Why Can't the Lakers Offer Phil Jackson a Front-Office Role?

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistMarch 10, 2014

DENVER - MAY 23:  Head coach Phil Jackson of the Los Angeles Lakers points in the second half against the Denver Nuggets in Game Three of the Western Conference Finals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 23, 2009 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Phil Jackson is being courted for a front-office position with the New York Knicks—the team he won two championship rings with as a player. Is there a possibility he could be offered a similar role with the Los Angeles Lakers, the team he won five rings with as a coach?

There’s always that chance, until he accepts another offer. It’s not a simple story, however, but a serpentine tale laced with enough past, present and future family dynamics to qualify as a Shakespearean tragedy. 

Or perhaps a triumph?

First, here's the Big Apple situation as it’s currently unfolding.

As reported by Frank Isola for The New York Daily News, Jackson recently met with MSG chairman James Dolan and was offered a front-office position with the Knicks. He is expected to give the club a decision sometime this week.

Stephen A. Smith updated the news for ESPN, stating that according to his sources Jackson has been offered complete control of basketball operations.

The news comes on the heels of an earlier report by Smith for ESPN that New York Knicks president and general manager Steve Mills had met with Jackson about the possibility of becoming the team’s next head coach. That, reportedly, was an offer Jackson wasn’t interested in.

Dolan has obviously upped the ante since then, hoping to tempt the legendary coach with enough power and autonomy to convince him to take over a franchise that has floundered badly this season with a current record of 24-40.

There’s another team that has stumbled of course, one that’s a lot closer to home for Jackson. Although the Lakers enjoyed a win on Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, they are still in last place in the Western Conference at 22-42.

This season has been an unmitigated disaster for the Lakers, with Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash injured and out of action, and with only Pau Gasol, a free agent at the end of the season, left to lead a team that’s powered by coach Mike D’Antoni’s small-ball system.

Gasol and D’Antoni have had a thorny relationship this season, to say the least. In an interview with Bill Plaschke of The Los Angeles Times earlier in the season, the Lakers’ starting center had this to say: "This year hasn't been ideal, certain things are not ideal for me, but that's not going to change any time soon."

Not unless a certain silver-haired Zen warrior limps in to save the day.

Per Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report, Bryant has also voiced disapproval for the current coaching system, referring to it as “small ball, which personally I don’t really care much for.”

What’s all this have to do with Jackson’s possible future as a front-office executive? As mentioned at the outset, it’s all part of a story with a lot of common history.

Jackson, after all, guided Bryant to five NBA championships, two of which featured Gasol. The Hall of Fame coach enjoyed two highly successful stretches of five and six seasons with the Lakers. He also formed a personal in-house alliance when he began dating Jeanie Buss, a team executive and daughter of the late Dr. Jerry Buss.

Jackson nearly came back to coach the team for a third time.

Just five games into the 2012-13 season, Mike Brown was fired, leading to a fast and furious search for a replacement. Jackson was approached by Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and vice president of player personnel Jim Buss about taking over the coaching reins.

The courtship was brief but giddy. Former assistants Jim Cleamons and Kurt Rambis were set to rejoin their former boss, according to Adrian Wojnarowski, and Lakers fans chanted Jackson’s name.

Even Bryant himself voiced his endorsement, per J.A. Adande of ESPN

“You guys know how I feel about Phil. The last year of his career, I wasn't able to give him everything I had. He's too great of a coach to kind of have it go out that way. That's kind of my personal sentiment.”

It wasn’t to be, of course. After a positive meeting with Jackson, management elected to go in another direction, and so the D’Antoni era of mind-numbing losses began.

Jeanie Buss, now a co-owner of the team as well as its President and a member of the NBA Board of Governors, was reportedly devastated by the decision not to hire Jacksonand more importantly, how it was handled.

This past September, Buss, who is engaged to Jackson, updated her memoir, Laker Girl, written with sportswriter Steve Springer and published by Triumph Books. In the revised edition, Buss recounts whirlwind events from a year earlier:

The sequence of events — Phil almost coming back and then being told someone else was better for the job — practically destroyed me. It almost took away my passion for this job and this game. It felt like I had been stabbed in the back. It was a betrayal. I was devastated. I felt that I got played. Why did they have to do that? Why did Jim pull Phil back into the mix if he wasn't sincere about it?

