and curlies. So why not tweak them again, publicly, see just how much penance they’re willing to pay for the “sins” of daring to go in a different direction and not give him the sun and moon to stick around. Worst case, they can’t bring themselves to do it, and he’s no worse off than he was before, only now he’s gotten in another dig at them. Best case, he gets everything he asks for, and rides into town as the conquering hero, the Savior.
The problem is that they never really wanted him, and once those demands came out—however explicit or implied—they realized that they really, really didn’t want him, and thus acted as quickly as they could to put it all behind them and get on with things. Ripping the Band-Aid off as quickly as possible, in other words.
It is a shame. I have a deep fan’s love for PJ. And I’ve seen plenty of great men be brought down when they bought into their own hype: Steve Jobs (fired), Bill Clinton (impeached), Don Moomaw (cast out), Colin Powell (discredited)…it’s pretty much a workplace hazard. I would have loved to have the old PJ come back for one more glorious go-around, with the most talented roster he’d have ever coached, and wipe that trophy-clinging smirk off LeBum’s fucking face. But that was never possible, and I don’t mourn its fictional passing.
The D’Antoni Lakers have a chance to be something special. Something never seen before in NBA history. Showtime elevated, with the maestro Nash at the wheel of the most powerful vehicle ever entrusted to a mortal, Kobe taking 30 open shots a night without having to dribble the ball even once, and DH patrolling the defensive end while setting statistical records for efficiency within the most basic of basketball plays, the pick and roll. A team impossible to guard and more than a little challenging to score against.
A team for the ages. I am patient, and hopeful.