Update: Surprise, surprise. Phil's out and Mike D'Antoni is in. See next page.
Phil Jackson is back – unofficially, but with 95 percent certainty, pending a signed deal, etc. etc.
This changes everything for the Lakers.
Suddenly an LA Lakers vs. Miami Heat Finals — the NBA's wet dream — is looking more and more possible.
The Heat would still be a heavy favorite, but just getting to the Finals would be a Lakers triumph after such a chaotic start to the season. And it would surely convince Dwight Howard to re-sign for five more years in the city of Angels instead of heading to some cowtown like Dallas.
How can simply replacing Coach Mike Brown with the Lord of the Rings make such a huge difference? The truth is that even if Jackson brings back the Triangle Offense and several former Lakers assistant coaches with him, he can't make the aging Lakers any younger, he can't make the shallow bench any deeper and he can't make their off-target outside shooting any better.
But he is the one man in the whole wide hoops universe who can convince Kobe Bryant that the only way to win his sixth championship ring is to let Steve Nash control the ball and run the offense through Dwight Howard.
Oh, sure, Kobe will still average 20-plus points and get his 15-20 shots a game. But they will come from feeding off Howard and Nash as they initiate the offense, whether it be through the high pick-and-roll – no one does it better than Nash – or dumping the rock into Dwight, waiting for the defense to converge on him, and then passing it out to Kobe to do his thing.
A smart Kobe would welcome the change to an inside-out offense, as it will make life infinitely easier for him. A stubborn, defiant Kobe would fight it every step of the way. And since Kobe thirsts so badly for a sixth NBA ring to tie him with the immortal Michael Jordan, and since he is as smart as he is stubborn, the guess here is that he will listen to Phil and make the necessary changes.
The failure to stand up to Kobe's ball-dominating ways was critical in Brown's crash-and-burn flameout, but there were plenty of other reasons to fire him. The truth is he never should have been hired last season and quickly proved he was not up to the job. Aside from losing 4-1 to Oklahoma City in the second round of the playoffs last season, going 0-8 in the pre-season and 1-4 this season, Brown's brand of basketball was simply no fun to watch. And in the entertainment capital of the world, that is a cardinal sin.
Even when the Lakers won games during the regular season last year, it was painful to watch. Kobe was chucking up whatever shot he wanted whenever he wanted, Andrew Bynum was loafing up and down the court and sulking about Kobe hogging the ball, and Pau Gasol – one of the most skilled post players in the world — was turned into a perimeter player who started shooting 3-pointers because Brown's offense forced him to play outside much of the time.
And it just got worse this season with Howard taking on Bynum's role of yearning for the ball but rarely seeing it, Nash deferring to Kobe because it was, as Kobe loudly proclaimed, his team, and Gasol getting fewer and fewer shots as he was shunted off to the perimeter and turned into a high-post passer. And to top it all off the Lakers defense had more holes than a Swiss Cheese sandwich, currently ranking 25th out of 30 teams.
It all came to a merciful end Friday morning; 36-hours after Kobe's death stare at Brown at the end of the humiliating loss to Utah, a likely non-playoff team that simply played harder and smarter than the Lakers.
The Kobe death-stare that blew up the blogosphere also alerted owner Jerry Buss that there was real trouble in Laker Nation. After huddling with his son Jim and General Manager Mitch Kupchak, Buss did what should have been done last spring when it was already clear that Brown wasn't a good fit. Of course Phil wasn't ready to return last spring, so in a crazy kind of serendipity it all worked out. After a second consecutive summer of fishing and hiking in Montana and banging Buss's daughter Jeanie on his trips to LA, Phil was ready once again to ride in on a white horse and save the Lakers from themselves.
The first time was in 1999, when he taught Kobe and Shaq how to play together and launched them on a three-peat from 2000-2002. The second time was in 2005, when Shaq was gone and the ever-deferential Lamar Odom had been installed as Kobe's inadequate sidekick. That undermanned team over-achieved for two years until the Lakers acquired Gasol in time for the 2008 playoffs and reached the Finals, where they lost to Boston.
But Phil guided them to two more titles in 2009 and 2010 before announcing that 2011 would be his last season. It ended prematurely when Dallas swept them in the second round and Phil rode off into the sunset, casually mentioning that he hadn't talked to Jim Buss all year.
Right away Jim Buss couldn't wait to banish everyone associated with Jackson, even stiff-arming his designated successor, assistant coach Brian Shaw. Then he moved into Phil's office. Without consulting Kobe, he brought in Brown, a hard worker who started as a video coordinator and simply didn't have the resume or the gravitas that Jackson brought to the table with his 11 NBA championships.
Now Brown is out and Jackson is apparently in, a situation that sets up more subplots than a Mexican telenovella.
The first is Phil vs. Kobe. After the 2003-04 season, when the Lakers were upset in the Finals by the Detroit Pistons, Kobe was a free agent and made it clear he would leave if Phil stayed. So Phil left and wrote a book about that season, in which he had demanded Kobe be traded and called him uncoachable.
But after that seemingly permanent rupture Kobe and Phil realized they needed each other to achieve greatness and Kobe morphed into Phil's second-biggest fan, behind Jeanie Buss. This sets up the ultimate test of their Act 2 mutual loyalty: will Kobe be mature enough to understand Phil is right when he explains that Kobe needs to tone it down and let the game come to him? Will Phil be able to say it in just the right way so that Kobe sees it as an organic evolution, as part of an ever-evolving hoops Zen?
The second delicious subplot is Phil vs. Jim Buss, the team's Executive Vice President.
The common wisdom is that Buss has done nothing to deserve his exalted position running the city's flagship franchise other than winning the genetic lottery. Online he is constantly derided as a 52-year-old, baseball cap wearing fortunate son who is recklessly driving the Maserati into the ditch.
But he began to rebut some of that criticism when he showed the flexibility to trade Bynum, whom he had long championed after insisting the Lakers draft him in 2005, for Howard. And now he has shown even more maturity by admitting hiring Brown was a mistake and turning to Jackson because he knows it is in the team's best interests.
And how would you like to have Jackson's leverage in your job search. Not only are the Lakers reaching out to him and pleading for him to return, but the fans were chanting “We want Phil” during the third quarter of Friday night's win over Golden State.
That leaves only one question: Will Jim Buss give Phil his old office back?
Update: Sorry Phil, but late Sunday Mike D'Antoni was chosen as the new Lakers coach. Now it's up to Mike to convince Kobe to give the ball to Nash.
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