2009...
TGS HOOPS SPECIAL REPORT...LAST ACT OF THE ZEN MASTER
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


We’ve seen it before. Especially those of us familiar with the L.A. sports scene who remember some long-ago situations vaguely similar to the Lakers firing HC Mike Brown just five games into the new NBA season.

Remember Paul Westhead? Unceremoniously dumped by the Lakers early in the 1981-82 campaign, a little more than a year after winning the title with a team that he inherited just a few games into the 1979-80 campaign when ascending to the head coaching role after Jack McKinney was seriously injured in a bicycle accident.

Westhead’s ouster, however, was the result of an internal revolt by the players. Just as, a few years earlier, the L.A. Rams had jettisoned HC George Allen after just two preseason games in the summer of 1978. In both of those cases, the successor coaches (Pat Riley with the Lakers, and Ray Malavasi with the Rams) enjoyed considerable immediate success; Riley even won the NBA crown later in that 1981-82 campaign, the first of many he would win in what would be an illustrious career, while Malavasi’s Rams reached the NFC title game in ‘78 and the Super Bowl the following year.

We mention all of this just to put Brown’s dismissal in proper context with the long-time L.A. fans who are used to such dramatics with their teams, especially the Lakers. Having seen L.A. coaches walk the plank at odd times in past seasons, Brown’s demise is still a bit unique in that it seems as if only one element, franchise patriarch Jerry Buss, decided that it was time for a change. Although the Lake Show had begun the season a sluggish 1-4, and heat was obviously building beneath Brown, his abrupt dismissal even caught hardened L.A. sports fans by surprise. There had been no hint of internal revolt as there was in the Westhead firing 31 years earlier. Had Doc Buss not acted unilaterally, it was unlikely that GM Mitch Kupchak or the Doc’s son, team VP Jimmy (whose involvement in the entire operation is another story for another day), would have approached the old man and suggested a change, at least for a while. The move was the doing of the Doc, and no one else.

Of course, the Brown dismissal was only the first act in a reality show that ran through a few wild days in Tinsel Town. The real drama came afterward, involving whether none other than Phil Jackson could be lured back for a third tour of duty.

Sequels, of course, rarely are as good as the original. And sequels of sequels (unless we’re talking about Rocky III, which was a bit better than Rocky II) rarely improve, either. Which in the end made the decision of the Lakers to go in a different direction than Jackson (hiring Mike D’Antoni instead) probably a wise move.

Or was it?

Was the Zen Master going to once again prove to be the exception to the sequel rule? He already proved so one time with the Lakers.

Although when last seen on the sideline, Jackson was effectively slinking from the rubble after Dallas’ demolition job in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs in 2011, a dominating 4-0 sweep administered by the Mavs. The Zen Master walked away from it all, bidding an apparent good riddance to the NBA in the process. But Jackson’s reputation had hardly been tainted by the Dallas sweep. Instead, it has been mostly burnished for providing the last two championships in 2009 & 2010, something not even Jack Nicholson could have dreamed possible when Jackson signed on for another tour of Laker duty in 2005, not quite twelve months after abandoning town the first time in the midst of the Shaq and Kobe crossfire that sabotaged the Lake Show’s efforts in the 2004 Finals against the Pistons.

Eventually, Laker fans came to realize that Jackson, was, if possible, even more important to the success of the franchise over the past decade-plus than they once realized. Which partly explains their disappointment at Jackson not getting hired last week.

In retrospect, Jackson’s accomplishments in L.A. look even more impressive, perhaps more so than the six titles he won with Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the ‘90s. Those who suggest that L.A. was title-ready when Jackson took over in 1999 are only partly correct. The Lakers were ready to dominate, but it was the Zen Master, flush with confidence after his title run with Jordan and the Bulls, who had the correct plan of action and finally set the chemistry right for a team that had maddeningly underachieved in the postseason with Shaq and Kobe in tow.

Hardcore Lakers fans recall how dysfunctional the situation had become at the old Inglewood Forum in the late ’90s, when first Del Harris, then a desperate role of the dice with Kurt Rambis, as coaches had only increased the angst. The Lakers were underachievers, swept out of the playoffs in both ’98 (by Utah) and ’99 (by San Antonio). They needed someone bigger than them to set it all right, and the Zen Master was the man for the job.

Even Jackson, however, knew that the Shaq-Kobe combination had run its course after the 2004 Finals, and walked away from the mushroom cloud forming in the Lakers clubhouse after what Jim Rome famously referred to as “the first five-game sweep” in NBA playoff history in the ’04 Finals vs. the Pistons. It was up to Doc Buss and Kupchak to recalibrate the roster. Kobe would stay and Shaq would go, to Miami, in exchange for several less dominant but eventually useful parts including Lamar Odom. Rudy Tomjanovich was pegged as the Zen Master’s successor for the 2004-05 campaign.

