Report: Phil Jackson could return to the Lakers

Jackson has been running the Knicks since March of 2014.
Brad Penner

Phil Jackson has been in New York for going on two years, and though he has built a roster that’s far better than the one he had a season ago, he hasn’t improved the team all that much since he arrived in the city.

The Knicks finished 37-45 during Jackson’s first season in New York, though he only arrived at the end of that campaign. Now, they’re 23-31, losers of nine of their past 10—and maybe losers of Jackson, as well.

When Knicks owner James Dolan signed Jackson to a five-year, $60 million contract in March of 2014, he gave him an opt-out which Jackson could exercise after the end of the 2015-16 season. Now, some credible people, including Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, are wondering if the Zen Master will use that clause to head back to the place he called home for years:

Jackson has an opt-out clause in his contract this summer that could make him a free agent and available to return to what he really loves; the Lakers, his beach house and Jeanie Buss. Not necessarily in that order, of course.

The theory that Jackson is ready to make the move west picked up steam on Monday when he announced that the first head coach he ever hired, Derek Fisher, would be the first head coach he’d fire. If you believe that James Dolan stayed completely out of this, which may very well be the case, then Jackson did something he rarely ever does.

Isola isn’t the only person alluding to the possibility of Jackson darting from New York. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports made a similar claim in a Monday night column:

There's still a strong belief Jackson will eventually find his way to his fiancée Jeanie Buss and the Los Angeles Lakers. Walton will be competing with Thibodeau for the Lakers job in the spring, and who knows: Jackson and [Luke] Walton could be reunited there.

Jackson, who coached the Lakers from 1999 to 2011 with a year off mixed in there, frequently travels between New York and Los Angeles to visit his girlfriend and Lakers president Jeanie Buss. Wojnarowski even wrote those actions "set the tone" inside the Knicks organization. Whether implicitly or explicitly, it allowed Derek Fisher to believe he could do the same thing at the beginning of the season: Go visit his girlfriend in Los Angeles during training camp, an action which started the clock on his ousting from within the organization. The Knicks eventually fired Fisher on Monday.

Life might be easier for Jackson in Los Angeles than in New York. He could be in the same zip code as his girlfriend, Buss. He could be working with a cushy fan base, one that’s hard on just about everyone else but that can see him, specifically, do no wrong. He could come in during the post-Kobe Bryant era, a time without the drama or salary constraints that come with the 37-year-old future Hall of Famer these days. 

For the first time in years, the Knicks are in a good position for the future, in part because of the work Jackson did this past summer. Robin Lopez is on a reasonable contract. Carmelo Anthony has become a more effective passer. And more importantly than anything else, there’s that 20-year-old Latvian kid who’s shown flashes of brilliance. The Knicks may not have a draft pick this year, but they’re on their way to becoming an attractive destination. The Lakers, though, already have more young pieces than the Knicks in D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle. Meanwhile, if Jackson were to bolt for the West Coast, he wouldn’t have to deal with the notoriously overstepping strategies for which Knicks owner James Dolan has become famous.

The Knicks won just 17 games during their first full season under Jackson, but even during this rough stretch, this year’s squad is far more competitive. That said, we’ve seen Jackson loves familiarity—maybe to unusual degrees. He’s had a multiple-decade marriage to the triangle. He consistently hires people whom he knows well—like Fisher, Kurt Rambis and Jim Cleamons—to work on his bench. Returning to L.A. would just be another form of familiarity realized.