It was certainly a surprise when the news broke late Sunday night that Mike D’Antoni had been hired by the Lakers as their new head coach. The job was believed to be Phil Jackson’s if he wanted it, while a second meeting between Jackson and the Lakers appeared to be in the works, perhaps to finalize all of the details.
But something changed within the Lakers organization, and changed quickly. Whether it was too many demands from Jackson to return — which may have included a request for an ownership stake in the team, as well as the ability to pick and choose which road games he’d travel for — or something else, the team abruptly shifted its paradigm.
While Jackson may have been the popular choice and the one that fans were clamoring for, D’Antoni is the smarter one. The fact is that D’Antoni is a better fit for the long-term plans of the franchise than Jackson would have been, for a variety of reasons.
It’s easy to understand why everyone in L.A. would want Jackson back on the bench. Five championships won with Kobe Bryant for starters, along with a veteran pedigree and vast knowledge of the inner-workings of the Lakers family-run organizational dynamic seemed to make him a logical choice.
But for how long?
This is the problem, and it’s why the Lakers ultimately went with someone else.
For all of Jackson’s successes, let’s not gloss over his failures. When we last saw him roaming the Lakers sidelines, Jackson seemed to lack the necessary passion to get his team to play at the required level in the 2011 playoffs. Dallas swept a Lakers team out of the second round that was favored to win a third straight championship, and did so in fairly humiliating fashion.
The issue with that team, evident to anyone, was its sense of entitlement. Two straight titles had brought an unhealthy mentality that the Lakers would somehow find a way to win games without expending the necessary effort, simply because it had the most talented roster.
Sound like something that might have happened this year, with this team?
Even if Jackson had been able to coach this team to a title, there’s no guarantee he’d stick around to do it again next year. Reports had him wanting to mentor a young coach to hand the team over to after he was done, which may have been Brian Shaw, Scottie Pippen, or someone else.
If that was the case (and another demand in the negotiation process that may have made the organization sour on the idea), there’s no guarantee that Dwight Howard — remember, an unrestricted free agent this summer — would want to go through another coaching change, especially if he was fortunate enough to have already won that ring.
There’s all the talk about the extra millions Howard is eligible for under the collective bargaining agreement if he re-signs in L.A., but for a player with over $100 million in career earnings who might have gotten the career validation that comes with a title, it would be easy to see him choosing somewhere else to play the remainder of his years. That would essentially place the Lakers in a full-fledged rebuilding mode with an aging or perhaps already-retired Kobe Bryant, and would do so with an inexperienced head coach in charge.
Now obviously, that’s a whole lot of future speculation for a team that’s really only focused on winning this season. But there’s no guarantee that would have happened, despite Jackson’s resume.
Mike D’Antoni has relationships with Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, and won’t over-complicate the offense. On the defensive end, it’ll be amazing how quickly his reputation there will magically improve with Howard patrolling the paint.
Most importantly, the Lakers get a head coach who’s hungry for a championship, and in it for more than just this season. The same couldn’t possibly have been said with any certainty when considering Phil Jackson.