Although most have forgotten that Tomjanovich ever coached the Lakers, it’s worth reminding those LA fans who believe the Lakers have a divine right to dominate. Tomjanovich, citing health concerns (or maybe he was just sick and tired of dealing with Kobe and the often insufferable L.A. scene?) barely lasted half of the 04-05 campaign. Longtime assistant Frank Hamblen, one of Jackson’s trusted aides, took over for a disastrous final couple of months that season and recorded a 10-29 mark, as the Lakers slipped to 34-48, missing the playoffs in the process. Kobe and Odom missed some action that campaign due to injuries, but at that point the Lake Show looked further from contention than the Golden State Warriors. Kobe’s main supporting cast besides Odom included Caron Butler, another piece from the Shaq trade, plus journeymen sorts such as Chucky Atkins, Chris Mihm, and Jumaine Jones.

That 2004-05 season has been conveniently forgotten by most Lakers fans, but it underlines just what sort of magic that Jackson, lured back to the sidelines in 2005-06, performed to get the Lakers back to the Finals within three years. And a reminder that it is not pre-ordained for the Lake Show to make the playoffs or contend for titles every year.

That Jackson returned at all for a second tour of duty with the Lake Show was another example of the “only in L.A” dynamics at work. Doc Buss just happened to have a daughter Jeanie, a Laker exec and Phil’s girlfriend and a big reason the Zen Master decided to return to the Lakers. Something Sacramento or Golden State surely couldn’t match. And a reported $10 million per year offered by Jeanie’s dad to coach the team. Most figured Jackson returned for the money and more time with Jeanie. Another run of championships hardly entered the discussion.

But what ensued was the real masterpiece of the Zen Master’s career.

By that time, Kobe, a bit humbled by the 2004-05 collapse, was more willing to do it Jackson’s way, and the Lakers showed modest improvement from 2005 in Jackson’s first two years back at the helm, although nothing suggested a title run was still to come. L.A. was eliminated by favored Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs in each of those seasons, putting a scare into the Suns in ’06, but the lineup was still dotted with journeymen such as Mihm and Smush Parker, forced into key roles. Lakers fans might also be forgetting how Kobe was famously rattling his sabre after the 2007 campaign, ready to leave town for a team more ready to compete for a championship. Indeed, there were times in the summer of ’07 that Kobe’s departure seemed all but confirmed.

Which is merely another chapter in the prelude to the remarkable tale authored by Jackson over the subsequent four years.

The Zen Master had preached patience, and Kobe reluctantly agreed to stick it out. Jackson and Kupchak were close to reassembling the puzzle for the 2007-08 campaign, and took the next step after reacquiring G Derek Fisher, who provided necessary leadership on the floor and the clubhouse, and then added the final piece when heisting Pau Gasol away from Memphis before the trade deadline. With Kobe dominating, Odom settling into a complementary role, Fisher a steadying influence, and Gasol providing the interior scoring capability that was absent since Shaq’s departure, the Lake Show was suddenly back. A return to the Finals in 2008 was marked by an exit courtesy the old nemesis Celtics, but this new band of Lakers, Jackson’s latest creation, had amazingly emerged as title caliber in short order. The Zen Master finally passed Red Auerbach’s record of nine coaching titles when winning the 2009 Finals over Orlando, then added a cherry on top by doing it again the following year ago against old enemy Boston in a riveting seven-game series.

As we said, we’re not sure even Nostradamus could have seen all of this coming when Jackson returned to coaching duty in 2005. Which brings us to Laker Nation, large portions of which having long forgotten 2004-05 and believe a snap of the fingers from Kupchak or Buss or, in a perfect world, Jackson, will magically keep the team a contender in the coming years.

In their defense, Lakers fans with long memories know that in the world of the NBA, playing in L.A. and for the Lake Show is still a big deal. Throughout the decades, the Lakers have eventually been a magnet for many of the game’s biggest stars. Wilt Chamberlain was lured from Philly in 1968, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from Milwaukee in 1975 (both of those via trades), and Shaq from Orlando in 1996. The Lakers have mostly been able to rebuild on the fly, and many believed it was happening again in the past offseason when Steve Nash and Dwight Howard were added to the mix.

We, however, are hardly convinced this is a title-winner in the making as was the 1999-2000 Shaq/Kobe team that Jackson first inherited, or even the team the Zen Master would eventually mold into a title contender in his second tour of duty at Staples Center. Nash and Howard arrived as something of damaged goods, especially Howard, off serious back surgery and very slowly working himself back to his old form (which some don’t expect Howard to discover until late in the season, if then). Nash, getting close to 40, has been injury-prone in recent years and is hardly the force he was when winning those MVP awards with the Suns in the middle of the last decade. At this stage of his career, Nash is also a liability on the defensive end, and there is only so much camouflaging Brown, Jackson, or D’Antoni can do for his presence on the stop end. And, speaking to the durability issue at this stage of his career, Nash has also been sidelined by a shin injury since the first week of the season.

