The Lakers circus: Nothing new

Posted: November 14, 2012 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , ,

“This is so unlike the Lakers.”

I’ve seen that sentiment expressed a few times the past five days, as the Lakers fired Mike Brown five games into the season, a day after saying his job was safe. I saw it as the entire thing devolved into he said/office said/sources said, with Phil Jackson emerging as a front-runner, fans chanting “We Want Phil,” Mike Dunleavy’s name popping up in terrifying fashion, Lakers fans speculating about Jerry Sloan, Magic Johnson being tossed into the mix for being an instigator and Mike D’Antoni being named coach early Monday morning. What a debacle. So unLakerlike.

It certainly was something of a fiasco, though a necessary one. But in the world of the Lakers — or at least in the world of Jerry Buss’s Lakers — it really wasn’t that outlandish. This happens in Lakerland. The shine from those championship trophies perhaps distracts people from seeing the dirt.

Jerry Buss’s Lakers are not Jerry Jones’s Cowboys or George Steinbrenner’s Yankees. Buss is the best sports owner of the past 30 years and there’s really not much argument. He presided over 10 titles and 16 Finals appearances. He always seems to, eventually, make the right call, the crucial decision that makes the difference between title or failure, whether it’s not trading for Roy Tarpley or picking Kobe Bryant over Shaquille O’Neal.

But the occasional chaos intrudes on the championship parades, even when it precedes them. Buss’s Lakers aren’t Steinbrenner’s Yankees. But they also aren’t the Pittsburgh Steelers.

For the second time in 31 years, the Lakers fired a coach in the first month of the season following a game in Utah, which must be some sort of record. In November 1981, the Lakers fired Paul Westhead after 11 games, his final one being a road victory over the Jazz (that was actually his fifth victory in a row). That game is famous for the statements Magic Johnson made in the locker room, where he expressed displeasure with Westhead. The coach’s subsequent firing led to a bit of public outrage against Magic. As the story — or the legend — goes, Buss had decided to fire Westhead a few games earlier but gave him another week. Magic didn’t actually get Westhead fired but that’s the way the story went. Or perhaps that’s just a bit of post-firing spin, something the Lakers still do pretty well.

An unknown assistant named Pat Riley, who had also spent time as the mute lifeform seated next to Chick Hearn, took over, won the title that year, captured three more with the Lakers and became one of the greatest coaches in NBA history with the most famous hair in sports. We know how Riley’s story ended, but the beginning was nothing but confusion. Buss originally named Riley “offensive coach” and Jerry West coach, which West himself corrected at the press conference. The Lakers legend did spend time on the bench with Riley before finally stepping away.

In 1994, the Lakers fired Randy Pfund near the end of the season and hired Magic Johnson, a shocking decision that was the most confusing personnel choice involving Magic until television producers decided to give the Hall of Famer a talk show. Magic as coach lasted 16 games, five of which he won. His brief tenure is best remembered for the cell phone he smashed when it started ringing in the locker room.

Five years later the Lakers had recovered from Magic’s 1991 retirement, and his two returns to the court, not to mention his coaching career. The team had Shaquille O’Neal and a young Kobe but 12 games into the season, Buss fired Del Harris. And while all that was going on, the team signed Dennis Rodman, who would prove to be uncoachable by anyone other than Phil Jackson. Firing a coach 12 games into the season and bringing in the Worm? Was that Laker-like?

No, coaching chaos is nothing new for the Lakers, as the Rudy Tomjanovich saga also proved. But it always seemed to work out for Buss. The Riley hire led to Showtime. Even the Harris firing eventually led to Phil Jackson taking over before the 1999-2000 season, as he replaced Kurt Rambis, who was still a decade away from scheming a way to start Ryan Hollins over Kevin Love. That first Phil hiring led to three titles. When he returned before the 2006 season, the team was coming off a season when it missed the playoffs for the first time since the Pfund-Magic year. That second Phil hiring led to two more titles. It again all worked out for Buss.

