Lakers Left to Ponder What Might Have Been After Knicks Hire Derek Fisher

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterJune 10, 2014

LOS ANGELES — We are not granted a clear vision of what might have been.

That's the trick in every decision we make in life, big or small: Pick a path, and either own it or start second-guessing it, because no one actually lives in a Frank Capra movie at Christmastime to be acquainted with what transpires along the untraveled road.

The closest we can come is to imagine what might've been.

Some other day you try the dish you didn't order before. The dealer shows you the next card you would've gotten. The kid your team decided not to draft grows into something brilliant or brutal.

It's not true life, but it takes the thought bubbles and colors them in a little. And for the Los Angeles Lakers, an alternate reality is coming into focus, piece by piece.

Phil Jackson has hired Derek Fisher as his first head coach in New York, and the possibilities that legitimately could have unfolded for the Lakers are about to play out for the Knicks.

The Lakers are being offered a peek at what might have been—and for a franchise that has long been seeking to escape Jackson's broad-shouldered shadow, such a gift might actually be a curse.

With Fisher's undeniable leadership skills, it is possible he and Jackson succeed in New York and make the Lakers look bad for not letting Jackson build on his success in Los Angeles.

But the distraction is more abstract than that.

One of the few beliefs Jackson hasn't philosophized at length about in one of his books is his disdain for hypothetical scenarios. The whole what-if world that others find so curious is interference to whatever is on Jackson's plate for the moment. Even though he loves to leave his mind open for possibilities to present themselves to him, he has no interest in mulling over things that did not and will not happen.

It's all about searching for the straightest-line drive to the hoop.

And if that's true, if the entire concept of some parallel universe or alternate reality springing from a hypothetically different decision is so useless, then what an ultimate mind game Jackson has played on the Lakers.

It's going to be impossible for the Lakers and their fans not to muse as Jackson and Fisher try to rebuild the Knicks while Jim Buss and his coach-to-be simultaneously try to rebuild the Lakers.

The finality of Jackson going to New York was supposed to free the Lakers to go about their business, but the more that Jackson builds a pseudo-Lakers family out East, the more the diversion grows.

The Lakers did not long for Fisher to be their head coach the way Jackson did. It was already clear two weeks ago that Fisher was not expected to be the Lakers new coach, and it was hardly a shock, considering how little inclination there has been to continue Jackson's Lakers legacy.

Jerry and Jim Buss did not like having to turn to Jackson to bail the club out once or twice…and they refused to let it happen a third time. The idea was that the Lakers are bigger than Phil, which is why the baton was not handed down to Jackson disciple Brian Shaw in 2011 and not back to Jackson himself in 2012. And with Jim and older brother Johnny uncomfortable with the idea of bringing Jackson into any official management capacity—even as Jerry Buss' other four children were open to it—Jackson was forced to leave fiancee Jeanie's side and city for another job.

Now longtime Laker Kurt Rambis, whose wife is one of Jeanie's best friends and a big reason Kurt and Phil became close pals, is reportedly set to leave the Lakers' bench to serve as a trusted, experienced assistant to Fisher in New York. Rick Fox or Luke Walton could go along also.

Remember that two-time Lakers champion and triangle triggerman Lamar Odom already signed on as a potentially key reclamation project as Fisher installs Jackson's old offense. Andrew Bynum, just the sort of one-year free-agent flyer who makes sense for the Lakers to try this summer, might be next in New York, given how he absolutely reveres Fisher.

It's no stretch to say that Fisher, with his wife and children still living in Los Angeles and buddy Kobe Bryant still the cornerstone of the team, would be the Lakers coach if Jackson had been hired to run his old team in the West instead of the East. Fisher's annual basketball camp is still scheduled, for the moment, in Los Angeles for July 14-17.

The former union president and co-captain with Bryant on the Lakers' last two title teams has no coaching experience—but fundamentally, he is the kind of leader the Lakers need after the tenures of Mike Brown and Mike D'Antoni, neither previously affiliated with “The Laker Way” or inspiring enough to win over the roster.

Fisher won all five of his NBA championships with the Lakers, but even if Jim Buss had wanted him, Fisher has held serious doubts about the Lakers' direction since the death of Jim's father, Jerry. And as unnerving as the what-ifs about the past might be for Lakers fans, this might all just be a precursor to the real stake through the heart in the future.

Could Bryant leave the Lakers in 2016 to reunite with Jackson and Fisher with the Knicks? If the Knicks are restocked to contender status by then, it would be logical for Bryant to put off retirement to pursue another championship, especially when the energy of New York has always been a particular fascination for him.

But the Lakers have the same hope: rebuild on the fly and have Bryant put off retirement to win again with them. And ironically, the Lakers are taking a rather Jacksonian approach to their current coaching search, letting it develop slowly and organically, with several more candidates still to emerge.

After the failures of Rudy Tomjanovich, Brown and D'Antoni, whomever Jim Buss tabs as this Lakers coach is far more critical to his legacy than Fisher will be to Jackson's.

Do not underestimate, though, just how much it means to Jackson to have secured Fisher to mentor.

One of the few things Jackson doesn't shrug off easily is the notion that his coaching tree is so limp-limbed. He sees himself as the product of his teachers—with the names Red Holzman and Tex Winter known to many of us only because Jackson and his success breathed so much life into them.

Both of Jackson's parents were ministers, and he believes deeply that wisdom should be shared—not just stored away. So even though Steve Kerr declined the Knicks job, Jackson will be rooting for Kerr to succeed with the Golden State Warriors as ardently as he supports Shaw's Denver Nuggets.

The truth is that before Jackson came to embrace the idea of running a club's entire basketball operation, he was quite smitten with the idea that he could serve in a simple, smallish role as mere consultant to a head coach. This fresh challenge is about the competitive juices, but at its core, it is about wanting to impart his knowledge and add to a legacy that transcends his record book.

The Lakers took that away from Jackson in 2011, brushing off his chosen successor so coldly that Shaw still feels stung by the snub, and then just a year later, believing Jackson's concepts to be so archaic that they hired D'Antoni.

As the Buss family tries to figure out what the next variation of The Laker Way is, Jackson finally gets to hand out his first advanced degree in Zen Mastery.

And Fisher's job is to take those Jackson ideals—and improve on them for this generation in ways Jackson can't even imagine, but yearns to see done.

The Lakers will never truly know whether it would have worked if they'd stuck with Jackson, but they won't have to search for their ex-girlfriend on Facebook or wait for a school reunion to see how she turned out.

The Knicks will be out there for all to see—and for the Lakers to watch and wonder.


Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.


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