As for Kobe, his window as a dominant force figures to be closing soon, his magical powers displayed less and less frequently. But his peculiarities remain, and some wonder about the what sort of chemistry (or lack thereof) might develop between Kobe and the strong-willed Howard; Laker fans remember what happened the last time Kobe was forced to share a stage (with Shaq). Howard’s contract status beyond the season also remains up in the air, as he is a potential free-agent. Though sources say he would like to stay in L.A., that is by no means a sure thing, and any relationship with Kobe can be described as precarious at best.

Moreover, the Laker bench, supposedly upgraded in the offseason, also looked anything but in the early going.

Let’s also not forget that Kobe was apparently one of the driving forces behind Brown’s introduction of Princeton concepts into the Laker offense, elements that proved something of a poor fit in the first week of the season and apparently were a heavy contributing factor to prompt Doc Buss to make the coaching change.

We’d say this looks like a minefield. And into this mix could have stepped Jackson, perhaps the one personality powerful enough to put these potentially divergent factions in line.

So why didn’t it happen, and why was D’Antoni hired instead?

It’s hard to draw conclusions from some of the reporting done by a shallow core of L.A. sports journalists, who, like their Washington D.C. political counterparts, often seem to be begging to be conned by their subjects. After initial reports surfaced that Jackson had overplayed his hand and been making some pretty heavy demands (reportedly to include control of all personnel matters and travel concessions to accommodate his hip replacement surgeries) beyond another $10 million per year, the storyline changed from L.A.-based reporters who quoted Kupchak and Jackson saying that the discussion he had included no terms discussed whatsoever.

Such matters would not be discussed by Kupchak with Jackson, anyway; the Zen Master’s agent, Todd Musburger, would be the one to handle the details. And no matter what Kupchak, Jackson, and Musburger might say afterward, we would be shocked if terms, very similar to Jackson’s first-reported demands, weren’t broached somewhere very early in the process. It was not as if Jackson were some unknown commodity.

Others in the gullible L.A. press corps, perhaps on loan from MSNBC, then began to suggest that D’Antoni was the Lakers’ first choice all along, and that the contact with Jackson was mere window dressing to appease Laker Nation. We would doubt that seriously. It’s much more likely, we believe, that Kupchak and the Lakers were merely sleeping on the idea whether they really wanted Jackson back on the Zen Master’s terms. After a couple of days, given all of the circumstances, they simply decided that it wasn’t the proper fit. D’Antoni provided a nice fall-back option, and besides, he could get rid of the Princeton offense (Doc Buss’ main desire, anyway) as well as Jackson could.

In the end, however, we suspect the Jackson hire could have ended badly, partly because we don’t think he would have returned on any terms other than the ones originally mentioned, which could have presented their own problems. Sources say Jackson also has no love for Doc Buss’ son (and Jeanie’s brother) Jimmy, and would have undermined Jimmy’s authority within the organization whenever possible. Whether Kupchak would have stood for a subservient role behind Jackson is another factor. There would have been too many trip wires laid under this Laker team and front office for some of them not to have been triggered by the Zen Master’s presence.

Enter D’Antoni, whose last head coaching sojourn hardly ended on a positive note with the Knicks. D’Antoni’s best Phoenix teams entertained greatly but never played enough defense to get over the hump the Spurs provided in the Western Conference. We’re still not convinced he inherits a title-caliber team, either. And the Kobe-era Lakers have never proven they can win big without Jackson.

So, now, have we seen the last of Phil Jackson? Most seem to think so, because Doc Buss might have been the one NBA owner willing to pay the Zen Master’s price. It is not the style of the modern-day NBA to pay eight-figure amounts for coaches, where types such as Erik Spoelstra and Frank Vogel can be signed for much less. Under another set of circumstances, maybe the Knicks might do it, and Jackson would probably listen, but we doubt he would return to the Madison Square Garden and ruin his memories of the glory days of the franchise in the early ’70s, when Jackson was a member of two title teams. Besides, Mike Woodson seems to be a pretty good fit for the Knicks at the moment. After Jackson left the Lakers in 2011, some surmised that he might be lured by the possibilities in Miami. But there was never an arena big enough to handle the egos of both Pat Riley and Jackson, and the Heat have since won a title with Spoelstra. Nix Miami. And, with a return to the Lakers now apparently scotched, the only possible future landing spot we could envision for Jackson is Brooklyn, where Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov might be one administrator who is prepared to meet the price of Jackson, who is said to be impressed by the Russian billionaire. Since Avery Johnson’s status as Nets coach is hardly guaranteed, if there’s a situation that we might keep our eyes on with Jackson in the future, it’s with Prokhorov.

But that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Neither is the idea of Phil Jackson back on an NBA bench. And we aren’t holding our breath that D’Antoni can match what Jackson accomplished at Staples Center.

It took a while, but Laker fans finally realized how special the best chapters of the Jackson fairy tale really were, and know by now that they’re not likely to be replicated anytime soon. Which is also why so many were disappointed that Jackson didn’t return. It might not have ended as many wishful Laker fans envisioned, but it sure would have been fun to see the Zen Master at least give it one last shot.


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