HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Few men in the history of organized activity stand above the fray the way Phil Jackson does.
Love him or loathe him, Jackson has the pedigree, wisdom, accomplishments, respect and public adulation that only the greatest leaders of men have attained throughout the years. He earned his stripes first as a player, a foot soldier, if you will, before rising up the leadership ladder to five-star general status as a coach.
Somewhere around six or seven titles he moved into legendary status. By the time he walked away from the game two years ago, he had earned his place upon the coaching Mount Rushmore, nestled somewhere between Knute Rockne and John Wooden among the all-time greats.
So forgive us here at the hideout if we’re having a bit of a problem understanding why Mike D’Antoni, and not Jackson, is the choice as the Los Angeles Lakers’ new coach. The Lakers knew the moment Jackson exited the facility in El Segundo headed for what was supposed to be life after basketball that he had more left in his hoops tank.
He wasn’t finished then and he wasn’t ready for the ride to end.
Now the Lakers sit at the crossroads, hoping that D’Antoni will light the pathway to continued championship contention while Jackson is left to ponder why he wasn’t the right fit to replace the fired Mike Brown, the man unlucky enough to try to replace Jackson.
History isn’t on the Lakers’ side so long as Kobe Bryant is on the roster. He’s never made it anywhere near The Finals without Jackson as his coach. That’s not a knock on Brown, Del Harris, Kurt Rambis, Rudy Tomjanovich or Frank Hamblen. It’s just a fact.
Some coaches and players are just inextricably linked throughout the annals of time.
Michael Jordan had the same link to Jackson, never reaching the heights he did in the NBA with anyone else (Kevin Loughery, Stan Albeck or Doug Collins are the names here) before or after his time with Jackson.
The 67-year-old “Zen Master” has an unparalleled history of success in the NBA, holding the record for the most championships in NBA history as a player and a coach (after breaking the tie with Bill Russell when the Lakers captured the title in 2009). He also owns the highest winning percentage of any NBA coach (.704) and has championship rings for both hands and three of his toes, having earned two as a player with the New York Knicks and the other 11 as a coach of both the Chicago Bulls (six) and Lakers (five).
The Lakers, apparently, wanted a different voice this time around. Perhaps they wanted someone who came with fewer conditions for taking the job or someone who didn’t demand control of all personnel decisions, a likely sticking point with a front office staff still weary from their previous dealings with Jackson.
D’Antoni’s a fine coach, universally regarded as one of the very best in the business before being fired in New York last season. His familiarity with not only Bryant but Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard will no doubt benefit the Lakers’ bottom line this season.
Lakers have every right to be and should be excited about the offense D’Antoni could bring with him. It’s worked wonders for many players over the years, the primary beneficiaries being his point guards. It started with Nash in Phoenix and ended with Jeremy Lin in New York as D’Antoni oversaw a cosmic run as the offensive Morpheus of basketball.
It should be noted, however, that D’Antoni’s star-studded groups in Phoenix never could overtake the Lakers or San Antonio Spurs and reach the The Finals. He also had a talent-laden (albeit a bit flawed) roster to work with in New York and could never get them to play to their potential.
So just like Brown or Mike Dunleavy, who was also considered this time around, D’Antoni comes with lingering questions about exactly what he’ll be able to do while stuck in the middle of the crucible that is the toughest coaching job in the NBA.
The same could have and would have been said about both Jerry Sloan and Nate McMillan, two unemployed coaches mentioned as potential candidates but were never spoken to, per TNT’s David Aldridge, by the Lakers.
The only coach the Lakers could have hired who would have walked through the door without any of those same question marks is the one they spurned over the weekend.
They botched this hire the last time, choosing Brown to replace Jackson. For the sake of their aging stars, they have to get it right this time.