With Phil Jackson's Disciples Returning to Lakers, Will He Return to Team?

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 29, 2013

Apr 2, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA;   Phil Jackson looks on as the jersey of Los Angeles Lakers former player Shaquille O'Neal (not pictured) is retired during a half time ceremony during the game against the Dallas Mavericks at the Staples Center.  Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

The stars are aligning for Phil Jackson's formal return to the Los Angeles Lakers.

No, the Zen Master isn't suddenly so enamored with L.A.'s acquisitions of Nick Young and Wesley Johnson that he's clamoring to retake his spot on the bench. But thanks to some intriguing coaching moves—combined with what we've learned about Jackson's recent involvement in the front office—it looks like the Lakers are doing everything they can to create an appealing environment for Jackson.


Round Three with Rambis

The latest news comes first. Former Jackson assistant and Lakers lifer Kurt Rambis is back in the fold.

Rambis coached under Jackson for the better part of a decade, serving from 2001 until 2004, and then as a lead assistant from 2005 to 2009. As Jackson's de facto defensive coordinator, Rambis proved his worth and endeared himself to a number of powerful Lakers figures. When he left to assume the head coaching position with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2009, both Jackson and Kobe Bryant lamented his departure.

For anyone looking to explain the recent Rambis addition in a way that doesn't somehow relate to Phil Jackson, it's possible to argue that Mike D'Antoni's staff lacked a capable defensive-minded assistant and Rambis was a logical fit.

That makes sense.

But there are lots of available coaches who would have been willing to help D'Antoni shore up the Lakers' woeful defense. L.A. could have chosen almost anyone. Instead it went with the guy who has a stronger connection to Jackson than anybody not named Jim Cleamons or Tex Winter.

Ignoring the Jackson angle of the Rambis signing is like reviewing Pacific Rim without talking about giant robots; it's kind of the most important part.

And the addition of Rambis is just the latest sign pointing to a bigger role for Jackson.


Mad Dog, Dwight and Kobe

Mark Madsen, who played for Jackson for three seasons, is also now an assistant coach with the Lakers. While his nearly instant promotion from D-League head coach to NBA assistant doesn't have the sort of undeniable Jackson undertones that Rambis' hiring does, it still has some.

More importantly, Madsen has much stronger ties to Jackson and the era over which the Zen Master presided than he does to D'Antoni, which is really all that matters here.

Digging deeper into the still-recent past, we also know that Jackson has been keeping tabs on most of the Lakers' recent personnel issues. It'd be easy to point to the Jordan Farmar signing as evidence of that fact, but the more interesting Jackson intervention came during the team's free-agent courtship of Dwight Howard.

We know for certain that D12 wanted Jackson to take over as coach when Mike Brown was fired.

So it shouldn't be surprising that Jackson (either voluntarily or at the Lakers' request) recruited Howard in late June.

And in a show of support for the Lakers after Howard picked the Houston Rockets as his next destination, Jackson fired off a quick zinger at the departing big man.

Kobe Bryant's connection to Jackson has to be mentioned as well. Despite some rough treatment in Jackson's latest book, No. 24 practically worships at the altar of Phil. When Jackson's name came up as a possible replacement for Mike Brown last November, Bryant could hardly hide his enthusiasm. He even went so far as to practically apologize to his former coach for the way his most recent tenure on the bench ended.

Per Sam Amick of USA Today, Bryant said:

You guys know how I feel about Phil. The one thing that's kind of always bothered me is that his last year (in 2011) I wasn't able to give him my normal self, you know what I mean? Because I was playing on one leg. That's always eaten away at me. The last year of his career I wasn't able to give him everything I had.

Bryant was smart enough to also partially endorse D'Antoni at the time, but the bond he shares with Jackson is undeniable. So even if Jackson has been universally dismissive of a return to the bench lately, you can bet that there's nobody Bryant would rather have making executive decisions than the Zen Master.


Front Office Dreams

It's no secret that Jackson covets an influential front-office position. He wouldn't have spent half of the spring of 2013 taking meetings with NBA teams if that wasn't the case. In April, Jackson updated Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle on his recent schedule and future plans:

I’ve had some talks with people and there are some interesting situations that are presenting themselves, but I really haven’t made up my mind yet what I’m going to do. None of it involves coaching...There are three or four teams that have been interested.

Jackson said he would be interested in a developing team "where you’d have the influence in (selecting the) coaching staff and the kind of culture that goes along with it. It goes all the way down to—not down to, but includes—trainers and the people who are doing the hands-on work with players, that have to be really embedded with how you put a team together."

The well-documented hurdle to his return to the Lakers has been the rift between Jeanie Buss (Jackson's main squeeze) and her brother Jim Buss. The siblings essentially share the duties of their late father as the Lakers' primary decision-makers.

It was Jeanie, along with general manager Mitch Kupchak, who acknowledged Jackson's pseudo-consultant role with the team this past June. At a Time Warner Cable event, Jackson outlined the fuzzy details of his position to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:

It's not something I expect them to rely on me for information. But I'm there to offer it. They asked if I can be of assistance. I said 'yeah, I'll help in whatever area you need to have help.'

The Buss sibling rivalry once threatened to tear the Lakers apart, with Jim's side looking to distance the team from the Jackson era and Jeanie's side hoping to recreate it. The fact that Jackson is doing anything at all for the franchise is an indication that relations are improving.

Plus, as ESPN's Ramona Shelburne reports:

After those first few months, things have "smoothed out" considerably, as one person close to the family put it. The relationship between Jeanie Buss and Jim Buss has improved somewhat. The two siblings and Kupchak meet almost weekly to keep abreast of each other's business. Jim and Jeanie Buss also socialize away from the Lakers offices from time to time. And both are determined to maintain the legacy their father left to them, no matter the challenges ahead.

If everyone's finally getting along, the major roadblock to Jackson's front-office return might soon be cleared.


The Final Question

But what if these recent moves—Rambis and Madsen's hiring in particular—actually indicate that Jackson is already wielding considerable influence over the Lakers' decisions?

In a vacuum, it's possible to view the Lakers' latest coaching moves as being unrelated to Jackson. But because we know about his connections to both individuals, his unofficial role with the team and the increasingly Jackson-friendly environment in the front office, it's hard to ignore the writing on the wall.

There's also a third viable explanation, which is that the Lakers are assembling some of Jackson's preferred personnel in an effort to entice him to take on a larger role. But even if that's the case, it's pretty clear that all of the recent developments point to one conclusion:

Jackson's coming back.