AUBURN HILLS, Mich. They have no salary-cap space for free-agent splashes. They have to leapfrog the Clippers just to get back to the playoffs. They have a roster even the new coach recently tagged as "not appealing at all."
It should be fairly clear why Jerry Buss took so long to decide whether he wanted to pay Phil Jackson some $10 million per annum to come back to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The time Phil needed to decide whether he was really ready to return naturally slowed things down, too, but this was a hugely expensive quandary for Buss. After he broke up the old Lakers it was more Buss than Kobe Bryant, yes Buss watched them crater to such humbling lows that he had to ask himself: Is paying Phil an annual eight-digit wage truly worth it now?
Eventually, though, Buss realized he had no choice, no matter how much pride-swallowing that meant for the boss and no matter what Kobe thinks. Even accounting for all of the fence-mending that looms with Bryant, and even knowing that Phil will be lucky to make the Shaq-less Lakers more than eight wins better next season, Jackson was the only hire Buss could sell to the L.A. public.
The only NBA owner regularly addressed as Doctor ultimately deduced that only Jackson could be passed off to the people as a marquee free-agent signing.
He's the only outsized personality and proven champion they could get between now and summer 2007, and probably beyond.
Their dreams of luring Yao Ming to Hollywood, a long shot at best, vanished when Rudy Tomjanovich stepped down. The Lakers likewise were never going to get a shot at Amare Stoudemire, no matter how many times someone suggested it, for Phoenix is going to lock Stoudemire up on a max-contract extension as soon as the rules allow it.
I still maintain, as I've said since the fall, that Peja Stojakovic will try to find a way to Lakerland next summer when he hits free agency, even though it's tough to see how the Lakers are going to afford him.
Even big Peja fans like me (and Laker recruiter Vlade Divac) can't claim that one of the game's top 3 shooters who could provide the floor-spreading help Kobe so greatly needs is at Phil's level on the superstar scale.
So Michael Jackson is free and Phil Jackson is back, and they're both dramatic outcomes. As my man Howard Beck of The New York Times said Tuesday afternoon on SportsCenter, the notion of a Phil-Kobe reunion is a lot more surprising than it seems in the moment, to use Zenmeister terminology. We've all been expecting the reunion for the past couple of months, sure, but that completely discounts how unlikely all this seemed back in the fall, when Phil's book hit the market.
"This is something I never thought could possibly happen," Jackson admitted in his very first sentence of Tuesday's Welcome Back news conference.
But Buss and Bryant had no other options. Kobe, especially, needs big-time assistance in a hurry, and he's savvy enough to understand that there isn't anyone else available to the Lakers to provide that help.
And Phil is going to help some, even immediately. The Lakers still don't have a single dependable power player, lack the big point guard required for the Zenmeister's system and, well, could use a whole new bench. Yet you have to give the greatest coach of the modern era appropriate respect. You have to believe the Jackson addition alone will restore the Lakers to Champions o' Staples status and nudge them back into the postseason.
Phil, late in the season, reached out to Lamar Odom to let L.A.'s new second-best player know how much he'd like to coach him. Even if he can't patch all the holes on the current roster, Phil is going to get much more out of the Kobe-Lamar partnership than Rudy T. did.
"You guys might come out and criticize and clobber the Lakers right now, but our track record speaks for itself," Bryant told reporters in April, in one of his last public addresses of the season.
"We'll be back up at the top and when we are, we're going to laugh at y'all."
The Lakers aren't laughing yet. That's still years away.
This dabs away some tears, though. This was the only way for Dr. Buss to go.