Kupchak: Lakers didn’t want coaching hire based on public pressure
The Lakers introduced Coach Mike D’Antoni on Thursday as the team’s early replacement to Mike Brown.
The team has been under fire by many for not choosing Phil Jackson, who won five rings with Kobe Bryant through two stints as the team’s coach.
Even Magic Johnson on the ESPN broadcast put the Lakers on blast.
“I don’t feel Mike D’Antoni is the right coach for the Lakers,” Johnson said. “Now, especially when you have Phil Jackson sitting out there who wanted to be the Lakers coach, and Jim Buss decided he didn’t want Phil Jackson, he wanted Mike D’Antoni, and that’s OK. Why didn’t you just say that? But the fans were cheering for Phil Jackson two nights in a row.”
Johnson is presuming that the call was left to Jim Buss and not Jerry Buss, which might be more of an accurate reflection of how the decision was made.
“Obviously he’s entitled to his opinion. I’m disappointed he feels that way,” General Manager Mitch Kupchak said. “I respect his opinion but I don’t agree.”
So how exactly did the Lakers go from nearly 95% sure Jackson was their man to D’Antoni?
“When we relieved Mike [Brown] of his duties, clearly what we anticipated took place, which was a groundswell of support for Phil Jackson,” Kupchak said. “To be honest with you, by late Friday night after the game and early Saturday morning, if we had to make a decision at that point ... statistically there was a real good chance that Phil Jackson would be our coach. We just felt there was so much public support, it might be difficult not to hire him.”
Kupchak was concerned the team was going along with public pressure instead of making the decision based on merits.
“We had some time to challenge in our minds the public support,” Kupchak said. “We gradually got to the position where we should do what we think is right for the team, not only for the present but going forward.”
Apparently the organization had doubts that Jackson, despite his credentials, was the right coach for the roster.
“We did not hire Phil back because we didn’t think that the players we have fit the system. There was some uncertainty as to how long he wanted to be a coach,” Kupchak said. “We want to have a coach for several years.”
Should the Lakers be worrying about three years from now given Bryant’s contract ends in two?
“There is no way to determine now if Phil was the coach we would have won a championship with,” Kupchak said.
He also noted that he felt his team was better playing at a faster pace, closer to D’Antoni’s style.
“Mike was not available two years ago when we had a coaching opening,” Kupchak said. “He was someone we would have loved to have talked to two years ago.”
Witnessing the team’s struggle to learn Brown’s hybrid Princeton offense, management was concerned the team would have similar problems adjusting to the triangle.
“We knew that there would be a ridiculous amount of criticism for making this decision but it was clearly and only a basketball decision,” Kupchak said. “We just felt our chances were better hiring this coach than any other coach that was available.”
Their answer can’t be clear in November, but Jackson certainly seemed like the ideal fit based on his proven record as a champion alone.
The Lakers, as an organization, measure themselves solely by titles.
D’Antoni has never advanced to the NBA Finals.
Perhaps there was more than basketball to the decision, be it family politics, organizational power or something else beyond the pale.
Kupchak makes a point that today’s roster may not have fit Jackson and his triangle but is D’Antoni more likely than Jackson to navigate the team to the finals?
“You doubt the Zen Master?” asked Kobe Bryant recently, in response to a similar question.
Now it’s up to D’Antoni to put the doubters to rest.
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You can email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.
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