I love Phil Jackson. I love his personality, his wit, his gravitas and his life philosophies. Phil Jackson brought me the greatest joys watching the Lakers play, maximizing the talents of some of my favorite players like Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. I found it admirable that Phil Jackson took the risk to go run the New York Knicks, a franchise in complete disarray, knowing how large a mess had been created while also being his first foray into management. While I think Phil Jackson has made some mistakes in New York, I also think he has been given too much blame and been portrayed as far more aloof than he actually is. Phil Jackson may be new to management, but he is a brilliant basketball mind who’s been around the sport for more than fifty years.
I also believe that Phil Jackson should under no circumstances be brought back in any capacity to run the Los Angeles Lakers.
The discussion surrounding the Lakers and Phil Jackson coming back are nothing new, nor are they surprising. He has, after all, come back once in 2005 and almost again in 2013. He’s been in a relationship with the team owner, Jeanie Buss, and has been engaged since 2012. Phil Jackson has an opt out in his contract as President of the New York Knicks that coincides with Jim Buss’ self-declared “Deadline.” Phil Jackson also served as an early coaching mentor for Luke Walton, even including Walton in coaches meetings as a player when he dealt with back issues and was unable to play. For all of these reasons, and many more, it was not a surprise at all to see Mark Heisler write in the OC Register that Phil Jackson may end up in Los Angeles as early as next year to run the team.
For the sake of argument, I will give Jackson the benefit of the doubt from a basketball perspective. Yes, stories still come out from time to time about Phil wanting the Knicks to run more triangle, and that is alarming. But given Phil Jackson’s familiarity with Luke Walton, Brian Shaw, Jeanie Buss, and Mitch Kupchak (assuming Kupchak stays) there is enough years of working together to where I believe any concern about Jackson meddling too much with the on-court product would be minor.
My issues come at this from an organizational standpoint and also one that Phil would appreciate: philosophical. The Lakers may well have erred in choosing Mike D’Antoni over Phil Jackson, especially in the manner they did it in, but that doesn’t mean hiring Phil now would correct that in any way.
After all, the emergence of this Lakers team this year has been as much about Luke Walton’s brilliance as head coach as it has been moving on from the past. Kobe Bryant’s departure represented not only the passing on of a franchise legend, but of the last 20 years of Lakers basketball and the entire era that came with it. The team-building decisions, the style of play, the coaching hirings — all of those things were entirely refreshed the night Kobe dropped the mic on the Staples Center floor on April 14, 2016.
Had Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss stuck with Byron Scott or hired a retread coach from a previous era, the management shake up that would be required to bring in Phil would be justified. With salary cap room and Kobe Bryant retired, the management team made decisions that seem to be working very well. What would the organization be signalling to fans, prospective free agents, and the current roster by making a huge change like that amidst one of the more impressive young teams in the league? This is not an indictment or evaluation of Phil Jackson alone — what benefit would a huge change make at this juncture for anybody?
The dramatic improvements this year have strengthened the feelings people had about the management decisions over the last few years. Those that felt that Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak didn’t know what they were doing can point to the fact that a coach like Luke Walton should’ve been hired before, allowing young players like D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle start their careers in ways that wouldn’t let them succeed. Those that felt Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak were playing chess the whole time point to the fact that the Lakers needed to finish poorly to retain their draft picks that became these young promising players, a coach like Luke Walton only becomes available once in a few years, and the front office timed everything perfectly. The truth is obviously somewhere in between, and the truth is it also doesn’t matter. This was Year 1 of the true rebuild, and while that may seem unfair to some, it is the reality of the current situation.
Deadlines aside, Phil Jackson’s contractual situation aside, and rumors aside, the Lakers closed the chapter on the last era before this season started and would be wise not to look back again — even for a legend like Phil.