The Post-Mortem on the Lakers/Phil Jackson Debacle

Now that the Los Angeles Lakers have hired a new coach, we can take an exhaustive look at what really happened in what has become a complete train wreck. The whole situation has become a public relations nightmare, and both sides are only making matters worse by their jockeying for the high ground.  Because of the  blather you hear coming from both sides, it times to sort out a few of the important facts of this affair.

1) Both sides are lying

Despite reports from Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak that Phil Jackson was the only candidate for the Lakers head coaching job, there’s simply no way that is true.  Think about it for a moment.  It was pretty obvious the “Phil Jackson coming is back” train had left the station; Lakers fans were chanting “We Want Phil!” Sunday night, several media outlets made it seem a certainty that Jackson would again be on the Laker sideline.

But Monday morning, it was announced the Lakers had instead hired Mike D’Antoni.

This begs the question, what derailed that train?

Naturally, the answer to that question will vary depending on whom you ask.  The prevailing wisdom is that the Lakers balked at a diva-like list of demands, supposedly including, but not limited to  a stake in ownership, control over personnel decisions, and the ability to not travel to some road games.

Meanwhile, Phil Jackson maintains the Lakers manipulated the press and bailed on a handshake deal allowing Jackson until Monday to decide whether or not to finalize negotiations.

There’s some truth and some bullshit in both those statements. Here’s how we know:

The Lakers are obviously lying when they say Jackson was their only candidate.  Face it, the Busses and general manager Mitch Kupchak aren’t dumb guys; they would have never made the move to fire Mike Brown unless they had a plan. Plan A was obviously Phil Jackson, and when Plan A proved to be either unworkable for whatever reason, they went to Plan B, which was Mike D’Antonio. The timeline makes it pretty clear that D’Antoni was always on the radar as Plan B.

Think about it. In order to have a deal done so quickly, there had to be stuff already on paper. The Lakers announced D’Antoni had signed a deal on Monday.  This means before the weekend, they Lakers had at least drafts of contracts drawn up, so that with minor negotiations and changes, a final ducument could be signed and made ready for the legalities come Monday morning. In order to do that, they likely had to be at least a cursory conversation about terms.

Just in case they were wrong, the Lakers likely had more than just Plan B up their collective sleeves. I’d be willing to bet you a signifcant amount of cash that going into the weekend, the Busses and Kupchak had several ready-to-close deals on paper in the wall safe. The names on them could have ranged from the exceptional unlikely (Mike Krzyzewski), to the familiar (Brain Shaw and/or Kurt Rambis), to the ill-fitinng (Jerry Sloan), and obviously Phil Jackson and Mike D’Antoni.

Naturally, in any situation like this, there are going to be alternate versions of the story.

Phil Jackson is no different, as he paints a picture  for Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times suggesting the Lakers manipulated the press and reneged on a handshake agreement that they would give Jackson until the following Monday to decide whether or not to move forward in negotiations.

“Saturday morning, [Lakers executive] Jim Buss called to ask if he could come and visit. I didn’t solicit or ask for the opportunity but I welcomed both him and [team executive] Mitch Kupchak into my home to discuss the possibility of my return to the Lakers as head coach,” Jackson said.

“We talked for over an hour and a half. No contractual terms were discussed and we concluded with a handshake and an understanding that I would have until Monday [today] to come back to them with my decision. I did convey to them that I did have the confidence that I could do the job. I was awakened at midnight Sunday by a phone call from Mitch Kupchak. He told me that the Lakers had signed Mike D’Antoni to a three-year agreement and that they felt he was the best coach for the team. The decision is of course theirs to make. I am gratified by the groundswell of support from the Laker fans who encouraged my return and it is the principal reason why I considered the possibility.” [...]

Jackson’s agent, Todd Musburger, added that media coverage portraying Jackson as being full of demands was inaccurate.

Jackson clearly sent Musburger out on a PR campaign, as he also spoke to Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com. During that interview, Musburger made several comments about how “Jackson deserves better treatment,” basically for all that he’s done over the years for the Lakers.

Since we now have varying versions of the story, it should come as no surprise that there’s a bit more to it.

Howard Beck of the New York Times said that sources inside and outside of the team claim that Jackson never made specific demands and that he ultimately wanted the job.

Meanwhile, long-time Laker player and former Jackson assistant Kurt Rambis told Sam Amick of USA Today that money was never discussed.  Rambis was in a position to know this because he was slated to re-join the Lakers as Jackson’s assistant once again (remember this fact, it’s important later on).

Lastly, Ric Bucher of CSNBayArea.com reported that the idea that the Lakers’ job was Jackson’s to take was false largely  because negotiations hadn’t reached that point.

