Commentary

West Side: Jackson was Lakers' man

Despite high price, Phil Jackson's history of success was worth it for L.A. Lakers

Originally Published: November 13, 2012
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez are teaming up this season for a look at the NBA from two perspectives, called West Side/East Side.

J.A. is in L.A., the West Side. And Israel is down in Miami, home of the NBA champs, representing the East Side.

Enjoy.


The Los Angeles Lakers aren't part of the wave of mathematical computation that's taking over the NBA. They don't show up at the annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, you don't hear their front office citing arcane statistics. In this latest coaching decision, the Lakers demonstrated that they don't put faith in even the simplest of formulas. Phil Jackson has coached 20 seasons in the NBA and won 11 championships. That basic math should have been the deciding factor in their coaching hire.

In a league with so many variables, Jackson gives you better-than-coin-toss odds. And if you take out the two seasons when Michael Jordan played more baseball than basketball, plus the first two years after the Lakers traded Shaquille O'Neal, you'll see that when Jackson has a roster as talented as this current Laker team, he wins 75 percent of the time. He also made two additional trips to the NBA Finals. If all you can ask of a coach is that he puts his team in a position to win, Jackson has brought top-notch talent to within at least three victories of a championship 14 out of 16 times.

Some people point to the fact that in his last public act as coach of the Lakers, Jackson was swept in the second round by the Dallas Mavericks in 2011. But what about the fact that he won championships in each of the two years prior to that? And that the Lakers reached the NBA Finals in the year prior to that? Not to mention the possibility that three straight years of playing into June left the Lakers too worn down to do it a fourth time. Oh, and Kobe was "playing on one leg" in 2010-11, to use his own description.

So, yeah, give Phil Jackson the reins of this team, allow everyone to stay healthy and the overwhelming odds indicate he'd have it within grasping distance of the championship.

He's the most successful figure in American sports over the past 21 years. The only person who is close going back for three decades is ... Jerry Buss. But the only thing Buss has done as consistently as win championships is side with his family. About a decade ago, he gave his son, Jim, more authority even if it meant alienating Jerry West, who was only the best executive in the NBA. Magic Johnson cashed out his stake in the Lakers and joined the Dodgers' new ownership group because he knew he'd never have a more prominent role with the Lakers than Buss would give to his own family members. Johnson and Buss shared good times and championships and were like family. Only that's not quite the same as family.

Apparently, Jackson's error was believing this job was his to lose, when the Lakers wanted to see him truly apply for it.

The Lakers' expensive roster had sputtered to a sub-.500 start, Kobe had publicly made his pitch for Jackson and the fans were chanting Phil's name. Bringing Jackson back and rejuvenating the fan base would only increase the pressure on DirecTV and Dish Network to add the Lakers' new regional sports network. Don't think that didn't play a role, however small, in all of the considerations.

If they negotiated, Jackson would have the leverage. But representatives of both sides said they never talked specific terms during their 90-minute meeting on Saturday. Jackson said in a statement, "I did convey to them that I did have confidence that I could do the job." He told him he'd get back to them on Monday. The Lakers weren't confident that he had conveyed a strong enough desire to coach. Jackson might have lent a little credence to that at the end of his statement when he said, "I am gratified by the groundswell of support from the Laker fans who endorsed my return and it is the principal reason why I considered the possibility."

So was he doing it for them, or for himself? There's nothing left for him to prove. He stands atop the list of the most accomplished coaches in the NBA. There is a chance to rewrite the ending, there is more money to be made, glory to be had. Jackson was intrigued enough to check if his former assistant coaches would want to rejoin him.

Jackson's agent, Todd Musburger, was adamant that no contract terms were discussed in the Saturday meeting, replying, "Absolutely not" to each of my queries about a $10 million annual salary, control over personnel decisions and skipping some road games.

"Phil made no demands, outrageous or otherwise," Musburger said.

The Lakers told Jackson they'd be talking to other candidates. They had phone conversations with Mike D'Antoni and Mike Dunleavy (!?!?! -- I can't add enough question marks and exclamation points to the latter).

People close to D'Antoni said he didn't expect to get the job. Given Jackson's accomplishments and connections to the team, D'Antoni figured it would go to Jackson. Oh well, D'Antoni rationalized, at least his name was out there as a candidate.

Then the Lakers called his agent, Warren LeGarie, after the conclusion of their victory over the Sacramento Kings on Sunday night, told him D'Antoni was their guy and quickly put a deal together. Jackson said Mitch Kupchak called him at midnight to deliver the news. Musburger was up at 4 a.m. in Chicago to catch a flight to L.A. and found out from his son, Brian, that the Lakers had hired D'Antoni.

Some 12 hours later, Musburger was still steamed over how it all went down.

"Phil wasn't owed the job," Musburger said. "But he was owed respect and professional courtesy."

He said the whole episode was "illustrative of the way this operation is being run."

Yes, you can take that as a shot at Jim Buss. A source told me the firing of Mike Brown was a decision made by Jerry Buss, but when it came to hiring the new coach, "Jim called this one."

Officially, the Lakers say it was made unanimously by Jim Buss, Jerry Buss and Mitch Kupchak.

The discerning fans won't see it that way. Jim Buss is under even greater pressure than D'Antoni. Not that D'Antoni has it easy. Now that the Laker fans know Jackson was a possibility -- until he suddenly wasn't -- every set of back-to-back losses could bring on the "We want Phil" chants. Nothing less than a championship will appease them. But the sudden change of direction, followed by Musburger's media onslaught, has them starting 2 yards behind the blocks.

The Lakers indicated that there was a timing matter, that they wanted resolution and didn't feel like waiting until Monday to find out whether Jackson wanted to go through with it. But if speed mattered, why did they hire a coach who can't even fly in for the news conference because he's still recuperating from knee surgery and has not been cleared to travel yet?

The explanation for the D'Antoni hire, from a team spokesman, is "because we felt he was the best coach for this team."

Which means there was no math involved. Because if you go by the numbers, most championships = best.