Among the options being considered by the Toronto Raptors as they weigh the futures of team president Bryan Colangelo and coach Dwane Casey is making a run at Phil Jackson, according to sources with knowledge of Toronto's thinking.
Now that heavyweight sports executive Tim Leiweke has been hired as the new president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment -- the Canadian conglomerate that owns and operates the Raptors, NHL's Maple Leafs and Toronto FC in Major League Soccer -- Toronto's chances of successfully luring Jackson north of the border appear to be much more realistic.
Sources told ESPN.com this week that the Raptors have interest in talking with Jackson about the Pat Riley-style role he craves in charge of a team's basketball operations. ESPN.com reported last week that Jackson, after nearly two seasons in retirement, is itching to return to the NBA next season, preferably in a role similar to Riley's in Miami that allows him to oversee both the basketball department and the coaching staff or perhaps as a high-level consultant such as Jerry West in Golden State.
Leiweke is a major player in the sports industry and Jackson is very familiar with his work in Los Angeles, where Leiweke helped get the Staples Center built for the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers as well as the NHL's Kings. Leiweke also has a longstanding working relationship with Lakers executive Jeanie Buss, Jackson's fiancee.
At his core, Leiweke is a big idea man. When he wanted to make MLS and the Los Angeles Galaxy relevant in a town that usually only has eyes for basketball and baseball, he had a big hand in convincing international soccer star David Beckham to come to America after Beckham's time at Real Madrid.
There will inevitably be naysayers throughout the league skeptical that Jackson could ever be convinced to come to Canada, but Leiweke is unlikely to be influenced by naysayers after the ultimate success of the Beckham marriage./
While Leiweke's hire doesn't guarantee changes with the Raptors, it does appear to throw the immediate futures of Colangelo and Casey into some doubt. Before Leiweke's hiring Friday, sources close to the situation told ESPN.com the Raptors were strongly considering retaining both.
In an interview this week with the San Francisco Chronicle, Jackson said "three or four teams" have already expressed interested and that "none of it involves coaching."
"There are some interesting situations that are presenting themselves, but I really haven't made up my mind yet what I'm going to do," Jackson told the Chronicle.
Jackson also told the newspaper he's interested in a developing team "where you'd have the influence in (selecting the) coaching staff and the kind of culture that goes along with it."
"It would be a real opportunity to implant the game, a culture that I believe in -- that's the intriguing part," Jackson said.
Colangelo, who won the NBA's Executive of the Year trophy after his first full season in Toronto in 2007, met the local media earlier this week for an end-of-the-season news conference with no assurances about the Raptors picking up the final season of his contract as team president and general manager. And while Casey has one season left on his contract as Raptors coach, it's not yet known how a GM change would affect his status, given that Toronto finished 34-48 after coming into the season with playoff aspirations.
It is understood that Colangelo will have to make a presentation to the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment board in the coming days in hopes of getting his option picked up. Colangelo was adamant Monday that Casey will stay on as coach if he stays, while MLSE chief operating officer Tim Anselmi told the National Post that the Colangelo decision would be made "with patience."
Sources say the Raptors are nonetheless intrigued by the idea of gauging Jackson's interest in heading up the entire basketball operation for a franchise for the first time in his career
Although Jackson's willingness to take on the sort of challenge Toronto would present as a franchise after just five trips to the playoffs in its 18-season existence remains unclear -- as does the amount of money it would cost Toronto to pull off such a coup -- sources stressed to ESPN.com that the overwhelming likelihood remains that the 11-ringed coaching legend will be back in the league next season in some capacity.
One source said Wednesday that Jackson has received feelers from multiple teams in recent months. Another source reiterated that Jackson is well-regarded by Chris Hansen, whose ownership group is trying to complete the purchase and relocation of the Sacramento Kings to Seattle.
Yet another source, while not specifically referring to the Raptors, said Jackson is approaching his future with far more of an open mind than has been portrayed and would listen to a pitch from just about anyone because he feels he still has a lot to offer the basketball world at age 67.
Among the bigger challenges Jackson would appear to face as he plots his return is the prospect of getting offers from teams like Toronto that are well shy of title contention after coaching nothing but high-profile, big-market powerhouses in Chicago and Los Angeles once he graduated to the Bulls' bench from the Continental Basketball Association.
Another likely issue is the possibility that interested teams will inevitably want him as a coach, given that he's the most successful coach in NBA history with those 11 rings and has never held a prominent NBA personnel job. Earlier this season, Jackson resisted coaching overtures from the Brooklyn Nets in the wake of Avery Johnson's firing and told longtime confidant Charley Rosen in January in a SheridanHoops.com story that he "has no intention of ever coaching again."
That stance, though, won't dissuade teams with coaching openings from approaching Jackson to see if there's any hope of persuading him to coach again, as Cleveland just proved. The Nets are still widely considered to be sitting at the top of the list of potential Jackson coaching suitors, thanks to owner Mikhail Prokhorov's longstanding interest in hiring him.
The chances of hiring Jackson, for any team, would seem to be enhanced by the fact that the Lakers don't have a suitable role to offer him at this time. Although Jackson did speak with Lakers management about replacing Brown in November before the club hired Mike D'Antoni, sources close to the situation say that a return to Los Angeles is highly unlikely.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said on numerous occasions during the final week of the regular season that D'Antoni will back in 2013-14 and deserves the chance to coach the team with a full training camp and a healthy roster. Pau Gasol and Steve Nash both missed more than 30 games this season, and Kobe Bryant suffered a season-ending Achilles tear on April 12.
ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin reported Wednesday that Brown's new contract in Cleveland is expected to relieve the Lakers of at most half of the $7 million they still owe him, meaning that L.A. would still be paying Brown and D'Antoni if they wanted to make a coaching change at season's end and bring Jackson back for a third stint on the Lakers' bench. There would also appear to be little room for Jackson in the Lakers' front office, with vice president Jim Buss and Kupchak currently running the team.
Toronto, though, is unlikely to have a free swing at Jackson if it decides to take its interest further.
NBA coaching sources continue to say that the opportunity to put together a coaching staff and front-office team might materialize for Jackson in Seattle if the group headed by Hansen and Steve Ballmer is ultimately approved as the Kings' new owners.
Coaching insiders also maintain that Prokhorov's well-known desire to make a splashy hire will keep Jackson and ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy at the forefront of his thinking, even though sources say that the prospect of interim coach P.J. Carlesimo retaining the job in Brooklyn has not been ruled out depending on how the Nets fare in the playoffs.
The job security of Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro has likewise been questioned all season, with Del Negro in the final year of his contract, which could create an opening that could keep Jackson in L.A. ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard reported in February that Clippers owner Donald Sterling has no interest in pursuing Jackson -- no matter how much that would theoretically bother the rival Lakers and their fans -- because Sterling has never gotten over verbal jabs Jackson threw at him while with the Lakers. But it remains to be seen how firm Sterling's position would be if the Clippers indeed had an opening when Jackson was available.
After a lengthy period out of the spotlight, Jackson has been increasingly visible in recent weeks, appearing at both Shaquille O'Neal's jersey retirement and a ceremony to honor the New York Knicks' 1972-73 championship team earlier this month.
Jackson also recently joined Twitter (@philjackson11) and will soon be releasing a new book, "11 Rings," with author Hugh Delahanty next month.