What happens this time? Lakers fans believed a third Phil reign would have meant at least one more ring. Lakers fans probably would have been overjoyed to have Mike D’Antoni replace Mike Brown. Now it feels like he replaced Phil Jackson and they don’t like it. I always wanted Phil on the Lakers bench. I never wanted him to leave, not in ’04 and not in ’11, even though both seasons ended in humiliating fashion for the Lakers and all signs pointed to Phil being sick of the team and the team being tired of him. He brought an arrogance to the team and exuded confidence. He seemed like the smartest guy in the room, even if he sat in the big chair smirking during a blowout elimination loss in Phoenix or Boston or Dallas. It all seemed like part of a plan, even when it ended a season. Phil is famous for refusing to call timeouts when the opposition goes on big runs. He’s letting the team learn. It’s part of the plan. The blowout losses in elimination games felt the same way, as bizarre as that seems. Beyond the Xs and O’s, beyond the media quips and jabs, beyond the sideline interviews, beyond the books he hands out to players and the ones he writes calling them out, I think that’s what Lakers fans miss most about Jackson: The idea that everything would always be all right.

Who knows what to believe in the latest drama. The family dynamics add another element to all of it. Jim Buss and Jerry Buss are the major players for the Lakers but Jeanie Buss is Phil’s longtime girlfriend. Imagine Billy Martin dating George Steinbrenner’s daughter.

Whether Mike D’Antoni was the first choice all along or a backup pick doesn’t really matter now. Of course his style can win a title. Since 1982 — when that unknown assistant won a title with the Lakers — 11 NBA coaches have won a championship. Three guys won 20 of those. D’Antoni isn’t Riley, Jackson or Popovich. But why can’t he be a Billy Cunningham or a Rudy Tomjanovich or a Doc Rivers, guys who finally won titles when a team’s talent aligned with circumstances? D’Anonti was done in by injuries in 2005 and 2006 and Donaghy (possibly) and Stern (definitely) in 2007. In 2006, he took a team that had Raja Bell as its third-leading scorer all the way to Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. That’s coaching. He has to deal with an older Steve Nash now, but he also gets a slight upgrade at shooting guard.

The stint in New York ended badly but everything since Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals has ended badly for the Knicks. That proved he couldn’t win with a franchise led by a son who took a business over from his father.

Ah. A son leading the franchise. There’s the problem with the Lakers now. That’s why there’s a chance this soap opera actually is fundamentally different than the ones that played out in the past. This is no longer primarily Jerry Buss’s team, even though he does still have final control. Jim Buss is now the man. Lakers fans trusted Jerry Buss’s instincts, an odd sentiment for an elderly man who dates teenage girls and gave the world coach Magic. But it always worked out in the end for him, no matter how chaotic the journey. People don’t have the same trust in Jim. But he is responsible for helping to bring in Howard and Nash. He did cut ties with Brown when it was obviously time to do so. Maybe he can be like his old man.

Many times a Lakers circus ends with a ring. If this one doesn’t? That would be unlike the Lakers. And this time, Phil won’t be there to save them.

  1. Rich Jensen says:

    D’Antoni isn’t doing it for the Lakers this year. They were eleven wins from the title last year, and I don’t think that their upgrades makes up for that.

    You mentioned Rivers and ‘talent aligned with circumstances’: If anything the subsequent three years have demonstrated one thing conclusively: A team with an aging core can’t win a title with a terrible bench.

    If Rivers, whose game plans minimized the weaknesses of an aging roster and weak bench, couldn’t win with a better bench in Boston in 2010 than LA has this year, it seems difficult to figure out how D’Antoni could get out of a more competitive conference with a style of play that could end up exposing the Lakers’ weaknesses.

  2. Rich Jensen says:

    But I will give the Lakers credit for making the better hire, in picking D’Antoni.

    The way Phil handled the deal demonstrates exactly why he would’ve been a terrible choice at this juncture.

