The basketball world has been inundated with discussion of this summer's free agent class for what seems like an eternity now. We know all the major players: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar'e Stoudemire, with the possible addition of Dirk Nowitzki to the field. Kobe Bryant was once involved, but that matter has been resolved. The 2nd tier includes names like Joe Johnson and Carlos Boozer, and the 3rd tier is filled with guys looking to cash in once a couple teams inevitably miss out on their jackpot. But, there is another free agent out there, one who hasn't been discussed ad nauseum until quite recently. And his presence has the potential to change the game in 2010 completely. His name is Phil Jackson.
With the squabbles of the Buss family being aired like breaking developments in the Tiger Woods saga, we've all been made painfully aware that the only certainty surrounding Phil Jackson's employment next season is that it will exist. He seems to have found the health and motivation that were in question two years ago, and will definitely be coaching next year ... somewhere. It may be in Los Angeles, but that seems to be dependent on the Lakers success in the current season (seeing any parallels to other FA situations here?). If the Lakers win another championship, both PJ's legacy and Dr. Buss' bottom line will come to the conclusion that at least one more year is required in this arrangement. But, anything less than a banner will open the door for PJ to be roaming the sidelines elsewhere next year. Sorry, make that sitting in the nicest chair you'll ever see on a bench in pro sports. Phil Jackson doesn't roam.
And if Phil Jackson and the Lakers agree to a (less than) amicable dissolution of their marriage, PJ immediately becomes one of the hottest commodities on the NBA market. With so many teams going all in trying to win the free agency pot, Phil Jackson can be the ace in the hole that sees one of these desparate franchises strike it rich. That's because just about every one of the teams who intend to be a player on the free agent market have coaching situations that are tenuous at best, and disastrous at worst. New Jersey is already on the market for a coach. Chicago has one of the most maligned coaches in the league, and Vinny Del Negro may not have a job regardless of whether a replacement has been lined up for him. If Cleveland fails to win a championship, one would think Mike Brown would be shown the door. Hell, even New York might consider dumping D'Antoni ball if they could convince the Zen Master to come back to his roots. The only free agent player that is unlikely to pursue PJ is the Miami Heat, because that would mean Pat Riley wouldn't be able to steal the team from his young coach once things are about to get good again.
You think a big name free agent is going to sign in New Jersey so that they can be coached by Kiki Vanderweghe? You don't think Chris Bosh looks at the Bulls and thinks "VDN? Thanks, but no thanks." On the flip side, every one of these guys would probably love to play for Phil. He's the best coach in the history of the game. At the very least, his signing with a team that has money to burn on the free agent market would instantly pique the interest of the big names. And the best part? Phil Jackson might be expensive (signing him is not quite like adding a max player to your roster, but it's close), but his signing has no effect on that silly little salary cap. You won't even have to pay the luxury tax. He won't win any games, but he could very well be the catalyst that helps you bring in 1-2 superstars.
Which is exactly why you are starting to hear Phil Jackson rumors that sound just like the LeBron and D-Wade rumors we've been hearing for over a year. PJ to New Jersey. PJ to Cleveland. PJ to New York. PJ to Chicago (seriously? Does anybody really thing Phil wants another ride on the Jerry Reinsdorf merry-go-round?). It's all out there. Maybe not from the most credible sources, but then anybody who has a credible source on any of this is making it up.
Yes, friends, Phil Jackson is the most intriguing free agent on the market this summer, because it's a virtual lock that whereever he goes, at least one big name will follow him. Don't be surprised if he's the first domino to fall, the one that starts the chain reaction which will define the NBA landscape for the next 5 years.
That is, if he doesn't win a championship this season and just stay with the Lakers.