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Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Lakers cut clear path to future

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

It has been two weeks since Phil Jackson walked out the door for the final time as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.

It suddenly feels like two years.

In the time it took for Jackson to pack his things and go, the Lakers have begun a full-scale renovation that will eventually prove to be prescient and wise, or rash and immature.

There is no middle ground anymore. There will be no gradual transition from the Jackson era.

There can be no mistaking the message behind the hiring of Mike Brown.

The Lakers have moved on.

"The Busses are always thinking three and four years ahead," said one source close to the team and the Buss family. "They know they're going to have to remake this roster in the next few years. Whether they can do that right away, I don't know.

Mike Brown
The hiring of Mike Brown is a clear sign the Lakers are moving on from the Phil Jackson era.

"But they were really, really, really, really impressed with Mike when they interviewed him [Saturday] and feel like he's a guy that can coach them for a while."

It's not just that Mike Brown isn't Brian Shaw. It's really not even about Mike Brown.

It's that Jim Buss, the team's executive vice president who played the lead role in this coaching search, had a chance to remain in the background with this decision by going with the expected choice in Shaw or an acceptable choice in Rick Adelman, but instead blasted his way out of the dark and hired Brown, a guy with as much to prove as a coach as Buss does as an executive.

It may well prove to be a brilliant, career-defining hire for Buss.

Brown has a great temperament, is well-respected around the league and has a blue-blood pedigree from the formative years he spent at Gregg Popovich's side in San Antonio.

But right now it just seems like a bold move designed as much to distance the organization from Jackson as it is to start anew.

Jim Buss may not have taken to the airwaves like his father Dr. Jerry Buss did Tuesday, he may not even address the media when Brown is formally introduced, but his stamp is all over this hire.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column arguing the coach Jim Buss hires will reveal as much about him as it will about the Lakers' future.

In the aftermath of a failed season, while the dust was still uncomfortably settling on the end of Jackson's career with the Lakers, most of the players who spoke publicly on the matter called for calm, composure and perspective.

The Lakers might have fallen short of anyone's expectations, but they said it was their bodies and minds that had failed them, not their hearts.

Even general manager Mitch Kupchak seemed to be leaning toward tinkering at the edges and leaving the organizational whitewash for another offseason.

"We may have to look to improve in certain areas," Kupchak said in his season-ending meeting with reporters two weeks ago. "But with the core players we have intact, we do think we can continue to contend."

Instead, in the span of two weeks, the Lakers have effectively purged themselves of as much of their recent past and personnel as they can under the current collective bargaining agreement.

It's not just Jackson whose imprint is being scrubbed from the walls, but many of the loyal staffers who've served him and the team. During the first round of the playoffs, the team notified most of its support staff -- trainers, video coordinators, equipment managers -- that contracts would not be renewed for next season.

It was in some ways an expected move with Jackson having already announced he intended to retire. Most assistant coaches and support staff understand changes are likely after a coach departs.

But the timing -- while the Lakers were still alive, albeit struggling, in the playoffs -- was curious.

Why serve notice then? Why risk upsetting an already delicate team chemistry by shaking up the world of all the support staff around them?

Looking back on it, it's rather easy to decipher now. A message was delivered that day in New Orleans, not just a set of pink slips. A notice of eviction, really. The Lakers were ready to move on from the Phil Jackson era.

Only a handful of people will know all of the the reasons why. Whether the always-cold detente between Jim Buss and Jackson ever turned too uncomfortable for Buss to bear. Whether the Buss' simply tired of Jackson's ways. Or even, whether Jim possesses the same knack as his father does for being ahead of the curve on knowing when to hold back.

But in the two and a half weeks since Jackson coached his last game, he has not spoken to either of the Buss men. He has been by the Lakers' training facility a handful of times to pack up the memories of a golden era, now gone.

He has said his goodbyes and watched, painfully, as those loyal to him all these years have been told to say their goodbyes, too.

Soon he will be gone for good. Off to Montana first, and then an undefined search for adventure.

More than a few of his close friends say they wouldn't be surprised if one of those adventures came on a new NBA sideline one day. He's 65 years old, not 85.

But his time in Los Angeles is likely over for good.

The Lakers have moved on.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.