If you had an NFL running back who rushed for a 1,000 yards but could get one who repeatedly rushed for 1,500, and you wouldn’t have to give up any other player, would you? How about letting go a MLB 25 home run guy for a 40 plus guy? If money wasn’t an issue, these are pretty easy calls right?
Yet after the 2012 NBA season a few franchises seemingly had no problem bypassing arguably the greatest coach in its sports history, Phil Jackson. Let’s look at three teams that coulda shoulda went Zen.
The Los Angeles Lakers – I have been a fan of current Laker Coach Mike D’Antoni. Loved him in Phoenix with the Suns, and thought he got a raw deal in New York with the Knicks. If not for a cheap shot by San Antonio Spur Robert Horry against Steve Nash, that instigated Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw to come off the bench and get suspended, I think Phoenix beat he Spurs in that 2007 playoff series. They’re then the favorite to win the championship. That win would have put to rest whether D’Antoni’s style of play can win it all.
That aside, his style was clearly not the best match for this Laker team. Not with their bigs, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. And not with their star player, Kobe Bryant, being so comfortable with Phil Jackson and his triangle offense. Which oh by the way is better suited to star center Dwight Howard who they hope to retain as a free agent.
True the Lakers were hit hard by injury, but they clearly under performed this season and had chemistry issues. This forced Bryant to play far to many minutes down the stretch just in the hope of nabbing one of the last playoff spots. Bryant wound up rupturing his Achilles tendon, an injury that Laker personal says you can’t attribute to the excessive minutes thrust upon the 34-year-old star. However, according to WebMD, the causes for an this tear include overuse and stepping up activity too quickly. Um, playing 45 to 48 minutes a game qualifies as overuse and stepping up ones activity. This seems to agree with common sense.
Had Jim Buss been able to set his ego aside and hire Jackson, the Lakers would have been in a better position and likely would not have had to push Bryant. This may not have eliminated, but certainly would have reduced his risk for this injury.
True Jackson would have cost more money then D’Antoni, but Kobe is going to cost Buss 30 mil next year that he will not be getting a good return on. And who knows, with a fourth or fifth seed maybe these Lakers could have pulled off the offset and won it all. Then all of the Jackson haters could have said yeah but look at all of the talent Jackson has.
The New York Knicks – As soon as Mike D’Antoni resigned in mid-season from the Knicks, it didn’t take long for the rumors to start about Phil Jackson returning to the team he was drafted by and had won a championship with as a player. Assistant coach Mike Woodson was promoted to interim coach and certainly did more than enough to earn the job full-time.
But I go back to my opening analogy, if you have a 30-homerun guy and 40-homerun guy who do you take? The additional money Jackson would cost amounts to pennies for Knick Owner James Dolan. The Knicks have had an up and down year but do appear to be rising heading into the playoffs. They do have the talent to upset Miami and win it all. Will they? Anything short of that should leave questions with respect to what they would have done with Jackson.
For as good job as he has done, Woodson has placated the supremely talented but ball stopping Carmelo Anthony. The chemistry between he and a healthy Amar’e Stoudemire is still not there and Melo still shoots too much.
Phil Jackson and his gravitas may have been the best thing to ever happen to Melo. If Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were able to accept and thrive in the ball moving triangle offense, you know Melo would have had to try to make it work as well. I also think Jackson would have gotten Melo to play better and more consistent defense. The book is still open but anything short of a championship this season or within the next two and you have to wonder.
Oklahoma City Thunder – Scott Brooks has done a great job with the Thunder. They made the NBA finals last year and got a little jobbed by the officials on their way to losing to the Miami Heat in five games. Brooks’ contract expired and he was a coaching free agent. For a minute, it looked like he might not reach agreement. There was a slight murmur of Phil Jackson to OKC, but not any serious exploration. This was a mistake.
They may say all of the right things off the court but clearly there are on court chemistry issues between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Zen Master, has a little experience in this department with two stars, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, who didn’t like each other. Durant and Westbrook appear to like to each other and do want to win.
With the departure of James Harden to Houston, I think Jackson would have made an even bigger difference heading into this year’s playoffs, especially in confidence and fourth quarter execution. In fact I will go ahead and say it: With Phil Jackson, OKC would have won it all this year. Now we will see.
Unlike LA or NY, money could have been a real issue with OKC, but I think it was foolish of ownership not to explore further. Maybe Jackson takes less for this opportunity?
Like Woodson in NY, Brooks earned his place. But this isn’t about that. Sports is a win now business. When the window is open, you never know how long it will stay open. And when the game’s best is available for the job and can take you that next level, you seize it. Or at least explore all avenues to see if you can make it work before making your choice.
I think all three franchises struck out here. We will see if and how it haunts them. We will see if and when they raise their next or first championship banner. And if they don’t win, we will wonder if they would have done better if they went Zen.