The Los Angeles Lakers lost their Sunday night showdown with the Minnesota Timberwolves’ young core, dropping them to 6-5 on the season. Even with that loss, fans would be excused for letting the young, fun, and somehow suddenly good Lakers distract them from all of the discussion over Jim Buss’ self-imposed deadline to get the team back to contention by this summer or step down.
Well, it’s been a few weeks, so it is time once again to discuss the infamous deadline. Jim Buss said he would step down from his position as vice president of basketball operations if he did not return the Lakers to contention by this summer. His sister, Lakers president Jeanie Buss, has publicly defined contention as the second round of the playoffs.
As much fun as the Lakers’ competitive start has been, this team is not going to the second round barring an act of God. Whether or not Jim Buss will or should step down because of that is a separate question, but the possibility has led many to theorize that New York Knicks president Phil Jackson could be headed back to Los Angeles this summer to take over the team he used to coach and reunite with Jeanie Buss, his fiancee.
Jackie MacMullan of ESPN discussed the possibility with Jackson in a wide-ranging Q&A on Monday, and he claims he’s not chomping at the bit to escape from New York:
JM: You have an opt-out clause in your contract after this season. Do you plan to exercise it?
PJ: I have not entertained that. I'm looking for this Knicks team to get back into a situation where they are competitive. Do I have to win a championship before I feel I've done the job I've been asked to do, which is to bring this group back to that competitive level? No, I don't. We're starting to make progress. I like a lot of the things we are doing here. But we've got more to do.
JM: Lakers executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss said if the Lakers didn't make it to the Western Conference finals by 2017, he would step down. It's unlikely the Lakers will meet that goal. Why not go back and run your old team?
PJ: They're moving forward in the right direction. Luke (Walton) has them engaged, Brian (Shaw) is an associate head coach; they have a core group of guys that will get it done. It was never important to me to go back and be a part of that. Especially not now. I have this job, this commitment.
JM: Then why bother to include the opt-out clause?
PJ: The real issue with the opt out was simply my rationale regarding the (potential) lockout. If it was going to happen in December and everybody chose to walk away, there was no way I was going to sit in New York for three, four months when I didn't have a job, because (the players) aren't even allowed to show up to work. So, in that case, I would go back to L.A.
JM: You are in a bi-coastal relationship with Lakers president and part-owner Jeanie Buss. How difficult has it been to be apart?
PJ: It's hard. Very hard. It's hard to keep a house out there. I've got eight grandchildren in the Bay Area. FaceTime has really helped me.
JM: So where's home?
PJ: My accountant tells me I can't be a California resident anymore. I spend too much of my time in New York.
Despite Jackson espousing his love for California, he is not the only one involved in this whole weird situation to imply he’s not interested in a return to the Lakers. Jeanie Buss herself claimed last February that she wasn’t trying to lure Jackson back to Los Angeles, so all the parties involved are saying that a reunion isn’t in the cards.
However, if the two were to acknowledge the possibility or publicly flirt with it, that would essentially be admitting to collusion and/or tampering on their parts. So basically even if this is how they legitimately feel, we won’t really know whether or not Jackson finding his way back to the Lakers is a real possibility until it does or doesn’t happen.
Whether or not the door should even be open is another question entirely. Jim Buss may have made a bravado-filled guarantee of contention several years ago, but would it really be in the Lakers’ best interests to force him out when the team appears to finally be headed in the right direction?
Yes, the Kobe-farewell tour slowed the rebuild. Yes, the team has not gotten the free agents they wanted over the last few summers and had to overpay this offseason. Those acknowledgements aside, it’s almost inarguable at this point that Jim Buss made the correct hire in Luke Walton and appears to have assembled a young core of players worth building around.
The team has additionally held off on any temptation to move those core pieces in exchange for players that would help them get a few more wins in a desperate gambit to hit any arbitrary deadlines, and it’s hard to think that if the team’s current trend of improvement continues throughout the season that the best decision would be to break up the Lakers’ current administration. Even if Phil Jackson actually wanted to return.
MacMullan’s whole interview with Jackson is worth a read, and you can do so here. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.