Rambis also weighed in after Jackson was passed over, per Sam Amick of USA Today:

If you're talking about having success and having this team and someone who knows how to guide a team to an NBA title, Phil is that guy. There's no second, third, fourth or fifth choice at this point in time. He's that guy. I don't know if Jim Buss knows one system from another in terms of how it fits with players, or what works best for players, or what's the difference between them.

The often convoluted family-and-friends dynamic has continued to play out, sometimes in unexpected ways. Rambis wound up getting his assistant coaching job with the Lakers at the beginning of this current season, but under D’Antoni, not Jackson.

In an interesting "life imitates art" side note, according to Hollywood trade publication Variety, Jackson and Jeanie Buss and Rambis and wife Linda are all attached as executive producers to a behind-the-scenes one-hour TV drama about a family in charge of a basketball organization, currently in development at Showtime.

Of course, the matter at hand is a real-life dilemma, not a made-for-television one. The Lakers are headed for their worst record in at least a generation and are in the middle of a total reconstruction with the injured Bryant as the centerpiece.

What could have been one last hurrah for a superstar who has played his entire career in Los Angeles is instead looking like an interim period of mediocrity for a team that may not be championship contenders again until after the Mamba’s retirement.

The other waste, of course, has been Gasol, the team’s leading scorer during a free-fall season. It’s highly unlikely that Bryant’s closet ally on the team will be back next season—Gasol doesn’t fit into D’Antoni’s scheme of things or a youth-oriented rebuild.

Could that change under Jackson? The Lakers have multiple issues to deal with, from putting together a roster from the ashes of a championship era to having a common vision going forward, from the front office to the coach to the team itself.

Jackson himself has repeatedly indicated that he is no longer interested in coaching. Is there any wiggle room there?

On Saturday, ESPN LA’s Ramona Shelburne weighed in on a transitional possibility:

While Jackson has made it clear to any team that has approached him that he prefers a front-office role that would allow him to shape and mold a franchise the way Miami Heat president Pat Riley has, he is open to the possibility of coaching for a short period of time if it is necessary in a transition period for a franchise with championship aspirations, the source said.

Does this make you wonder who the source is, and whether all of this is really about Jackson being in a New York state of mind? Is there the possibility that a major L.A. coup d’état is in the works?

Brian Kamenetzky at Land O’Lakers examined how a big Lakers power play could be shaping up:

Information leaks for a purpose, and while dot-connecting is always a risky venture, seeing all these things as related requires no great leap. You could hardly blame Jim Buss for feeling a little besieged this weekend. For all the discontent aimed his way for hiring Mike D’Antoni instead of Jackson (something he’ll get blamed for, even if most people – Jackson included – say Dr. Buss ultimately made that call), the saving grace for Jim is that Phil hasn’t landed anywhere else.

The most common thinking in takeover ploys currently being floated is that it would essentially require the current vice president of personnel to hand his job over to Jackson. And why would Buss want to fall on his own sword in such a way?

Because giving up an executive job doesn’t necessarily mean stepping away from the game. Buss is ownership, after all, and that’s where the real power is. This is someone who was groomed by his father to learn the family business, gradually take over basketball operations and eventually segue into an overseer’s role.

Now that Dr. Buss is no longer alive, his son has an opportunity to step up to the ultimate consigliere position—to do as his father did, entrusting the nuts and bolts of running the business to lifetime basketball professionals while still holding the final hammer on the really big decisions.

This means letting go in order to assume a different form of leadership. It’s not an easy thing to do; it would be a giant leap of faith, knowing that it could be nearly impossible to put Phil and Jeanie back in the bottle.

This is what it has come down to in Lakerland: a choice between two different directions, each within the same family.

The first choice is staying with the status quo. The second would see Jackson returning to the coaching sidelines for an interim period, then handing those duties to someone like Rambis or another handpicked successor before seguing into the front office.

And what’s in it for Jim Buss? More championship banners, increased marketing and revenues and, ultimately, more power—the kind that really counts, not just sitting behind a desk and throwing darts at a scouting board.

The Lakers are at an important crossroads, and the clock is ticking. Who’s going to blink first?


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