The Los Angeles Lakers have a new coach and it isn’t Phil Jackson.
After a weekend of rumors and talks between management and Jackson, the team’s former coach will not return for a third go-round. Instead, the Lakers pulled a late Sunday night surprise, hiring Mike D’Antoni, most recently the coach of the New York Knicks.
D’Antoni has a successful past with Steve Nash, acquired by the Lakers in the offseason, during their tenure with the Phoenix Suns. D’Antoni was less successful with the dysfunctional Knicks, but helped restore a semblance of competence during the heady days of Linsanity. D’Antoni has been available since he stepped down March 14 and his name was in the mix when the Lakers fired Mike Brown last Friday.
The Lakers, at least initially, weren’t saying what happened with talks with Jackson, famously known for dating Jeanne Buss, the owner’s daughter. D’Antoni, because of his relationship with Nash and the regard in which Kobe Bryant holds him, was an immediate front-runner. But it was Jackson, the Zen Master, whose name captured the imagination of fans…until late Sunday night.
“We signed Mike D’Antoni to a multi-year deal,” Lakers spokesman John Black said, mentioning the team’s owner and top two executives. “[Owner] Dr. [Jerry] Buss, [executives] Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak were unanimous that Mike D’Antoni was the best coach for the team at this time.”
D’Antoni, 61, had knee replacement surgery earlier this month and has not yet been cleared to travel, but sources told ESPN that he is further along in his recovery than expected. In the meantime, Bernie Bickerstaff will continue to coach the team, which has clawed its way to a 3-4 record after an 0-3 start. The Lakers are 2-0 under Bickerstaff. The Lakers play San Antonio on Tuesday night in L.A.
The big question with the Lakers is, as always, what does Kobe think. He was not consulted in the hiring of Brown and Brown’s Princeton offense clearly wasn’t working with the new group of stars the team signed in the offseason. Bryant and Jackson have a unique relationship, but as a child in Italy Bryant idolized D’Antoni, who was playing in the Italian pro league. D’Antoni also has been an assistant on U.S. national teams that included Bryant. Most recently, they were together with the team that won the gold medal in the London Olympics.
D’Antoni has a 388-339 record in the NBA and led the Suns to the Western Conference finals in 2005 and 2006 with Nash running the show. Jackson, though, has won five NBA titles and reached the finals seven times with the Lakers. Overall, his teams have won 11 titles. But he stepped down after a disappointing exit in the 2010 playoffs and has since had knee and his surgery. At 67, he made deal-breaking initial demands that included a stake in team ownership, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“He was asking for the moon,” a person who declined to be identified told the LA Times.
ESPN, however, reports that an unnamed source says Jackson was “stunned” to learn that D’Antoni was the team’s choice because “he believed the job was his.”
The Lakers signed D’Antoni to a three-year deal, with an option for a fourth, for $12 million. Both Nash, who won two MVP awards with D’Antoni as coach, and Bryant said Sunday they would be on board with hiring D’Antoni.
“Obviously, I think everyone knows how much I love Mike,” Nash said. “If he were the coach, it would be seamless and terrific for me, and I think the team as well.”
While Bryant liked the idea of another go-round with the Zen Master, he had no problems with D’Antoni.
“They know how I feel about Phil. They know how I feel about D’Antoni,” Bryant said Sunday. “I like them both, so that’s pretty much the extent of it. … [Lakers management hasn't] brought up a name where I was like, ‘No go.’ “
Still, it isn’t Phil. From the L.A. Times’ Bill Plaschke:
His teams famously don’t guard anybody. His offense is famously based on youth and quickness. His is a game of glitter but, so far, no NBA gold. How long is Dwight Howard sticking around if he doesn’t think this guy can make the Lakers a winner?
On Friday night, in the wake of the Brown firing, everyone from the fans to Kobe Bryant were begging for Phil Jackson. Come this morning, they should be begging for an explanation.