I'm not sure we're far enough removed to appreciate what an incredible story this is in the annals of sports: The Lakers turned down Phil Jackson. Someday they'll write a book or make a 30 for 30 about this, and we'll get all the details, but for now we just have to piece together what we know—and that includes, perhaps, allegations that the Mike D'Antoni camp planted false rumors about Jackson's demands.
Phil was the guy from the start of negotiations. He's Phil Jackson, for god's sake—he's got five rings with the Lakers, and more importantly than any of those, he's got Kobe Bryant's respect. Conventional wisdom was that it was Jackson's job to take, and only the requirements of his contract would have to be worked out. One of those stumbling blocks, we were led to believe, was Jackson's desire to skip a number of road trips.
Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak went to Jackson's house on Saturday to hammer out the details. No official offer was made, but Jackson was under the impression that they had shaken on it, and he would give them his decision on Monday. He never got the chance. According to the L.A. Times,
On Sunday, a person familiar with the situation, speaking anonymously because the deal wasn't complete, said the Lakers were 95% certain Jackson was their choice. By game time, the certainty had dropped to 70%, and the rest quickly disappeared in the next few hours.
Around midnight, the Lakers called Mike D'Antoni to let him know he was their guy. He was as shocked as anyone. Yesterday morning, he told the New York Daily News that he believed that Jackson was a lock to return to Los Angeles.
"Sure I did," he said. "For sure I did. Didn't everybody? When I got the call that it was me, my first reaction was, ‘Are you serious?' "
Jackson got his own call not long after. He's 67, and his age and physical limitations were apparently a concern for the Lakers, so it may have convinced them they made the right choice when it turned out Jackson was asleep when they called. They told him they had gone with D'Antoni, wished him luck, and foreclosed on the off-and-on Phil Jackson era in Los Angeles—Judging from the hard feelings, there's no way the revisit the possibility in a couple of years.
Reportedly, Kupchak told him that he, and both Busses believed that D'Antoni was the best coach for the job. Jackson, ever sarcastic, replied, "I don't. But OK."
Jackson said the wake-up call was "slimy." His agent was even more frank:
Musberger gave the Times even more, blasting what he called false reports of Jackson's demands for front office power and limited travel. He laid the blame for those rumors at the feet of the Lakers, or more intriguingly, on Mike D'Antoni's people.
"No discussion of those ideas being contractual terms or demands was ever made. They had a full discussion of the club, the roster, the schedule, assistants, etc. But to allow someone either on their side or on D'Antoni's side to make these allegations — unsubstantiated and incorrect — and incorrectly maligning Phil is so objectionable to us that the process would have concluded this way."
Well now, this is a new wrinkle. If it was the Lakers planting false info, it was surely done to drive down his contract demands—reports had Jackson wanting as much as $15 million a year, though again, those reports may have been leaked by the Lakers. But if it was the D'Antoni braintrust dropping the rumors, what was the point? The Lakers would have realized it wasn't true when they negotiated with Jackson. What does D'Antoni have to gain by winning over a sliver of the public opinion?
Unless of course Jackson's reported demands were accurate, and he's now trying to cover his ass.
The actual reasons the Lakers chose D'Antoni over Jackson may be the least interesting aspect of this story—if they're basketball-related. (Jim Buss plain doesn't like Phil Jackson, and the feeling's mutual. I wouldn't be surprised if the whole ordeal was a pair of power plays writ large.)
Steve Nash and Dwight Howard are made for D'Antoni's pick and roll. Jackson's triangle is a first cousin of, and just as complicated as, the Princeton Offense that the Lakers were so inept at running that it cost Mike Brown his job. If Kobe doesn't get the iso-heavy sets he loves, at least he gets a coach he idolized as a kid. Howard, a free agent at the end of the season, gets a player-friendly coach and one whose offense is sure to pad his stats.
The rest of us? We get the return of the Showtime Lakers, and a furious Phil Jackson stewing at his Montana lake house, wondering what he can do to get back at L.A. This one's far from over.