Between the hours of Mike Brown's firing and a meeting on Saturday morning with history's most accomplished coach, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak privately told people there was one candidate: Phil Jackson.
Jackson wanted to humiliate Lakers vice president Jim Buss far more than he wanted to coach the team. He wanted significant allowances on travel, coaching duties and an ability to veto player personnel moves that didn't fit his vision. With an unprecedented 11 coaching championships, Jackson had every right to make unprecedented demands. He doesn't have the right to be surprised when the Lakers rejected them and hired a pliable, cheaper coach in Mike D'Antoni.
"Phil wanted Jim Buss to walk away with his tail between his legs," one source with knowledge of the discussions told Yahoo! Sports. "He thought he had time to still negotiate with them, and see how much they would give him."
Now, the Lakers are going out of their way to spare Jackson the embarrassment of his overreaching, but this is pointless spin. They're working with him to sell the public that he hadn't asked for too much, that somehow the franchise chose D'Antoni over Jackson on sheer merit. It's noble, but laughable. Jackson heard those chants in the Staples Center and never believed the Lakers had the guts to call his bluff before circling back to him on Monday.
"Phil's assistants convinced him that they had his back on the concerns [Jackson] had about his load as head coach, and he was ready to get a deal done on Monday," a source with knowledge of the talks said. "But this was about Jim Buss giving him a royal you-know-what in the end."
If Jackson was ever to return to coaching to chase a championship in a preferred locale, this job offered him the opportunity. His instincts were wrong on how to play these negotiations and it blew up on him. The Lakers could live with making Jackson the highest-paid coach in the NBA again, but Jackson had to come back in full, and the Lakers were wise to have uncertainties.
Jackson listened to Kobe Bryant gush and gush about him on Friday night, and believed the strongest voice in the locker room would accept only his return to the bench. It was a mistake. Bryant preferred Jackson, but he has a history with D'Antoni back to his childhood growing up in Italy and across several years of USA Basketball. Bryant and D'Antoni have a relationship, a trust, and that's somewhere to start once they're thrust together.
[Related: Lakers name Mike D'Antoni as new head coach]
Once Jackson couldn't come to terms on Saturday, Bryant had prepared himself for the fact that D'Antoni would ultimately become the coach. For the Lakers' good, D'Antoni needs to have used his three-plus seasons in New York to have grown as a coach, as a leader, or this will go terribly for him in Los Angeles.
When everything had become too hard with the New York Knicks, D'Antoni walked into the office one morning and surrendered. Carmelo Anthony had stopped listening to him, stopped running his plays, and ownership never supported the coach. When Anthony grumbled to Bryant about D'Antoni's defensive acumen on a trip to Los Angeles before the coach's resignation in New York, one witness says Bryant shot back to Anthony – only half-kidding – that, seriously, when the hell have you ever played defense?
D'Antoni has been run out of the Knicks job and should be past the obsession he had over needing to win with his system, his way. These won't be the seven-seconds-or-less Lakers. They'll play plenty of pick-and-roll, but the biggest issue for D'Antoni's defense has never been where it was ranked in the league, but how the Suns players – including Steve Nash – never believed they were prepared for the big possessions, the big moments, in series with San Antonio. There was a discipline missing, a mindset, an understanding, in those moments of truths.
D'Antoni is notoriously sensitive to criticism, but he needs to be honest with himself to get the most out of these Lakers now, out of himself here. They never spent practice time on defense, because D'Antoni's offensive system was his genius, what got him into the NBA, got him millions, and his personal mandate was forever validating it. Now, he's older. These are the Lakers and D'Antoni has to understand: This isn't about his vision, but winning.
Within the organization, Kupchak and the coaching staff understood this: Dwight Howard can make D'Antoni a far, far better defensive coach. For now, the staff believes Howard is still a shell of himself, that mobility in his back still isn't close to returning for another month, maybe two.
Stan Van Gundy has already reached out to D'Antoni and encouraged him to keep assistant coach Steve Clifford on his staff. Clifford had a strong history of working with Stan in Orlando and Jeff Van Gundy in Houston and had gone to the Lakers to join Mike Brown's staff. As much as anyone, he understands how to incorporate an individual's flaws into the greatness of Howard's ability to dominate on the defensive end.
Over the summer, Jackson continued to tell people he was retired as a coach. He didn't want the job anymore. Once Los Angeles made the deal for Howard, his prism on returning to the Lakers changed again. Along with Bryant, Howard was the reason that a 12th title was possible for Jackson. Howard was the investment that made it easier for the Busses to buy out Brown's contract and make Jackson the highest-paid coach in the NBA again.
Jackson had his chance, and the strangest thing happened: The greatest coach in history overreached, misread the circumstances and had someone tell him "no" on Sunday night. The Lakers never picked Mike D'Antoni over Jackson. They picked him over desperation for Jackson. Maybe the Busses will regret the choice, but if Jackson truly wanted to coach again, no one will ever regret this more than him. These are still the Lakers, and nowhere else in basketball does this opportunity at this moment in time come along – even for Phil Jackson.
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