When you boil it all down to gravy, we all find ourselves stuck in the middle of a “he said, he said” situation, with Jackson, the Lakers, and various representatives engaged in PR campaigns to swing opinions their way.  This also means the truth is nestled somewhere in the part of the Venn Diagram where all the stories intersect, which means  both the Lakers and Jackson aren’t telling the whole truth. That’s standard operating procedure in a PR war like this.  But who’s the bigger liar? The next section helps explain that…

2) What really blew this thing up?

While the Lakers are one the biggest sports franchises on the face of the planet, they are also a family business. Under more than 30 years of Jerry Buss’ ownership, his son Jim has become the team’s executive vice-president.  Jerry’s daughter Jeanie carries a similar title.  However, Jeanie Buss also happens to be Phil Jackson’s long-time girlfriend…which makes him a de facto son-in-law in the family business, regardless of whether or not he is the coach as well.

That is important for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that there had to be more at stake than a third stint coaching the Lakers.

So, let’s go back to what we know so we can piece this thing together.

A) The Lakers met with Jackson, and during that meeting they didn’t reach an agreement.

B) The Lakers met with D’Antoni, and during that meeting they did reach an agreement.

C) This isn’t the first time the Lakers and Phil Jackson have sqaubbled. We saw this two years ago over the terms of Jackson’s second departure from the team.

It seems pretty clear the Lakers hoped to make a quick decision on their next coach.  Given the history with Jackson, it seems unlikely that they would have held a 90-minute meeting with Jackson without discussing any terms that might have ended up in a contract.  It also seems unlikely that Jackson would not have presented some demands of his own; he’s done it before.

Taking all of that into account, the best suspect for de-railing the fast-track process was something that Jackson wanted; something that wasn’t money, because the rumor was the Lakers were ready to go as strong as $10 million per year.

According to the Los Angeles Times, D’Antoni became the choice because in spite of what was reported in the New York Times, Jackson did in fact have an exorbitant list of demands, including a stake in team ownership.

In other words, this was a power play on Jackson’s part, and it backfired on him.  Jackson heard those “We Want Phil” chants in the Staples Center and it never occurred to him that the Busses and Mitch Kupchak would call “shenanigans” on him.

Well, needless to say they did, and here’s why:

Jackson’s major miscalculation came in the fact he forgot he was dealing with a family business.

With the holiday coming, let’s make a Thanksgiving analogy.  Phil wanted both drumsticks, but he forgot he isn’t even sitting at the “big” table.  First off all, this is Jerry Buss’ house, and it’s his fucking turkey.  He sits at the head of the table; Phil’s jewelry store full of rings doesn’t mean shit.  Jerry’s children, Jim and Jeanie, take up two seats at the “big” because they are blood, and because they are executive  VPs of the team.  Mitch Kupchak gets the fourth seat,  since while he isn’t blood, he is to the Buss family as Tom Hagen was to the Corleones from The Godfather.  Kupchak has been a valued member of the Laker family for over thirty years.

Let’s go back to Phil’s status as the de facto son-in-law. That’s a nice way of saying that he is while saying but he isn’t officially because he’s never bothered to marry his longtime  girlfriend Jeanie Buss.  Most families have a special purgatory for that guy who shacks up with the daughter but doesn’t marry her. All the other sons-in-law get real gifts at Christmas while “Mr. Shack-Up” gets a gift card from Wal-Mart.  This also means “Mr. Shack-Up” isn’t getting a drumstick, and he sure as shit isn’t going to be eating off a non-folding table anytime soon.

Phil may have eleven rings, but he’s yet to get the one that gets him a seat at the”big” table

Jackson also miscalculated in his assumption that Kobe Bryant would only accept Jackson as the coach. While Bryant may have preferred Jackson, he also has a history with D’Antoni going all the way back  to his childhood and across several years of USA Basketball.

In other words, Phil Jackson seriously overplayed his hand.  He thought this job was his for the taking, so much so that he cancelled an appearance as keynote speaker one day before Mike Brown was fired.  He thought he could bluff Jerry Buss, and he was wrong.

But what this also means is there’s really no denying that the Lakers had been in talks with Jackson (and probably D’Antoni) as well before the Brown firing became official. While the Lakers are not telling the truth about Jackson “being the only candidate,” that pales in comparison to the crap-fest Jackson is spreading.  Let’s face it, Phil ultimately cares more about his position in all of this, and he clearly does not want to be seen as a guy who just got bare-ass spanked in front of the entire basketball world.

What it all comes down to is great coaches and great players ultimately can’t “big time” the guy who signs the paychecks.