    Consider: The Lakers fired Brown after 5 games (Friday), they call PJ *after* firing Brown (Saturday), and PJ temporizes with them, and wants his agent to work with them on Monday? Where’s the sense of urgency, or even the most remote appearance of eagerness to get to work? It’s not there, and if it wasn’t there at the outset, you can bet it wouldn’t be there later on.

    By the end of his career, PJ was uncomfortable, trading on his past, and openly disregarding the various bits of dirty work that go with coaching in the NBA. Had he earned the ability to do this? Yes. Did that make him a good coach at that time? Heck no. He was a terrible coach in 2010, and walking away was the smartest thing he could do. By scotching his comeback attempt, no matter how much ill-will was earned, IMO, the Lakers did PJ a favor.

    • shawnfury says:

      Again, I wanted Phil. But he had a quote that the groundswell of support from fans was the main reason he had an interest in the job. If true (and who knows what his real motivation was) that’s not exactly a great reason to come back (since groundswell support is about one step above mob rule, which always works well). And I would say, give me a guy who’s hungry to prove himself, like D’Antoni.

      The bench could be a downfall but then again the Heat won without much help from the bench for most of the year (obviously core had a bit more energy in their legs than the Lakers). And even with the Celtics that you mention, they could have easily won in 2010. I don’t think the bench had much to do with them blowing that lead in Game 7. Maybe the Lakers will be more like the ’87 Celtics who had no bench and would have won if not for McHale’s foot injury (sorry, Simmons just took over my keyboard).

      I still think it’s them, OKC and the Spurs in the West. I do think they can beat both. And I think D’Antoni at least gives them a fighting chance, something Brown didn’t.

      • Rich Jensen says:

        Re: Heat — Bosh/James/Wade > Bryant/Gasol/Howard/Nash — Also, I don’t think Miami wins the ’12 title if OKC plays at the level they played against San Antonio, and if the Heat get ‘average’ performances from bit players like Miller, Battier, Chalmers.

        Re: Celtics — ’10 Celtics and ’12 Celtics blew 3-2 leads in their final series. Boston’s bench scored 2 points in game 7 vs. Miami. In games 7 vs. LA in ’10 and Miami in ’12, Boston had multiple score leads entering the final quarter. In both instances, it’s hard to discount fatigue as a factor. And that goes back to a bad bench in ’10 and a truly awful one in ’12.

  3. Jerry says:

    Phil wanted his ego stroked, to be begged for. I think when you want to be a head coach at any level you need to coach ALL of the games and not just the ones that the trip isn’t so far. That would be like an MLB manager saying he only wanted to manage games in the eastern time zone.
    The one thing not many people are mentioning is that Rick Adelman was interested in the job before Mike Brown was hired. Seeing what he is doing to revitalize basketball in the Target Center is amazing. Imagine what he could have done with the Lakers. But that also means the Wolves would have ended up with a coach like…Mike Brown. On second thought….

  4. shawnfury says:

    And my lust for Adelman is not revisionist. I wanted him from the beginning over the Lakers, thought he’d be the favorite. Then all of a sudden Brown has a great interview with a bunch of DVDs with Jim Buss. Sigh. But I am happy with how it worked out with the Wolves, perfect coach for them.

  5. Mark says:

    Adelman would have been a great hire, I agree.

    I also wanted Phil, but the reports that he wanted to sit home from some road trips (although his camp denied that…. after the fact), more control of the team, and possible ownership in the team…

    Sorry man.

    I do agree that Dantoni will be hungry, and he’ll get the most out of the team’s talent.

    I personally don’t think anyone is going to beat the Heat, no matter what they do. The reason the Thunder didn’t play “as high a level” against the Heat as the Spurs, has something to do with the Heat’s defense.

    btw, (off topic), watched the Thunder and Grizz last night… the Thunder do miss Harden so far.

    And the Grizz are pretty frisky. Like watching that team play.

  6. Rich Jensen says:

    Boston beat the Heat three times; pretty sure OKC had the ability to win more than one.

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