On Wednesday, the reports about Phil Jackson’s impending move to the East Coast took on a clearer meaning. A departure that would be stunning is far, far less about the New York Knicks than it is about the Los Angeles Lakers, with a very Zen power move playing out.
A future Lakers Hall of Famer, Kobe Bryant, and a present Hall of Famer, Magic Johnson, spoke up — pointedly — about the team’s management since the death of owner Jerry Buss a year ago.
Bryant announced that he will miss the rest of the season as he recovers from a left knee injury and took the opportunity to question the team’s direction. Jim Buss runs the team and Jeanie Buss runs the team’s business side, in addition to being engaged to Jackson.
“I think we have to start at the top in terms of the culture of our team,” Bryant said (via ESPN’s Dave McMenamin). “What kind of culture do we want to have? What kind of system do we want to have? How do we want to play? It starts there and from there, you can start building out your team accordingly.”
A large part of that concerns Mike D’Antoni, the man who was chosen as coach over Jackson in the fall of 2012. He is not likely to return as coach next year, largely because of reports that Bryant wants him gone, but issues are more complex than that.
“You got to start with Jim,” Bryant said. “You got to start with Jim and Jeanie and how that relationship plays out. It starts there and having a clear direction and clear authority. And then it goes down to the coaching staff and what Mike is going to do, what they’re going to do with Mike and it goes from there. It’s got to start at the top.”
And then there were the uncharacteristically critical comments from Johnson.
I love Jim & Jeanie Buss, but we need Phil Jackson to be the face of our great organization, the Los Angeles Lakers.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) March 12, 2014
Kobe Bryant is the face of the Lakers’ team. Who is the face of the Lakers’ organization?— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) March 12, 2014
In signing Phil Jackson Owner Jim Dolan & Steve Mills are saying to the Knicks fans, they’re ready to win now!— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) March 12, 2014
It’s no coincidence that, as the spoke, the clock was ticking on Jackson’s departure for New York, where he reportedly has an agreement in place to run the Knicks’ front office. Meanwhile, the Lakers have only 22 wins, tied for fourth-worst in the league, and Jim Buss has to find a way to pull the team out of this PR nosedive.
“How can I be satisfied with it? We’re like 100 games under .500,” Bryant said. “I can’t be satisfied with that at all. This is not what we stand for. This is not what we play for. A lot of times it’s hard to understand that message if you’re not a diehard Laker fan. It’s hard to really understand where we’re coming from and what we’re accustomed to, which is playing for championships and everything else is a complete failure. That’s just how it is. That’s how it was explained to me by Jerry [West] and all the other great Lakers who have played here and that’s how I grew up thinking. So that’s just how it is.”
As if that weren’t clear, Bryant had a zinger about what it was like watching the Lakers get blown out by the Los Angeles Clippers last week.
“Now I know what it feels like to be a Clippers fan all these years.”
Oof. Still, it’s not terribly surprising that it would come to this and there is a fairly simple fix. Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times provides some context:
It was Jim Buss, everyone will remember, who left Jackson dangling during the Lakers’ last coaching search before hiring Mike D’Antoni instead. It is Jim Buss who, by all accounts, is reluctant to rehire Jackson because he feels insecure and threatened by Jackson’s basketball knowledge and his sometimes smug way of sharing it.
It is Jackson who once acknowledged that he ordered a team plane to take off without Buss because he didn’t show up on time. And it is Jackson who is engaged to Buss’ sister Jeanie, which caused a huge rift since Jackson was snubbed for D’Antoni.
If Jeanie were in charge of the entire organization, Jackson would be leading the front office right now. But her father gave her only the business side. So Jim continues to call the basketball shots, which would mean that to hire Jackson, he would have to put aside his ego, essentially fire himself, and act for the good of Lakers fans.
If Magic and Kobe can’t get through to Buss…