The Los Angeles Lakers had ample opportunity to hire Phil Jackson back, but they took a pass. Now that their former coach is running basketball operations for the New York Knicks as their new president, he may be looking westward for assets.
And why not? The basketball legend has developed a lot of relationships over his long career.
A winner of 11 championship rings as a coach and two more as a player with the New York Knicks, Jackson has long had a habit of turning to familiar faces to achieve the best results in his system-oriented style of basketball.
Most recently, Jackson tried to hire one of his former players, Steve Kerr, as the new head coach for the Knicks. Kerr wound up joining the Golden State Warriors instead for a longer guaranteed contract, a better roster of players and the opportunity to remain closer to his family in California.
Kerr described the difficulty of his decision in a telephone interview with NBA.com, per David Aldridge:
Ultimately, it was agonizing to say no to Phil because of what I think of him and what he's done for my career. When Phil Jackson asks you to coach the Knicks, how do you say no? I think they're going to turn it around, but going to be a big undertaking and it's going to take time. The idea of doing that 3,000 miles from home, it just didn't feel right.
That’s okay. Kerr may have been the first one Jackson invited to the Big Apple dance, but there are plenty of other hopefuls waiting in the wings.
Among the candidates mentioned by Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne for ESPN are Brian Shaw, Derek Fisher, Kurt Rambis and Luke Walton.
The Lakers failed to promote Shaw as Jackson’s replacement in 2011. They also traded away Derek Fisher, hired Kurt Rambis as an assistant coach last season and have Luke Walton under the family umbrella as a player development coach for the D-Fenders.
Shaw is currently the head coach for the Denver Nuggets, Fisher’s still in the playoffs with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Rambis has one year left on his Lakers contract and Walton is filing stories for the Lakers’ cable television channel during the offseason.
Jackson would have to seek permission to speak to any potential new hire who’s currently under contract. A Nuggets transaction seems difficult as league rules only allow teams to trade for coaches using cash or draft picks, and New York has none of the latter in the 2014 draft.
As for the SoCal situation, P-Jax is engaged to Lakers president Jeanie Buss so that might not necessarily be a problem. Except that Fisher, Rambis and Walton have also been mentioned in connection with another head coaching vacancy—you guessed it, the Lakers.
The Knicks and Lakers have more than one need, of course—there’s the matter of the players themselves.
The Zen Master already got the jump on next year’s roster by signing former Laker Lamar Odom. There’s no harm in that—Odom’s been out of the league for a while, and his former coach is simply reaching out and lending a helping hand. What better way for a troubled former champion to get another chance?
There’s also the matter of Steve Blake, the veteran point guard who the Lakers traded away to the Warriors in February. Blake’s now a free agent and was supposedly open to returning to Los Angeles. But now a guy with a whole lot of Finals hardware may be interested, per Ian Begley of ESPN New York.
Free agents are the easiest targets of all, of course—no messy contractual arrangements and, most likely, an openness to playing for an organization headed by a guy with a lot of championship bling.
The Lakers gambled by signing one-year contracts on a rash of promising young players last season while letting existing contracts expire on others. Jackson’s been keeping tabs. As he said to Sam Amick for USA Today: “About the only channel I could see was the Clippers and the Lakers, and that was it. Local cable covers those two teams at Time Warner, and Fox, but I didn't get League Pass so I didn't see a lot of the other games in the league.”
He didn’t spring for League Pass? Well at least he got to watch guys like Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson, Jordan Hill and Nick Young. And then there’s Pau Gasol—one of Jackson’s favorites and a versatile player who easily absorbed the nuances of the triangle offense.
Jackson and Gasol always did have a "warm and caring" relationship.
Of course, the Knicks don’t really have much in the way of cap space to work with, and Gasol won’t come cheap.
Can’t we work out some kind of sign-and-trade? C’mon, Phil—Melo isn’t a triangle guy, but Pau is!
And who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall during a negotiating session between 11 Rings and Lakers’ brain trust Jimmy Buss?
When it comes down to it, Jackson has always reached out to familiar faces for the most practical of reasons. And, the Lakers have willingly traded away assets and risked losing current players in order to open up salary-cap room for their looming rebuild.
There is no right or wrong here. But you can bet the bank that in time, the Knicks staff and roster will come to resemble a reunion of Purple and Gold.
And nobody should be surprised.
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