3) This was never about basketball, this was about Phil Jackson screwing yet another Buss

That last sentence begs several questions, not the least of which is why would Jackson want to dick over the Lakers?  To answer that, I’ve got to ask another  question.  I really can’t answer exactly what was the significance of the Monday deadline Jackson is bitching about.  Nobody is saying that it involved time limit on a specific offer, but if Jackson had expressed a desire to move forward with the negotiations, that clearly would have happened.

Even thought this process was on the fast track, it still didn’t go down the way usual negotiations do. That begs the question why was Phil Jackson so interested in playing hardball with the LAkers? In other words, this wasn’t about money, and it wasn’t about basketball…so, what was this really all about?

I think Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski has the right idea. He wrote that he thought this was all about Jackson trying to screw Jim Buss.

Jackson wanted to humiliate Lakers vice president Jim Buss far more than he wanted to coach the team. He wanted significant allowances on travel, coaching duties and an ability to veto player personnel moves that didn’t fit his vision. With an unprecedented 11 coaching championships, Jackson had every right to make unprecedented demands. He doesn’t have the right to be surprised when the Lakers rejected them and hired a pliable, cheaper coach in Mike D’Antoni.

“Phil wanted Jim Buss to walk away with his tail between his legs,” one source with knowledge of the discussions told Yahoo! Sports. “He thought he had time to still negotiate with them, and see how much they would give him.”

Now, the Lakers are going out of their way to spare Jackson the embarrassment of his overreaching, but this is pointless spin. They’re working with him to sell the public that he hadn’t asked for too much, that somehow the franchise chose D’Antoni over Jackson on sheer merit. It’s noble, but laughable.  before circling back to him on Monday.

“Phil’s assistants convinced him that they had his back on the concerns [Jackson] had about his load as head coach, and he was ready to get a deal done on Monday,” a source with knowledge of the talks said. “But this was about Jim Buss giving him a royal you-know-what in the end.”

4) What if Mike D’Antoni was the better option to start with?

Obviously, there’s been a bit of tension between the Lakers and Jackson.  Right off the bat, you can’t blame the Busses and Kupchak for not wanting a third helping of that shit.

On top of that, nobody seems to want to remember that Jackson has this nasty habit of taking a powder once the team he is coaching isn’t championship worthy anymore.  That makes me wonder, does this whole affair mean that Jackson thinks the Lakers can win another NBA title? If that’s true,  then why not give the job to another coach who has been accused of simply handing the ball to an all-star lineup, and one who won’t be a monstrous pain in the ass?

Enter Mike D’Antoni.

This is why I wasn’t really that surprised when the Lakers announced they had hired D’Antoni.  Face it, offensively, there isn’t many guys who are a better fit for the Lakers than D’Antoni.  Ball Don’t Lie expanded on this thought most accurately, but they do require a bit of a breakdown.

The most persistent and prominent of the criticisms lobbed at Phil Jackson over his coaching career was the idea that he merely rolled the ball out to his superstars and took unending credit for their eventual and expected winning ways. That he was the luckiest guy on earth, coaching all those greats, and that his triangle offense didn’t even run any plays!

Well, the Los Angeles Lakers haven’t hired Phil Jackson for a third time. Instead, they’re going with former Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni, as first reported by the Los Angeles Times. D’Antoni, like Jackson, has been criticized for merely rolling the ball out and letting the highly paid stars do the work. Still, in the wake of Mike Brown‘s unsuccessful 71-game tenure as Lakers coach, isn’t it pretty clear that this is exactly what the Lakers need? For someone to, as Kobe Bryant put it less than delicately but completely accurately on Sunday night, to “get the [expletive] out of the way”?

This wasn’t always the best remedy, not in Jackson’s frustrating final year with the Lakers in 2011 and Brown’s run to the second round of the playoffs last season. The Lakers needed guidance with that roster, and too often (yes, even under Jackson) the voices coming from the bench weren’t strong enough to bend that instinct. With a healthier Bryant alongside new additions Dwight Howard and Steve Nash and the hoped-for return to prominence of Pau Gasol, the less-is-more ethos might be a perfect fit.  And, luckily for Lakers ownership, D’Antoni is willing to work for far less than Jackson’s more-more-more.

The part BDL doesn’t quite hit in this defense of the “less is more” approach is the fact that success for the Lakers has a not-quite traditional definition.  keep that in mind as we continue through this.

Mike’s drawbacks have been detailed, to some length, since his 2004-05 Phoenix Suns shocked the NBA while running (literally) to the league’s best record. D’Antoni’s Suns teams are routinely mediocre on defense — per-possession stats consistently rank the squad in the middle of the pack defensively, a fact that is stretched to the point of absurdity by those who still look at raw points scored and given up a way of determining defensive and offensive value. D’Antoni’s last team in New York was ranked 10th in defense before he and the organization decided to part ways, and their immediate upshot to the higher echelon (as in, “the Knicks turned into the best defensive team in the NBA for a while”) on that end can also be argued away with the fact that his departure coincided with possible league-worst defensive big man Amar’e Stoudemire going down with injury, and the fact that the Knicks clearly played harder out of possible spite once Mike went away.

