Kupchak: Mike D'Antoni a better fit
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said the decision to hire Mike D'Antoni instead of Phil Jackson didn't come down to money, demands over personnel control or travel restrictions.
It came down to basketball.
"It revolved almost completely around the personnel that we had on the team and the style of play that we saw going forward for the team," Kupchak told a small group of reporters gathered in a meeting room inside the Lakers' practice facility on Tuesday.
D'Antoni's Suns Flunked Finals
Mike D'Antoni finished first or second in the West from 2004-07 with the Suns. He is one of three coaches since 1996-97 to not reach the Finals over a three-year span despite finishing first or second in the conference.
No Finals despite finishing 1st or 2nd in conference in 3-year span*
|*Last four instances|
Jackson was the first candidate the Lakers met with after the dismissal of Mike Brown on Friday. Kupchak and Lakers vice president of player personnel Jim Buss had a "basketball discussion" at Jackson's home in Playa del Rey on Saturday. During the meeting the Lakers didn't offer the job to Jackson, nor did Jackson say he wanted it, according to Kupchak.
"Much has been made of the perceived agreement to wait until Monday," Kupchak said. "The actual way it took place after the basketball discussion was kind of, 'Where are we now?' And Phil said he needs some more time and I asked him, 'How much more time?' And he said, 'I will get back to you on Monday.' "
Jackson told Kupchak he would call him.
"At that point, I said, 'Phil, I have a job to do and I'm going to have to continue my search and interview candidates,' and he nodded that he understood," Kupchak said.
Kupchak was true to his word, not wasting any time to contact D'Antoni -- who was at his home in New York, rehabbing from a recent knee-replacement surgery -- over the phone Saturday afternoon and also setting up an in-person interview with Mike Dunleavy for Sunday. After Kupchak's initial conversation with D'Antoni and several more subsequent calls Sunday afternoon between him, D'Antoni, Jim Buss and Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, the Lakers knew they had their man.
After deciding to hire D'Antoni at around 5 or 6 p.m. on Sunday, the team spent the next five-plus hours negotiating with D'Antoni and drafting a contract. The process was slowed because D'Antoni was in New York and the groups had to work around a "fax machine malfunction," according to Lakers spokesman John Black. By the time everything was finished, it was approaching 11:30 p.m.
That's when Kupchak decided to call Jackson rather than wait until Monday morning.
"Our feeling was the worst thing we can do, since we already made our decision, was to go into Monday," Kupchak said. "I can get a call at 8 in the morning or 9 in the morning or 12 from Phil indicating that, 'I've thought about it and I would like to be the coach. Let's start negotiations.' To say at that point, 'Well, we've decided to go in a different direction,' our feeling was that would be even worse than what we did Sunday night."
Kupchak left a message on Jackson's cellphone that went unreturned, so he followed up with a call to the landline at Jackson's home after digging up the number.
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"I woke him up," Kupchak said. "He's always a little cryptic on the phone, but I did wake him up. In those types of situations, there's not a lot of small talk."
Kupchak said Jackson was "very complimentary of Mike (D'Antoni) under the circumstances."
D'Antoni was hired for the job for a variety of reasons, primarily his offense was considered a better fit for the Lakers' roster than Jackson's Triangle offense. There also was an attraction to running an up-tempo system that would allow for the Lakers' shot attempts to go "way up," similar to their "Showtime" days.
Lakers brass felt the Triangle was too structured, too similar to the failed Princeton-sytle offense experiment they went through with Brown. They also worried the Triangle would take too long to implement and the learning curve might be too steep for their current crop of players.
"Without going into great detail, some of our guys, I don't think would be very successful in the Triangle," Kupchak said. "Some of our newer players might take a long time to learn the Triangle."
Added Kupchak: "He plays the way we see this team playing and our personnel executing, the guys that we have on this team."
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D'Antoni also stressed how he would utilize Dwight Howard, which was of the utmost importance to the Lakers.
"We look at Dwight as a cornerstone going forward," Kupchak said.
Kupchak admitted it wasn't ideal to hire D'Antoni over the phone and Kupchak considered flying to New York to meet with D'Antoni in person because the coach was unable to travel because of his knee surgery. Kupchak decided against it, not wanting to leave Jim and Jerry Buss on the other side of the country while there was still a coaching vacancy.
Ultimately, Kupchak made calls around the league about D'Antoni, saying "there are no secrets" about the coach famous for his "Seven Seconds or Less" system. He also knew D'Antoni well enough from the past 15 years in the business to forgo a face-to-face meeting before making an offer.
As for Jackson's Saturday meeting with the Lakers, no salary was discussed, according to Kupchak. The GM said personnel input was "touched briefly on" and the "rigors of travel," but there was no stipulation made by Jackson that he would have to miss games.
Jackson was not initially thought of as a realistic candidate by the Lakers. They thought he was done coaching, based on a conversation Kupchak had with Jackson several months ago. They included Jackson in the process, however, because of his history with the franchise.
"We discussed in advance, 'Listen guys, although we don't think he wants to be a part of it and we're not looking to go in that direction, there's going to be a firestorm of support,' " Kupchak said.
Although the Lakers never formally extended an offer to Jackson, they heard the "We want Phil!" chants at the games and realized how it would look if they turned their back on the most decorated coach in NBA history.
"There was a lot of pressure to seriously consider bringing Phil back," Kupchak said.
After it all, Kupchak feels the Lakers have a better chance of winning a championship now with D'Antoni than they did last week with Brown.
"Yes," Kupchak said. "Because I think what Mike is going to run is more suited to the talent on this team."