I wrote this a couple of days ago about how letting Phil Jackson go to the Knicks shows a shift in the way the Laker front office thinks and how it is impacting their pursuit of Carmelo Anthony. Find the full article here:
Most importantly for Laker fans, however, has been the pursuit of superstar(?)Carmelo Anthony. LA has gone all out in an attempt to woo Carmelo into a Lakers uniform, dangling a max contract and the opportunity to play alongside best-buddy Kobe Bryant.
There are a total of 5 suitors for Anthony’s services: the Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, and the incumbent New York Knicks. Basketball-wise, that’s the order from best to worst of teams that make the most sense for Melo. Chicago has a defensive-oriented team that needs a scorer, Melo is a scorer that needs a strong defense to cover him on that end. It’s a perfect fit. Houston, meanwhile, already has the defensively disinclined James Harden on their roster, although Dwight Howard helps to minimize Harden’s apathy a little. For his part Dwight Howard can be a bit robotic and awkward on offense, which could be helped a little if defenses had to worry about both Anthony and Harden on the perimeter.
***On the topic of James Harden, has there been a less aesthetically pleasing superstar in NBA history? Fans have been subjected to Shawn Marion’s cringe-worthy jumper, Shaq and Wilt’s free throw line failures, and LeBron James’ floptacular skills. Harden, however, has taken things to a whole new level. He almost exclusively shoots threes or drives to the basket, which likely has Daryl Morey, Houston’s analytics-obsessed GM, shedding tears of joy all over his stat sheet.
To the fans watching the game Harden’s nightly displays have gotten comical. He drives to the basket with no intention of trying to score, instead he keeps his head on a swivel looking for a defender to run into. When he finds his mark he careens into them and flails his arms as though that constitutes a shooting motion. Players have tried this tactic in the past (look at Wade in the 06 Finals) but never so consistently or blatantly. He knows he’s bending the rules and certainly offending good sportsmanship but somewhere under that beard is a smirk that just doesn’t care (and likely a few errant Cheetos, the key to a 1995 Nissan Sentra, and “Friends: The Complete Series” on DVD).
My rule of thumb: If the way you play would get you laughed off the court in a pickup game you shouldn’t do it in the NBA.
Dallas has aging superstar Dirk Nowitzki in place and a young-ish All-Star caliber player alongside him in Monta Ellis. They also traded for Knicks defensive ace center Tyson Chandler, which may appeal to Carmelo. The Lakers have the recovering Kobe Bryant and little else besides the city of LA and the franchise’s glorious history to sell. The Knicks, well they have rebound-avoider Andrea Bargnani and the knees of Amare Stoudemire. They also managed to miss the playoffs in the comically weak Eastern Conference, so they have that going for them.
Financially, the suitors are in nearly inverse order, with Chicago able to give Carmelo the least amount of money and New York the most, followed by the Lakers. Whichever team lands Melo is going to have to sell him on either getting less money to join a team ready to potentially contend now (Chicago, Houston, possibly Dallas) or getting more money and trusting the organization’s plan to build around him in the future (New York and LA).
From all reports it appears the New York is and has always been the favorite. His family enjoys it there and they can offer the most money. Phil Jackson needs only to convince Carmelo to sacrifice the 2014/2015 season to mediocrity and then the Knicks will use the cap space they have available next summer to land a superstar partner for him. The Knicks franchise hinges on getting Melo to return, and no doubt Jackson will do everything in his power to ensure that it happens.
For the Lakers though whatever Anthony decides is almost secondary to a larger issue at hand. In fact a very strong argument could be made that the Lakers would be better off if Anthony chooses to go elsewhere, as the max contract Melo would command ($95 million over 4 years) would leave the team out of cap space and with only Anthony and Kobe (and reportedly a re-signed Pau Gasol) to build around with minimum-level players. Regardless, should Anthony decide to join his friend Kobe then the Lakers will celebrate landing another superstar and hope for a return to relevancy in the present, future be damned.
