So it turns out Phil Jackson isn’t coming back after all. Instead, the Lakers signed Mike D’Antoni’s to be the 25th coach in franchise history. And while he isn’t the guy who topped the wish list of most fans he’s not a bad consolation prize either. That’s because the move is just as important to the club’s future as it is to the present. If the most important offseason issue facing this team will be whether or not they can get Dwight Howard to re-sign for five years, then D’Antoni was an even better hire.
Phil Jackson was only going to be under contract for this season and next. It’s no secret that this current Lakers squad is built to win now. In fact, I’ve got household products and canned goods that have a longer shelf life than these Lakers. When you’ve got a team of guys in their prime, like the Miami Heat, you don’t really feel the need to constantly think about the team’s future. But when you’ve got a team in which the only player signed beyond next season is a 39-year-old point guard, it’s hard not to take into consideration how every transaction affects the team’s future. When those guys from the 2009 Draft, like Stephen Curry, James Harden, Jrue Holiday and Ty Lawson signed extensions a couple weeks ago, you probably didn’t give it a second thought. But to the Lakers, each of those guys represented one fewer potential free agent in 2014.
With D’Antoni under contract for two more seasons after this, plus a team option for 2015-16, the future of the franchise is beginning to take shape. He’s six years younger than Phil, 9 years younger than Jerry Sloan, and according to him, he’s the “perfect fit.” The fact of the matter is the Clippers are one of the most entertaining teams in the NBA and have a good chance of keeping Chris Paul and Blake Griffin together for at least a few more years. The last thing the Lakers need is for the Clippers to be peaking while these Lakers are rebuilding. If the Lakers can get both D’Antoni and Dwight locked up, that could be the difference between a two-year rebuild, like the one between Shaq/Kobe and Kobe/Pau or the five-year rebuild, like the one between Magic and Shaq/Kobe.
The hiring of Mike Brown was a mistake on so many levels. How many times did we see him send guys to the scorer’s table to check in, only to pull them back a few seconds later? You could see how this was wearing on guys. There were lineups last season where you couldn’t tell who he expected to do the scoring. But given the lack of quality candidates and a looming work stoppage, the Lakers couldn’t have had a worse offseason with which to find a new coach. The five candidates on the Lakers list were Brown, Rick Adelman, Mike Dunleavy, Chuck Person, and Brian Shaw. Compare that to the list of guys currently available. Would you have taken any of them over Jackson, D’Antoni, Jerry Sloan, or Nate McMillan? Sloan was the only one without a job at the time. So while it’s easy to blame Jim Buss for another failed coaching hire (Rudy Tomjanovich being the other), the pickings weren’t exactly plentiful at the time.
When Brian Shaw was interviewing to replace Phil Jackson, I wrote that the worst thing Shaw could do was mention the word “triangle” in his interview. Here’s what I tweeted on May 1oth of 2011:
Does Brian Shaw know the more he talks about keeping the triangle, the less he’ll excite Dr. Buss? Buss still fantasizes about Showtime.
As successful as the offense has been, it wasn’t the Showtime brand that Jerry Buss has been longing for since the days of Magic, Coop, and Byron Scott. Shaw had told reporters at the time that he planned on continuing with it. So while I openly campaigned for Adelman, the team surprised everyone by hiring Brown.
D’Antoni gives Buss a brand of basketball that’s much better suited for the entertainment capital of the world and for $8 million less than what the Knicks hired him for. More importantly, the combination of D’Antoni and Howard would give Buss a much better chance to compete with the Clippers for L.A.’s entertainment dollars in the post-Kobe era. There are only three Lakers on the roster who played for Jackson’s last Lakers team — Kobe, Pau, and Metta World Peace (and MWP never really did grasp the triangle). D’Antoni’s offense should be much easier for the entire team to grasp, especially with a point guard who has it embedded in his DNA.
As a season ticket holder, I’m excited. I get to watch Steve Nash (in person) run an offense perfectly-suited to his talents. As a fan of the team, sure I’m a little worried that they’ll regret not making it work with Phil. But I’m also at peace knowing the future seems a lot less uncertain. If this team flamed out in the first or second round under Brown, with in-fighting and finger-pointing along the way, what were the chances that Dwight would want to stick around? Instead, D’Antoni will have more than 70 games to make an impression with Dwight and convince him this is the right place for him to spend his prime.
If this season were a video game, someone would have pushed the reset button a long time ago. Even though it isn’t Phil Jackson, the Lakers hired a coach who makes it sound as if he’s stumbled upon his dream job. Here’s what D’Antoni told Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News:
“Sometimes you have to be lucky. Lucky or even blessed. I look back over my career, just what I’ve been able to do so far, and feel like nobody has been more blessed than I’ve been. Now this happens and I look at myself and I really do say, ‘Are you kidding me? I get to come back and coach these guys?’”
Nobody knows what happened between the Lakers and Phil. We don’t know if Phil really wanted the power over player personnel or if he wanted an ownership stake in the team or not. What we do know is that Jerry Buss doesn’t play games. He didn’t flinch when Trevor Ariza’s agent tried to squeeze more money out of him or when Lamar Odom asked to be traded in 2011 or when Odom pretended he might sign with the Heat in 2009. And now he’s proving it again with how he handled negotiations with Jackson.
No, Phil Jackson is not going to be the next coach of the Lakers. Yes, they could have waited until hearing what he had to say on Monday before offering the job to D’Antoni. The Los Angeles Times‘ T.J. Simers is right when he says the Lakers weren’t in danger of losing D’Antoni to another team had they just waited to talk to Jackson again before making a decision. But he misses the point. The Lakers weren’t worried that D’Antoni would be off the market on Tuesday. It was 2014 they were worried about. The blank canvas that represents life after Kobe is still blank. But at least it has an artist now and he’s a pretty damn exciting one.
That’s something we couldn’t say until now.