The most painful loss in a throbbing Lakers season came hours after Kobe Bryant was officially declared done until October because of a perpetually achy knee.
Phil Jackson is departing Los Angeles for New York, leaving behind a Staples Center-sized sore that could fester for years.
The legendary coach had officially agreed to become the Knicks’ president of basketball operations late Wednesday night, according to multiple reports, erasing any hopes of his helping to save the Lakers’ front office from its bungling ways. Jackson’s contract is believed to be for more than $15 million per season and could include partial team ownership.
Suddenly, a Knicks season that may or may not end with a playoff appearance is a humongous success.
The franchise that can’t shake a reputation for dumb decisions just got shrewd. Jackson brings credibility, basketball smarts and a reassuring presence that replaces madcap owner James Dolan as the face of the organization.
What marquee free agent wouldn’t take a lunch meeting with someone who has won 11 NBA titles as a coach and two as a player? Jackson could even seal deals by smiling wryly and sliding a book across the table like he did so many times with his Lakers players in an effort to enlighten them.
Dinner conversations figure to be even more fascinating in the household of Jackson and fiance Jeanie Buss, the Lakers’ co-owner.
Jackson: “Honey, guess what.”
Jackson: “Kevin Love says he’s interested in signing with us next summer.”
Buss: “Wait, that’s supposed to be our guy!”
Jackson: “Not anymore. Have another sip of wine.”
Of course, some might say going from coach to executive is a challenge that could drive Jackson to drink even as he returns to the franchise he helped win two championships in the 1970s. He’ll arrive at Madison Square Garden facing more questions than New York Mayor Bill de Blasio about the city’s homeless epidemic.
Can Jackson be as savvy in constructing a roster as he was in coaching one? Will he put in the legwork required to scout and evaluate players? Will he have the patience to develop draft picks? Will he relocate to New York? Can he travel extensively at age 68?
And, perhaps most pressing, what will he do about Carmelo Anthony? Does Jackson even want the high-scoring but largely unsuccessful star back?
Anthony told reporters Wednesday that Jackson’s arrival would have no bearing on the impending free agent’s decision to return to the Knicks but acknowledged the value Jackson would bring to the franchise.
“You can always use Phil Jackson inside or whatever — his philosophy, his mindset, his resume, what he brings to the game, what he brings to a team or organization, that goes without even saying,” Anthony said.
The Knicks have won five consecutive games, putting them only three games behind Atlanta for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but any postseason appearance would be short-lived and ultimately meaningless.
The team’s rebuild doesn’t figure to be a quick one. The Knicks have no first-round draft pick this year and no cap space until the summer of 2015.
There is also the matter of who will coach the team after the inevitable firing of Mike Woodson. Among potential candidates is Steve Kerr, who played under Jackson for five seasons and could install his trademark triangle offense.
Jackson would have faced many of the same dilemmas with the Lakers, who need a new coach and more cap space because of their overly generous commitment to Bryant for the next two seasons.
But parting Los Angeles will undoubtedly be easier for someone passed over by the Lakers when they hired Mike D’Antoni five games into last season.
As usual, Jackson got in the final zing.