While Anthony’s decision will in some ways dictate the direction of the team over the next few years it was actually a decision made back in March that is truly at the center of the current Laker conundrum: the decision to let Phil Jackson leave.
Phil Jackson is unquestionably the greatest coach in NBA history. He’s won 13 championships- 2 as a Knicks player, 6 as the Bulls coach, 5 as the Lakers coach. As his body started to betray him and the rigors of the sidelines became less bearable he expressed interest in becoming involved in an NBA front office. After a painful second-round exit at the hands of the future-champion Dallas Mavericks in 2011 Phil took a step back in order to focus on his health and life outside of basketball while staying involved as a consultant for the Lakers.
In 2012 the itch to return to coaching had re-taken it’s hold, so Phil considered once again taking on the mantle of Laker coach following the departure of Mike Brown. By then though a change had taken place within the Laker organization and Jackson’s status as a shoe-in was gone.
Longtime owner Dr. Jerry Buss had been hospitalized with his health deteriorating, leaving his son Jim Buss and Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak to head the basketball side of the organization while daughter Jeanie Buss (who happens to be Phil Jackson’s fiancée) had control of the business side of things. To be fair this set up had actually been in place for some time, but with Dr. Buss now as out-of-the-loop as he had ever been the Lakers decision making ability took a hit.
Jim and Mitch (with Dr. Buss’ blessing) then made the nearly indefensible choice to hire Mike D’Antoni over Jackson. While Phil would stay on in his consultat role it was clear that the relationship between the franchise and former coach was strained, with Jeanie stuck in the middle. Dr. Buss would ultimately pass away in February of 2013, making the transition of power to his children complete.
It was apparent that the decision to go with Mike D’Antoni over Phil was made with an eye towards returning to Showtime, the exciting, fast-breaking system the legendary Laker teams of the 80’s used to great success and fanfare. With Steve Nash in the Magic Johnson role the thought was that Dwight Howard’s athleticism and Nash’s passing would create an unstoppable juggernaut.
We all know the painful reality: Nash’s leg broke, Dwight’s back wasn’t fully healed (he would later also demonstrate a lack of a spine), and Kobe gave everything he had, including his Achilles, to drag the team to the playoffs. With Kobe as unquestionably the team’s best player it was like having Michael Jordan try to run the Suns system, which was an awkward fit at best.
Bottom line: turning down the greatest coach in NBA history was a mistake, just as many feared it would be.
***Through much of that season Dwight looked disinterested, which was a stark contrast to Kobe’s full-speed ahead approach. Dwight never seemed to fully understand what it meant to be a Laker and the responsibility that came with it. Los Angeles is a basketball town that lives and dies with the Lakers. Other cities have multiple sports teams to focus on that draw the attention away from NBA basketball but LA is laser-focused on the purple and gold. He represents the shift seen in the attitude of modern NBA superstars like James, Wade, Bosh and others, who are looking to win and have fun with their friends rather than compete against them. In the end Dwight couldn’t live up to the expectations and decided to leave for less responsibility in Houston.
One year later rumors began circulating that the Knicks were making overtures towards Jackson about having him become their President of Basketball Operations. Even though Phil had no experience running an organization he still had his reputation as the greatest coach of all time, and that carries a tremendous amount of respect around the league.
The Lakers, meanwhile, were in the midst of their worst season ever thanks to a combination of Dwight Howard’s cowardly defection and a nightmarish parade of injuries. With the Buss children at the helm no one was sure what to expect and speculation ran rampant that Jim in particular was in over his head. With the league’s premier franchise suddenly sitting on an unstable foundation it was apparent they needed Jackson’s calm, confident demeanor and the reputation for winning that he would lend to the front office.
All of this makes it even more surprising that the Lakers brain trust (Mitch Kupchak, Jeanie Buss, and Jim Buss) opted to let Phil move on to take over the Knicks. Jeanie in particular struggled the season prior when Phil was passed over for the Lakers coaching position and undoubtedly it wasn’t easy to watch him leave the franchise completely.
