Phil Jackson is back with the Los Angeles Lakers, and although his role appears to be a minor one, his mere presence in the organization is going to have far-reaching effects in the locker room and, most of all, in the media.
According to Arash Markazi of ESPN, the Zen Master is something of a consultant for the club, though his title and job description are largely unknown.
It bears mentioning as a preliminary matter that although all parties involved are claiming there are no interpersonal issues between Jackson, owner Jim Buss or general manager Mitch Kupchak, there's still reason to believe that there could be some tension after everything that happened last November.
Jackson seemed to be nicely positioned for the Lakers' head coaching job after Mike Brown's firing, but after a late-night phone call from Kupchak, he learned that the team had opted to hire Mike D'Antoni instead. Jackson reportedly laughed at the team's decision, and many speculated that Buss, with whom Jackson has a self-described "casual" relationship, didn't want to give off the appearance that the team had gone running back to its last successful coach.
Given the rift between Jackson's girlfriend, Jeanie Buss, and her brother, it's easy to envision a divided Lakers camp that can't get along often enough to focus on the job at hand. But assuming there's a modicum of unity among the team's decision-makers, Jackson figures to have a lot of influence going forward.
And not all of it bodes well in the short term.
The Locker Room
For starters, Jackson's mere presence undermines D'Antoni's authority. The Lakers' current coach is—or at least should be—on shaky ground after a disjointed, disappointing first season last year.
The team never arrived at a consistent style that fit the players on the roster. That's ironic, considering Kupchak cited D'Antoni's philosophy, and the way it fit the team, as a primary reason for hiring him to replace Brown. Obviously, that was an epic miscalculation by the Lakers.
In addition, D'Antoni failed to relate well with some of his key players. He jerked Pau Gasol around all year, never seemed to get along with Dwight Howard (understandable), and didn't do anything to command his players' respect.
When a coach is out of his depth as badly as D'Antoni was last year, it's almost impossible to regain control of a team.
But here's where it gets even worse for L.A.'s current head coach: Jackson always employed a consistent style and commanded the unwavering respect of his players throughout his career. If you don't think the current Lakers players will notice that, and subsequently compare Jackson's reputation to what they endured with D'Antoni last year, you're crazy.
If given the choice, every single player on the Lakers roster would likely pick Jackson as a coach over D'Antoni. And based on the ubiquitous "We Want Phil" chants that rained down in the Staples Center last year, the same is true of the vast majority of Lakers fans.
Kobe Bryant, still the most powerful personality on the team, respects and trusts Jackson far more than he does D'Antoni. Because Bryant still very much controls the locker room, the understanding that he prefers Jackson to D'Antoni will likely spread throughout the roster.
All of these factors combine to cut Mike D'Antoni's legs out from under him. To be fair, his mismanagement of the team in virtually all facets last season started the process that will almost certainly lead to his firing in the near future, but Jackson's presence as a foil figures to hasten his departure.
Whatever limited power D'Antoni still has will definitely be diminished by Jackson's presence.
Oh, and if Bryan Shaw—a longtime assistant to Jackson—doesn't land a job elsewhere this summer, you can bet the talk of him replacing D'Antoni will start up in a hurry.
Phil Jackson has a hard time staying out of the spotlight. Since joining Twitter earlier this year, he has chimed in repeatedly about specific Lakers players but has also given his thoughts on everything from the Washington Redskins nickname controversy to books on Taoism to Freddy Mercury.
In short, he'll be the furthest thing from a "silent partner" in his role with the Lakers, unofficial as it may be. Jackson enjoys attention, and now that he's entered some kind of weird "old man" stage where he can say just about anything and get away with it, he's probably not going to be pulling any punches.
Whatever Jackson's actual influence on the team is, he'll easily be the organization's most vocal and visible figure in the media.
And perhaps that's what the Lakers brass wants. Jackson is universally respected and stands as a symbol of confidence and success in the NBA. The Lakers bumbled their way through a disaster of a season last year, so putting Jackson in a position to operate as a figurehead could be a savvy PR move.
Finding What's Been Lost
I realize I've been trafficking largely in negatives on the topic of Jackson's return to the Lakers. At the very least, most of this analysis has felt like some kind of cautionary note. But on balance, Jackson's renewed tie to the team is probably a good thing. Assuming he's actually going to be allowed to influence basketball decisions, there's really not anyone more qualified to do so.
The team should be somewhat careful, as Jackson has never re-engineered a team in the sort of mess in which the Lakers currently find themselves—bloated budget, facing the loss of a marquee free agent, and dealing with the end of the Bryant era.
Nor has he ever built a winner from scratch, which is what the Lakers are going to have to do, to some degree, over the next couple of years.
But overall, Jackson knows how to win, is an expert motivator, and has excelled in stabilizing volatile situations (see: Rodman, Dennis). He knows how to get the most out of a roster. And more than anything, he embodies the kind of bold confidence the Lakers abruptly lost last year.
Finally, as an experienced, powerful voice that has had enough distance from the franchise over the past couple of years, Jackson is nicely positioned to look objectively at the Lakers and their many flaws. If the front office and the coaching staff can live with the considerable shadow of Jackson's presence hanging over the them, he'll probably provide a lot of valuable insight.
The Lakers have looked a bit lost lately, and Phil Jackson might be the man to help them find themselves.