As devoted watchdogs of the NBA, we're on the cusp of a compelling interlude that could be referred to as "The Summer of the Triangle."
This three-sided reference has little to do with how the Los Angeles Lakers attack opposing defenses and everything to do with what its leading practitioner may lend to July's free-agent lollapalooza. The practitioner, of course, is Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who — in the midst of attempting to steer his team past the Phoenix Suns — must negotiate the brackish tide of aggressive reporting. The optimistic journalism includes an ESPN effort that claims the Chicago Bulls are interested in hiring Phil to come back and coach their team.
The revelation (wink-wink) indicated that "back channels" have been used by those close to both sides in an effort to gauge Jackson's interest in returning to the team he coached to six Michael Jordan-induced NBA titles during the '90s. We're not sure if these back channels are of the Sci-Fi variety, but Phil has playfully denied any interest in being employed by the Bulls next season.
Jackson's current Lakers contract — which drops $12 million into his bank account per season — expires at the end of this campaign, making him the second-biggest free agent of the summer. Lakers owner Jerry Buss allegedly would prefer bringing back Phil at a more budget-friendly $5 million or so per year. While that still seems like dandy remuneration, it's quite a pay cut, in relative terms. Especially for a decorated Zen master.
That's where the free-agency triangle comes in.
OK, the valedictorian of this summer's free-agent class is none other than LeBron James, who — even before Phil became involved — was pointed toward the Bulls by ambitious reporters looking to scoop the world on where the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar will work next season. With dominoes being warmed up in several NBA cities, it now is presumed that Phil and LeBron may be connected at the negotiating hip.
A coach with 10 (going on 11?) championship rings certainly seems like a fine selling point for every franchise eager to pay James. And having LeBron in uniform is not a bad way to entice Jackson — who already has worked ring-bringing wonders with Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal — into a change of scenery.
Besides, won't it be far less interesting to those outside Cleveland and L.A. if Phil and LeBron stay put?
With that on the table, let's start constructing our coach-player-team triangle.
We know Jackson and James are soon to be on the market and the Cavaliers and Bulls are coach-less. That's right, by failing to see 61 victories converted into a berth in the Eastern Conference finals and beyond, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert was provoked into firing Coach Mike Brown. One of the first reflexes of news gatherers was to stick Phil in Cleveland, which — if we are to believe the travel tips of Bulls center Joakim Noah — may be quite a long shot.
But the Bulls? Now that, on the surface, may make a bit of sense. Jackson earned six rings while coaching the Bulls and his inspiration for leaving — general manager Jerry Krause — no longer works for the franchise. Chicago already has a head start on future success with Noah doing the dirty work near the rim and young point guard Derrick Rose providing the zing. LeBron and Rose both seem to need the ball in their hands to be happy, but let's not cloud these flights of off-season fancy with legitimate concerns.
Anyway, James — who reportedly has an interest in the Bulls regardless — may decide playing for Jackson would be irresistible. Would he sign if Phil remained undecided on his coaching destination?
And would Phil rejoin the Bulls before a commitment from LeBron? That's what makes these days so fun.
Would James, Rose and Noah be enough to bring Jackson back to the Windy City (remember, he denies even having an interest at this point)? And would the Cavaliers — if they eventually embrace the notion that LeBron is a goner — be willing to sign and trade James in exchange for a couple of decent Bulls (hello, Luol Deng) rather than lose him for nothing? A sign and trade would enable the Bulls, who have about $23 million in salary-cap clearance in their pockets, to bring in LeBron and afford another high-brow playmate, such as Chris Bosh.
Jackson, who — face it — could be only mildly waving off these back-channel reports as a potential negotiating chip with the low-balling Lakers, may look at that roster and become a bit more serious about returning to Chicago. We shouldn't, however, eagerly assume that Bulls boss Jerry Reinsdorf is locked and loaded enough to pay Jackson what Phil and his agent decide is the going wage.
This question of money brings us to New Jersey, where Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov seems willing and more than able to cough up sufficient money to make such a transaction happen.
Prokhorov's Nets also have the cap room to buy LeBron and a buddy, with talented center Brook Lopez and point guard Devin Harris still on the payroll. This bit of rampaging conjecture led Phil, when asked, to admit he wouldn't mind downing a vodka with Prokhorov.
While the smart money remains on Jackson to either continue coaching the Lakers or ride his bike into the sunset, the quest to maintain leverage should compel both Phil and LeBron to keep the fourth estate guessing for several weeks. But even with 10 rings already in the bank, the 64-year-old Jackson's leverage could be slightly diminished if he continues to pretend that Pau Gasol can guard Amar'e Stoudemire.
By the way, I have two words of advice for how to deal with Phoenix's ridiculously effective 2-3 zone. Those words are (drum roll) … short corner. Run one of your bigs behind the defense along the baseline and watch the middle open up even more than it already is. Either do that or assume Ron Artest, Lamar Odom and their pals will make 3s back home at Staples.
The short-corner thing is just an idea and doesn't cost 12 million bucks.