EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – It is easy to paint the firing of Mike Brown just five games into the second season of a four-year, $18 million contract as an overreaction of Steinbrenner-like proportions.
The firing of Brown simply was an acknowledgement by Jim Buss — the son of Lakers owner Jerry Buss — that he never should have hired Brown in the first place.
Read into the Princeton offense, the hard-driving practices, the absent defensive intensity of the early season all you like, but they were simply symptomatic of a problem that should have been apparent the first time Jim Buss sat down with Brown.
He isn’t a big picture guy. Brown is, as general manager Mitch Kupchak noted in opening his press conference Friday, a genuine and decent man, and it would be hard to find a coach who devotes more of himself to the job.
That might have been fine in Cleveland, and it might have been fine with the Clippers, but the Lakers are a different animal from any place else in the NBA.
The Lakers are the Knicks with expectations, a franchise where players have had their own reality shows (Lamar Odom) and their own realities (Metta World Peace), and where the expectations are outsized only by the size of the big top.
It’s a place where, when the coach dates the owner’s daughter, everyone just shrugs.
All of which is a way of saying that Buss should swallow his pride again – the way he did Friday in acknowledging one mistake – and correct another by bringing back Phil Jackson.
Jackson wasn’t just allowed to retire after the Lakers’ failed run at another three-peat in 2011. It’s as if he were told to take all his belongings with him, too.
Buss did not have a conversation with Jackson at any time during his final season, and Brian Shaw — his top assistant who had a long and close relationship with Kobe Bryant — was passed over. There also was a purge of the training, scouting and equipment staff, a move that stood out in a franchise that had prided itself on family.
If the Buss family chafed at having to pay Jackson $12 million a year – he took a pay cut to $10 million in his final season – they’ll now pay Brown about $13 million to walk away.
The reason Jackson was worth every penny is that he understood what was really important and he carried a strong enough personality – and, yes, 11 championship rings – to stand behind his beliefs.
If the Lakers were lackadaisical in a loss, Jackson wouldn’t berate them. He’d simply write on the dry-erase board, “Bus at 11,” and let the players decide when they wanted to stop being embarrassed.
This sort of approach gave Laker players a sense of calm during the turbulent moments the Lakers typically endure, especially during the playoffs.
If you think players are naturally impervious to this, then you did not see 36-year-old Antawn Jamison emerge from the shower and enter the locker room after the opening night loss to Dallas, his first game as a Laker. He was stunned by the sight of about 50 reporters.
“Wow,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Any discomfort in reuniting with Jackson, now 67 and recovered from knee replacement surgery last March, should be finessed away easily enough. At least easier than his second run with the Lakers, which came after he published a memoir calling Kobe Bryant uncoachable.
Kupchak acknowledged that the Lakers will at least have a conversation with Jackson.
“When there’s a coach like Phil Jackson, one of the all-time greats, and he’s not coaching, I think you would be negligent not to be aware that he’s out there,” Kupchak said.
Where Steve Nash would fit with a triangle offense is a question that easily could be resolved, and so many of the Lakers’ core – Pau Gasol, Bryant, World Peace, Steve Blake – already are familiar with that offense. The one sticky matter could be how long Jackson expected to return and how it would impact Dwight Howard’s decision to re-sign when he becomes a free agent this summer.
The Lakers, who might not have been in this circumstance had they hired Rick Adelman two years ago, are fortunate to have some other capable coaches on the market, the place Kupchak said they were most likely to look.
Mike D’Antoni, who has a strong relationship with Nash and has worked with Howard and Bryant on Team USA, certainly would be an improvement. Nate McMillan is a strong defensive coach who has a good relationship with Bryant from the last two Olympics.
“I love Nate,” Bryant said in 2011. “He’s a no-nonsense guy.”
It also is likely the Lakers would ask Indiana for permission to speak with Shaw, whose easy demeanor and ability to talk frankly with the strongest personalities would serve him well.
But for the Lakers, if they are as all-in as their summer suggested, there is one call to make. It’s one that would re-energize the locker room as well as the fan base, and put someone on the bench who can see not just what is happening on the court, but what is going on down the road.
The Lakers corrected one mistake Friday. They know how to fix another.