LOS ANGELES — You wonder if at some point during the last few days Phil Jackson lifted his arm, stuck his nose under his armpit and took a long, deep, olfactory-opening breath.
Hmmm, maybe that’s the problem.
It has to be something doesn’t it, because how can a coach who has won ELEVEN championships in 20 seasons a) not get re-hired by the Lakers when they decided they couldn’t win a championship with Mike Brown, b) not get a call from the Knicks this summer when they opened their coaching search, and c) get a nibble only from Portland when he put out the word that he would be interested in a consulting gig?
If Bill Belichick is considered a genius for winning three Super Bowls, what title should be bestowed on Jackson, who has won nearly four times as many championships?
Yet in a coaching career that has been defined by the unconventional — who else would tie his prospects to a once-obscure offense that nobody wants to run, or ask his players to meditate? — perhaps the most outside-the-box element of Jackson’s story is playing out now:
Why doesn’t anybody want to hire this guy?
“I don’t know,” Kobe Bryant said Tuesday after the Lakers’ 84-82 loss to San Antonio. “I don’t know the answer to that question, I honestly don’t. It seems like all our assistant coaches when they left here to even mention the word triangle was like taboo. I don’t understand it. It’s very strange. It’s very bizarre. You would think that organizations and other cultures would try to learn from Phil — that’s what they should do right? If you had a coach who has won more than anybody else, you would kind of want to study them and analyze them and figure out why that’s the case. But they haven’t done it.”
As he left the arena, Bryant said he was not sure why the Lakers passed on Jackson and instead hired Mike D’Antoni, who will arrive in Los Angeles Wednesday and is expected to be on the bench either Friday against Phoenix or Sunday against Houston, depending on how his recovery from knee replacement surgery goes.
Bryant, who has not spoken with Jackson since the summer, said that when he spoke Friday to Lakers vice president Jim Buss, the son of owner Jerry Buss, they both wanted Jackson.
If Jackson were unavailable, then Bryant said he wanted D’Antoni.
“If Jimmy would have said, ‘No I don’t want to have Phil here,’ then that would have stopped right there,” Bryant said. “If I said, ‘No I don’t want him, that would have stopped it right there.’ We both wanted him. I told him what I felt about Phil and how much I loved him, and it went down that road. It just didn’t work out.”
Asked to cut through the spin from the Lakers, Jackson and others, and give his best understanding of what transpired, Bryant was circumspect.
“I can’t afford to make assumptions or give my best understanding because then it turns into something else,” said Bryant, who is a staunch supporter of D’Antoni. “I can only speak facts and I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to Mitch. I haven’t spoken to Jimmy about what happened, the breakdown in negotiations. I don’t know what transpired.”
There are many reasons being floated for why the Lakers did not turn to Jackson — among them that he was asking for too much money, too much control, too many special circumstances and that he wasn’t the best fit for their roster.
But it is hard to escape the context of what has happened around the league since LeBron James bolted from Cleveland.
Since then owners have been adamant about seizing their league back. If that was their intent in negotiating the new CBA, making it easier to control player movement, then it stands to reason that teams might shy away from coaches who can be dominant figures — in Jackson’s case, a Zeus-like personality.
Let’s face it: Jackson’s modus operandi is to insulate the team not just from the outside world, but often from much of the organization. He feuded with Jerry Krause in Chicago, hastened the departure of Jerry West in Los Angeles and has no relationship with Jim Buss — and typically used any type of turmoil to foster team unity. This is why Mike Brown appealed to the Lakers in the first place.
And why elsewhere this summer, Stan Van Gundy was replaced by Jacque Vaughn in Orlando, Mike Dunlap — a well-respected Division II college coach — was hired in Charlotte, and why Terry Stotts, a sharp but mostly anonymous Dallas assistant, was hired in Portland.
So, when it looked like Jackson would be reunited with the Lakers, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich likened it to the Evil Empire.
“I just had this thought that it was like putting the Soviet Union back together again,” Popovich said. “Let’s go get Putin and put it all back together.”
The line that the Lakers are trotting out for why it did not happen is that D’Antoni is a better fit for the current roster than Jackson. “I know the triangle and I wasn’t convinced,” general manager Mitch Kupchak told reporters earlier Tuesday.
It’s as if Jackson isn’t a coach, somebody who might have adapted a time or two — winning championships with centers as disparate as Shaquille O’Neal and Luc Longley. Instead, he seems to be regarded as some type of animatronic matrix who must have the perfect players to plug into his “system.”
The notion that Jackson would not have adapted his offense to suit the talents of Steve Nash — by far the truest point guard he would have coached — is hard to fathom because Jackson’s system isn’t so much about the triangle as it is about giving his players the confidence (and freedom) to figure out problems as they present themselves on the court.
It’s about adapting
“That’s his theory, his philosophies, things that he lives by,” Bryant said. “It’s the whole Zen master thing. He really believes in letting things unfold, allowing players to develop, allowing the team to kind of grow into their identity, for guys to communicate with each other and be able to adapt on the fly — with each other — and removing himself from the equation, which I think is part of the mastery of what he has done.”
Bryant joked that he is the Baby Zen Master, having gleaned so much from playing under Jackson. He even went so far to admit that he probably would not have five championship rings if he had not played for Jackson.
The value of the right coach could be seen at the end of the night. When the Spurs got the ball with 19.9 seconds left, trailing by a point, they called timeout. For all the Spurs options, they ran Danny Green — Danny Green! — off a pick like he was Reggie Miller. Bryant got lost and Green sank a 3-pointer with 9.3 seconds left.
The Lakers answered by trying to inbound the ball to Bryant. He was cut off, predictably, so Metta World Peace dumped it to Pau Gasol in the corner. Trapped and with the clock winding down, Gasol launched a 3-pointer. It missed and the Spurs won.
“Popovich won that game,” World Peace said, shaking his head. “It’s not (Manu) Ginobli, not Tony (Parker), not Tim (Duncan).”
It is why the Spurs are perennial contenders and have won four titles under Popovich. He feeds players’ confidence and puts them in a position to succeed, not simply the stars, but the players like Green. This is something that Bryant hit upon in talking about Jackson, and it applies to select others like Popovich, Rick Adelman, Rick Carlisle, Doc Rivers and
D’Antoni, who made a phenomenon out of Jeremy Lin.
Whether D’Antoni, who has never reached the Finals before, can make these pieces mesh well enough to win a title will be the question that begins to be answered in the coming days.
Meanwhile, there is a man with many answers who sits at home, idled not so much by choice, but by circumstance. Why? That may be the most vexing Zen riddle of all.