For all the reasons this could never happen — and there are many — there’s at least one factor that makes the idea of Phil Jackson leaving retirement to lead Los Angeles’ other NBA team worth pondering.
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Yes, Vinny Del Negro still has the job, having coached the Clippers to a respectable 9-6 record after snapping a four-game losing streak against Minnesota on Wednesday night. And even if the Clippers start freefalling again, Donald Sterling could be a roadblock in enticing Jackson. And even if Jackson didn’t object to working for Sterling, the frugal owner might balk at bumping up his coach’s salary to the $12 million range.
It’s entirely possible that Jackson’s hot-and-heavy flirting with the Lakers after Mike Brown was fired was, in large part, about Jackson needing to feel loved, having power once again over Jim and Jerry Buss and dishing out some post-retirement humiliation to an ownership group he’s not exactly tight with.
Those are all reasonable reasons to think Jackson would not — and should not — leave retirement to coach the Clippers, making this more of a thought experiment than a reasonable option.
Here’s why it might just be the best crazy idea of the week: Because it turned out the Busses were the ones who humiliated Jackson.
The Lakers’ owners waited until word spread, probably by Jackson, that he wanted the job before calling him at midnight and telling him they thought Mike D’Antoni was the better fit and they had, in fact, already hired him. They played it just so that they could let the world watch the best soap opera in sports culminate in leaving Jackson embarrassed, empty-handed and forced to let surrogates like Brian Shaw criticize the Lakers for how they handled the whole thing.
Which is to say, if humiliation and power is the goal, the Lakers handled it masterly and at Jackson’s expense.
But winning at that game can have consequences. Revenge makes for strange bedfellows and improbably perfect alliances. Publicly besting Phil Jackson might have felt great, but he’s a dangerous target to motivate against you.
The Clippers, if they stumble onto any more four-game losing streaks and revert to last year’s late-season form, theoretically could end up in the market for a head coach. Del Negro is in many ways like Mike Brown: Hard-working, likable, able, but burdened as much as blessed with a klieg-lights-worthy team in which limping along won’t be nearly good enough. He could stay, no doubt, and win. He also could be gone by February.
If Mike Brown showed us anything, it’s that in this new NBA, huge expectations unfulfilled can lead to the blame falling to head coaches with little or no notice.
If that happened, hiring Jackson might be a reminder that your enemy’s enemy could be your friend. For the Clippers, in particular, the move would be a boon.
Until Dwight Howard goes on the market again next summer – and maybe not even then – the biggest free agent in Los Angeles will remain (an unretired) Phil Jackson.
Sterling would get a headliner, a guy who would sell tickets and create buzz, a loss leader (even at millions of dollars for a single season) who legitimizes Sterling’s place and provides a counterweight to the idea LA remains unquestionably the Lakers’ town.
The Clippers also would get a head coach capable of taking their promising parts and turning them into the best team in the West.
Jackson would get a lot from this pairing as well. He’d have probably the best point guard in the game in Chris Paul — who, yes, he’d need to fit into his triangle offense by tweaking the system — a rising star in Blake Griffin and a cast of assorted characters around them begging to be led to a higher place. The master of mind games could do a lot worse for teams to step into and turn into champions than the Clippers.
Jackson also would be littered with glory even by his historical standards if he won his 12th championship with the Clippers. This wouldn’t be taking Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen or Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal all the way. Paul is the real deal, but Griffin, stuck somewhere between superstar and very good player, is hardly a sure hall of famer.
That’s the good stuff that comes with the Clippers. The joy of sticking it to the Lakers might be just as sweet.
By setting up shop in the other locker room, Jackson would be a weekly reminder to the fans, the media, the league — and guys like Kobe — what the Buss family passed on. He’d have an eye-to-eye view of a rivalry with D’Antoni that he’d almost surely dominate. He’d get to extend his mind games to two locker rooms, his and the Lakers. And he’d remind the world that the idea that the biggest star in the NBA these past two decades has been Phil Jackson all along – despite going up against teams like these Lakers and their full-loaded roster – isn’t so crazy after all.
Revenge, ego, success, money, glory and praise and more revenge — that’s the mix the Clippers offer.
Did I say it was farfetched? Perhaps. But it’s also a combination that sounds made for Phil Jackson.
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