By J.A. Adande
Phil Jackson shouldn’t take it personally should he and the Lakers part ways this summer, even if it comes right after a championship. It happens to the best of them. Like Jerry West. Or Phil Jackson.
West stepped aside as the Lakers’ executive vice president following the 2000 championship in part because he didn’t feel owner Jerry Buss had compensated him well enough. And West was a greater Laker icon than Jackson. West held the team scoring record for a quarter century. As an executive he maneuvered the right pieces around Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabber to cement the Lakers as the team of the 1980s, then set the foundation for the 2000s by landing Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in the summer of 1996. That still wasn’t enough to keep him a Laker for life, and he eventually moved on to the Grizzlies.
And how could a team let go of a coach before his championship champagne-soaked suit came back from the dry cleaners? Easy. It happened to Jackson himself with the Chicago Bulls in 1998 – and that despite having the ultimate leverage of Michael Jordan threatening not to return if Jackson wasn’t coaching.
Right now the Lakers and Jackson are at a financial impasse. Jackson doesn’t want to coach much longer, but he wants to maintain his $12 million salary as long as he still does it. After all, the franchise is much more stable and valuable now than when he returned to his specially-padded sideline chair in 2005. Buss, with more than $130 million locked into Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom alone over the next two years, wants to cut costs where he can, and wants to slash Jackson’s salary.
The irony is that this is all playing out just as Jackson is proving his worth. The Lakers are playing their best basketball of the season at exactly the right time, hitting an eight-game winning streak in the playoffs. And even with his contract coming up and his return uncertain he has somehow managed to keep the story alive without letting it overwhelm his or the team’s mission, just as it didn’t derail the Bulls in 1998. Jackson could easily refuse to comment on his status, yet he keeps taking questions and alternating between candid and coy responses. He has stated that he’s 90 percent sure he will be coaching the Lakers if he coaches anywhere next season, yet he has also said he’s only “leaning on the podium” when asked whether he was leaning toward retirement.
But his history shows he can be stubborn enough to leave even a good job if he doesn’t get what he wants. Bryant and Gasol got big extensions this season, so why shouldn’t he? The counter: because Bryant and Gasol got extensions…and there isn’t enough money for everyone. Although Bryant considers Jackson an important asset in his quest for more rings he didn’t make Jackson’s return a prerequisite for re-signing with the Lakers – probably in part because Jackson didn’t figure to be around for the entire four-year duration of Bryant’s contract anyway.
The top two candidates to replace Jackson, Byron Scott and current assistant coach Brian Shaw, both have Bryant’s respect dating back to their days playing alongside him in the golden uniforms. Buss likes making major hires who have Laker connections. He just doesn’t always do everything to keep them connected to the Lakers.