With Phil Jackson now running the New York Knicks, the Los Angeles Lakers are officially on their own. And as terrifying as the prospect of life without the Zen Master might seem, Lakers fans, players and front-office members are all better off knowing they can't rely on Jackson to float in on a cloud of sage smoke to save them.
L.A. got its clean break from Jackson in the form of a press conference on March 18. It watched Jackson accept the Knicks presidency. And though it was a painfully abrupt form of closure, it was exactly what the Lakers needed.
Never Got Over Him
Jackson retired from the Lakers in 2011, walking away after winning five rings in Los Angeles because of health concerns and, probably, an understanding that the team's top-tier talent was heading down the wrong end of the aging curve.
Since then, Lakers fans haven't exactly done a great job of letting go.
When Jackson was in the running to replace Mike Brown in November 2012, fans at the Staples Center let their feelings be known.
They piped up again at the end of that season when the Lakers retired Shaquille O'Neal's jersey.
Those are just two examples, but there have been plenty of other instances when the assembled Purple and Gold loyalists gave voice to their innermost desires by chanting "We Want Phil."
The desperate cries were a symptom of a larger disease that afflicted everyone associated with the Lakers organization. Whenever anything went wrong, hiring Jackson was always the answer. It was a panacea capable of curing issues on the sidelines, in the locker room and in the executive suite.
Well, at least that's what many fans believed.
Kobe Bryant was as guilty as anyone, openly campaigning for Jackson to succeed Brown last season. And when the news broke about New York hiring the only coach with whom Bryant had ever won a title, No. 24 lashed out at his bosses for letting Jackson slip through their fingers a second time, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com:
You know how I feel about Phil. I have so much admiration for him and respect and I have a great relationship with him. Personally, it would be hard for me to understand that happening twice. It would be tough. I don't really get it.
The mythical figure even Bryant believed could save the Lakers was gone, and nobody adjusted to that development well.
ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne explains the mentality that made accepting the reality of Jackson's departure so difficult:
People got used to it that way. It was comforting to know Jackson was still there, close by. Just a tweet away. That also made it hard for other things to grow, but it was better than the alternative.
When legendary owner Dr. Jerry Buss passed away last February, Jackson was still the one subsuming that patriarchal role in this very strange, dysfunctional saga. The Lakers and their fans never really had to stare into the abyss in front of them.
All alone, they're staring into the abyss now. And in a strange way, that's a good thing.
A Dose of Reality
Jackson was always going to be just out of reach for the Lakers, and that's part of what makes his official unavailability so healthy for his former organization.
Jim Buss was never going to hire him, something we should have accepted when the team passed over Jackson in favor of Mike D'Antoni. The decision itself would have been enough, but the fact that L.A. abruptly cut off talks with Jackson on a late-night phone call (when Jackson was reportedly giving a return serious thought, no less) permanently severed the tie.
And whatever slim chance for reconciliation might have existed disappeared when L.A.'s roster fell apart.
Jackson has never really been a "fixer" by trade. He generally takes a group of players with enough talent to get the job done and imposes his system onto them. There's no system that can fix the Lakers' broken roster, and Jackson knew it.
Admittedly, that theory makes it hard to fathom why he'd sign on with the similarly dysfunctional Knicks, but that's another discussion entirely.
The point is, Phil was never coming back. Now, everyone who plays, works and roots for the Lakers has to focus on the future—instead of foolishly hoping for help from the past.
The safety net is gone. Jackson isn't hovering around the periphery as a symbol of hope anymore. He isn't going to save Los Angeles.
Based on the comments James Dolan made at Jackson's introductory press conference, it's the Knicks' turn to rely on the Zen Master's ability to magically resurrect a franchise.
Dolan: "He is the ideal executive to lead our team and develop short and long term plans that ... result in an NBA championship."— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) March 18, 2014
At least Jackson's on the payroll in New York, though. That makes those hopes a bit more realistic than they ever were in L.A.
Jackson's decision to join the Knicks doesn't provide any answers for the Lakers' current problems. It does, however, force L.A. to confront some unpleasant questions on its own—for the first time in years.
The team has to find some unity at the top. And perhaps whatever rift might exist between Jim and Jeanie Buss will start to close now that Jackson is out of the picture professionally.
From there, a coaching search has to begin in earnest. Jackson's absence from that event will also be a good thing for the Lakers. Now, whoever replaces D'Antoni won't be viewed as a backup plan or placeholder. Jackson won't loom over the next coach like he did D'Antoni.
And maybe as Bryant comes to terms with the notion that no savior can swoop in and help him squeeze another ring into the twilight of his career, he'll gradually acknowledge the reality of his final seasons in the league. It's too late for Bryant to undo his team-crippling deal, but maybe he'll finally admit his contract is as much of a roadblock to his team's future success as anything else.
Again, that won't change much. But it could result in a little less hypocritical complaining from Kobe. I think we're all in favor of that.
Jackson is a few thousand miles away from the Lakers now, but he might as well be a few thousand light years. That distance does nothing to fix what's wrong in Los Angeles, but it provides real closure. Nobody affiliated with the organization can rationally hold out hope he'll come out of retirement to help.
Now, maybe L.A. can get down to the business of helping itself.