In a surprising move, the Lakers have hired Mike D’Antoni as their head coach to replace the fired Mike Brown, after all speculation and chatter seemed to insist that Phil Jackson was on his way back to the sideline for a third stint with the Lakers. So how did it come to this? If this was Jackson’s job to lose, how did he go about losing it?
As more details surrounding Jackson’s interview process and what he was looking for from the Lakers versus what they were willing to give him in return, it seems that the always-stoic Jackson may have overplayed his cards on this one.
It’s no mystery that Jackson is the proud owner of one of the biggest egos in the game, one that is rivaled only by the commissioner himself, and has famously clashed with management in the past. After a messy divorce with the Chicago Bulls and Jerry Krause, Jackson brought his talents to Los Angeles. But the Lakers were reluctant to have him.
Before agreeing to hire Jackson prior to the 1999-2000 season, the team GM at the time, Jerry West, was quoted as saying “f— Phil Jackson,” wanting nothing to do with the baggage that Phil brought to the table. But as we all know, West made the decision that was best for the franchise, and it worked to the tune of five championships over the course of a decade for Jackson and the Lakers.
But with each championship Jackson’s ego began to grow, reaching a breaking point that we’re finally starting to witness. Often times insufferable, Jackson came to this latest round of negotiations knowing what his resume possessed, and that he was the most qualified man, not just for this job, but any basketball coaching job in the league. And he made it well known early on that he expected to be paid accordingly.
Rumors of Jackson’s demands hit the airwaves over the course of the negotiating process over the last few days, and it seemed that he was trying harder and harder to pry as much control from the Buss family, who he has had his spats with in the past, as possible.
But this time it didn’t work. Jim Buss, who has put his own stamp on the franchise that his father immortalized, refused to let Jackson dictate the terms of this negotiating process. While the team was probably more than willing to give Jackson absurd amounts of money, it’s the other demands that Jackson was reportedly asking for that become a little more troubling.
Complete control of basketball decisions?
Sitting out road trips?
Possible ownership shares of the franchise?
Add those three things to the possible mental anguish Jackson’s presence could cause the front office and suddenly you’re left with quite a few reasons to hire somebody else.
It’s not that surprising, really. Phil thought that he held all the cards, that all the leverage was on his side of the table. And why wouldn’t it be? After all, he was the man who led this franchise to five championships in 10 years. He’s the man who won six championships prior to even joining the Lakers. He’s the man that is widely accepted as the greatest professional basketball coach in history, and only some misguided Bostonians will ever argue differently. But he was playing a game that he might not fully understand. And the other guys across the table know a thing or two about calling a bluff.
And when to fold a losing hand.
There’s no question that Jackson would have been a great hire for this team. His resume speaks for itself. But at what cost? At what point did Jim Buss realize that it just wasn’t worth it? What demand did Phil make that put it over the top. That made the Buss family realize that too much was too much.
In reality, we may never know the answer to this. We’ll get the watered down reasoning that explains that Mike D’Antoni was the right guy for this particular team, and that Phil Jackson returning just wasn’t in the cards. And like I said, the Buss family knows a thing or two about reading those cards.
So while many fans will look at this as a lost opportunity by the Lakers, it could be a stepping stone to something else. The franchise refused to mortgage itself to meet the demands of a rogue with a notorious habit of clashing with management. While nobody is ever arguing Jackson’s success or his methods, there’s no denying the tension that his presence tends to create in the executive suites where he is employed. And if that is the case, and it was the Buss family simply reading Jackson’s bluff and saying enough is enough, that’s something that should be looked at as a positive sign as well.