Of course the Lakers couldn’t offer Phil complete control of the organization like the Knicks could, but it also didn’t appear that the Lakers did everything they could in order to get Jackson to stick around. Shortly after the news that Phil had officially accepted the job with the Knicks Jeanie went on ESPN radio in Southern California to calm the legions of Laker fans, who had been vociferously venting their displeasure over passing over Phil as a coach and then again as an executive . She had this to say about Phil’s departure:
"I think people need to understand: It isn't just Phil. They don't need anybody else. Everything is covered. There is no additional need for anybody to come in. Jimmy and Mitch have a like mind in how they see the game and what they want to accomplish with this team and they have it under control. They don't need another voice, whether that's Phil or whoever. It isn't about Phil; they don't need another voice, they've got it covered. I understand that and I respect that and I'm happy for them."
Despite Jeanie’s intent to boost fan’s confidence in the leadership of the franchise that particular quote did the exact opposite. It was a giant red flag that a completely different way of thinking had now taken hold of the Laker front office, one that fans may not enjoy.
Jeanie essentially said that Phil wasn’t needed because Mitch and Jim don’t need his help. Keep in mind that Jim hadn’t inspired much faith amongst the Laker faithful and that many questioned whether star free agents would want to come to LA with his untested hand at the helm. Perhaps Jeanie was just optimistic and truly believes that her brother and Mitch are the ones to lead the team into the future. However, there is a much more dangerous implication that comes from those few sentences: the Lakers are no longer working under the same ideologies that lead them to their rampant success.
Not having room for Phil because Jim and Mitch already have the job handled is the equivalent of not signing Shaq because the Lakers already had Vlade. Not trading for Kobe because Eddie Jones is already handling the shooting guard spot. Not trading for Pau Gasol because of Kwame Brown. Not…well you get the idea. The Lakers have always been willing to make a big move to upgrade their ability to contend and having Phil on board would have done just that.
Free agents right now are greeted with Jim’s somewhat sloppy appearance, Mitch’s calm, reserved demeanor, and in Melo’s case Jeanie’s friendly smile. None of those things carry the weight of Phil Jackson’s swagger, one that comes from having 13 championships and a near-mythical status as an NBA miracle worker. After all, wouldn’t it be more convincing for a free agent to hear about a path towards winning from a guy who has done it more than anyone else instead of a guy in a baseball cap and jeans who was born into his job?
Jackson is now using all of those advantages against the Lakers as he attempts to ensure that Melo stays in the Big Apple.
Fans and media pundits alike were concerned about this very situation from the moment that Phil signed on with New York. What would happen when Jeanie Buss, the “boss” and final decision-maker for the post-Jerry Buss Lakers, was competing with her fiancée for free agents? No one worried about Phil having the killer instinct necessary to take players away from his bride-to-be, but Jeanie, well, she’s nice…maybe too nice.
It’s no surprise that Laker fans tend to support Jeanie much more than her brother Jim. While Jim is portrayed as a man who has bit off more than he can chew Jeanie is seen as the sharp, hard-working leader of the Buss clan. Her warmth lends her a degree of approachability, for Laker fans she has something of a fun-aunt vibe to her.
To free agents, however, Jeanie’s warmth and compassion won’t hold a candle to Phil’s wit and winning record. It’s truly a nightmare situation for Lakers fans, as one of their greatest assets, the man who brought them 5 championships, gets turned against them.
Maybe Jim and Mitch do have the basketball side of the organization under control. Mitch’s experience and savvy as a GM will instill confidence in the Lakers ability to rebuild quickly while Jim’s eye for talent will lead to the Lakers chasing after the correct free agent targets. Maybe Jeanie’s ability as an executive will keep the Lakers immensely profitable while drawing free agents to the purple and gold. However, until they show that they can land top free agents when going up against the likes of Phil Jackson Laker fans will continue to question whether the franchise’s best days are behind them…or yet to come.