The offensive drawbacks? Under both GMs Bryan Colangelo and Steve Kerr in Phoenix, D’Antoni’s teams were flush with outside shooters that would sometimes leave Steve Nash as the only guy in the lane in both transition and the half-court. The Lakers have shooters from the outside, but not necessarily “makers.” Comparing Howard’s work in the middle to latter-period Shaquille O’Neal probably isn’t the easiest sell, but it should be noted that Gasol’s best work is done in the low post in ways that resemble your typical low-post plodder (even if Gasol ends the possession with a perfectly timed dish or deft score). Nash and Bryant have barely played together, thus far, and D’Antoni’s biggest asset (his offensive gifts) was probably what the Lakers needed least right now.

We’ve all heard the bleating about how the Lakers needed to get better defensively, and that the offense “will sort itself out.”  Lakers’ fans world-wide should have figured out that upgrading the defense wasn’t going to happen (at least not right away) when they signed Steve Nash. Face it every deal the Lakers have pulled off in the last year – the Nash singing, the aborted Chris Paul trade – were about getting to be even more of a perimeter team.  Even the Dwight Howard deal, while netting the Lakers a “big,” can’t really be called a defensive improvement even though Howard  is a former defensive player of the year, because we really don’t know how healed his back is.

Phil Jackson can’t reverse time, so this was never going to happen.

Let’s face it, the Mike Brown Lakers sucked on defense as well, largely because they are either soft (Gasol and the entire bench except Josh McRoberts) or old (Bryant, pre-release Derek Fisher, Metta World Artest…you get the point).  Signing Steve Nash and an ouching Dwight Howard was never going to fix that, and I never understood how a third plate from the Phil Jackson buffet was going to fix that either.  After all, they didn’t call his signature formation the “Triangle Defense, did they?

To be even more honest, this team is built for offense, so why not run with an offensive-minded coach? The idea that the offense would “sort itself out” never held water with me.  In fact, the offense needs quite a bit of guidance, not the least of which is that Nash and Bryant have to learn to live together on a team that may not have enough balls for everybody. If D’Antoni can manage that with Carmelo Anthony, A’mare Stoudamire, and/or the brief “Linsanity” period, he can manage it in Los Angeles.

So, the Lakers as-is with D’Antoni will win 60-plus games. They won’t win a championship, but that’s fine. See, Laker fans have short memories, and they want wins. 65 regular season wins are just fine, because once in the play-offs, Laker fans go to sleep until the conference finals.  This is how the era between Pat Riley and the first reign of King Phil (except for the early 90′s) largely went.

The bottom line for Laker fans is this. The best years of Kobe Bryant’s career are behind him, Steve Nash is little more than a retirement tour waiting to happen, and as great as Dwight Howard may be, big men have this tendency to break down once they start getting hurt.

Phil Jackson was never going to fix that, and that’s the biggest fact of them all.

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5 responses

  1. A few points, sir, if I may, about what this whole situation should remind us:

    1) ESPN, and it’s over-glorified coverage of nearly every sporting event from the Super Bowl to the Little League World Series, is completely and utterly full of shit

    2) The majority of Laker fans (you excluded, sir) have absolutely no clue of what they speak.

    3) No GM in any sport is to be believed when speaking in front of a microphone and that’s a good thing If everyone knew everyone else’s business, then what’s the damn point. Nothing wrong with being a little clandestine, even if that means lying to the public. The keen eye always knows the truth.

    4) Going back to ESPN, I love it when they get multiple details wrong when covering one single sporting event. I like to call that Keystone Kops coverage.

    5) The Lakers don’t need Phil Jackson and now the Knicks don’t need him either… or do they?

    6) The fact that Dwight Howard is out of Orlando and continues to be surrounded by drama on his new team makes me smile.

    1. 1) ESPN being full of shit and getting things wrong is really why half my blog posts exist.
      2) By not drinking the Jackson Kool-Aid, I likely will be kicked off Laker Island.
      3) The Lakers are now, and have always been Drama Central, regardless of whether or not they have Dwight Howard or Dwight Yoakam.

      1. Just imagine what trading for Dwight Joakim Noah would do for that franchise, considering they’re both centers who suck in the post.

      2. Dwight Joakim Noah…there’s a Photoshop job waiting to happen.

  2. This ought to be interesting in La Land.

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