It is said that one of Phil Jackson’s strengths is massaging the egos of superstar basketball players and making them play great music together in pursuit of an NBA title. And Phil’s had great success at it. He’s won 11 NBA titles as head coach of the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers in 13 Finals appearances.
Unfortunately, the ego massaging does not extend to front office relations.
When Phil Jackson was not asked by the Los Angeles Lakers’ management following the firing of Mike Brown that saw the subsequent appointment of Mike D’Antoni, I immediately thought back to his first stint with LA and his time in Chicago.
Off to the Windy City first. It is believed that the tension that festered and grew between Jackson and then Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause was because the latter did not receive enough credit for the success of Chicago even if it was he who put every one in place except for Michael Jordan.
During the 1996-97 season, the relationship between the Bulls’ front office and the coaching staff and the players got so bad that it was a miracle that the main cast was back the following year. Krause signed Jackson, forward Dennis Rodman and Jordan to one-year deals and said that the coach would not be back whether he won the title or not.
The Bulls management badly miscalculated that top free agents would want to move to Chicago. But no Phil. No MJ. No Pippen. No Rodman. No way they wanted to go there if management could treat its top players that way. Four years later, the Bulls have only been back to the Eastern Conference Finals once. Although they have become contenders once more, does anyone really believe that they will win the Larry O’Brien Trophy this year?
Jackson went on to Los Angeles, where he led the Lakers to three titles from 2000-02. Following the failure of 2004 when the Detroit Pistons crushed them in the Finals, the team let him go (over contract squabbles) for Rudy Tomjanovich and then Frank Hamblen.
That Tomjanovich and Hamblen failed and Jackson returned for two more championships must have been galling for Lakers’ brass. Look at it – Jackson has won five trophies for the Lakers. That’s one more than Pat Riley who played for Los Angeles in the 1970s. That’s four more than Paul Westhead and Bill Sharman who both have one. Okay, John Kundla won five as well but you cannot compare the nascent NBA years to today. Let’s leave it at that.
A fan holds up a sign for Phil Jackson during the second half of the Los Angeles Lakers' NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors last Nov. 9 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
I agree that Mike D’Antoni is more suited to coach this current lineup, which will need a summer camp to learn the finer points of the triangle. So why all those noises about the job being Phil’s to lose? Of course, these were unofficial and off the record whispers being floated by anonymous sources to gauge the feel.
The Los Angeles Times’ Bill Dwyre said that Mike Brown had it coming as he lost 14 of his last 15 games as head coach. Didn’t D’Antoni do as bad in New York? He didn’t even finish his fourth season with them. His bright spot in Gotham City was unleashing Linsanity on an unsuspecting world. But that too, petered out.
It’s an ingenious way to disengage one’s self from controversy. But it still smacks of bad faith the way Phil was unceremoniously cast out from Lakerland. Again.
It is the management’s right to choose who they want but they seem to botch their public relations moves. Wasn’t it only a year ago when Pau Gasol was publicly used as trade bait? That is definitely no way to treat a player who led LA to two championships. Take note that Kobe Bryant, for all his greatness, never won a title without a star big man. He had Shaquille O’Neal in those early years and now Gasol. The jury is still out on Dwight Howard.
Do I think that Phil has what it takes to coach a modern-day NBA team? Of course. But perhaps rather than going to a contender, I’d really love to see him take a job with a middle-of-the-pack team and turn them into a bonafide contender. Teams like Milwaukee, Brooklyn or even Orlando. Now a playoff berth for clubs like them? That would be like winning a championship.