Nearly two years after Phil Jackson agreed to head the New York Knicks, there is speculation the 11-time NBA champion former head coach may consider a return to the Los Angeles Lakers. New York, mired in a five-game losing streak and losers of nine of their last 10 games, is reeling from the dismissal of head coach Derek Fisher on Monday. That inevitably led to speculation of Jackson returning to the bench for the first time since the 2010-2011 season, his last with the Lakers or any other team.
Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski, arguably the NBA's top insider, reports that Jackson's possible return to the Lakers is a more likely outcome than him coaching the Knicks.
In a piece published Tuesday, Wojnarowski wrote: “There's still a strong belief Jackson will eventually find his way to his fiancée Jeanie Buss and the Los Angeles Lakers.”
The story’s crux has more to do with the reasons behind Fisher’s dismissal after 136 games and a 40-96 record over the last season and a half, and the divisive culture that still exists inside Madison Square Garden. Players reportedly not knowing “how they fit into this team,” and Fisher’s alleged altercation with Grizzlies forward Matt Barnes were each given credence to New York’s decision to cut ties with the young head coach.
And Wojnarowski even cites league sources that suggest Fisher picked up his attitude both on and off the court from Jackson, his former coach while with the Lakers.
The Knicks are still a team pulled in two directions, according to Wojnarowskii, with two different factions standing beside Jackson and owner Jim Dolan. Jackson’s reportedly tried to weed out some of his owner’s “people,” but he’s had little success and Jackson was also “unhappy” after Dolan once again brought Isiah Thomas back into the MSG fold last May as president of the WNBA’s New York Liberty.
Jackson came to New York to deal with a roster loaded with bloated contracts, and a front office that had very little room to build through the draft. And while New York posted a miserable 17-65 record in Jackson’s first season as president, the team has rebounded thanks to his personnel decisions. He wisely signed guard Arron Afflalo to a salary-cap friendly two-year deal in order to leave space for top free agents like Kevin Durant this summer and Russell Westbrook in 2017.
Jackson also selected budding Latvian big man Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth overall pick, which was originally perceived as a gamble and booed by fans the night of the draft. Now Porzingis is a frontrunner to win Rookie of the Year honors.
Eventually the piece delves into Jackson’s potential move back to Los Angeles and how current Golden State Warriors assistant Luke Walton could be in competition with former Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau for the Lakers’ job that currently belongs to Byron Scott.
There’s been no indication that Jackson will break his five-year, $12-million per-season deal with New York, and coaching seems far more out of the question with the New York Post reporting that assistant and newly instated interim head coach Kurt Rambis acting as the “closest” thing to Jackson actually returning to the sidelines.
As for the Lakers, bringing Jackson back following three straight years of Western Conference bottom-dwelling might seem like music to fans’ ears. But there’s a reason Los Angeles didn’t sign him up two years ago.
Following the death of long-time and innovative Lakers owner Jerry Buss, his son Jim and daughter and Jackson’s fiancée Jeannie, have fully assumed ownership and day-to-day operations. Adding Jackson to the mix would tip the scales more in Jeannie’s favor rather than Jim’s. Essentially, Jackson would be leaving the territorial confines of MSG for a tug-of-war duel between siblings, and it’s quite clear whose side he would take in a dispute.
Still, if the Busses and Jackson actually managed to work things out, Jackson could return to Los Angeles on the ground floor of maybe one of the best foundations for a rebuild in the league. Following the retirement of Kobe Bryant, the Lakers have only $26.2 million devoted to player contracts for next season and they are one of a handful of teams believed to have a shot at luring Durant or Westbrook, or both, to the left coast. With the salary cap ceiling jumping next season, the Lakers will have more cap space than anyone else.
Furthermore, there’s a bounty of hungry and talented young players to help Jackson reconstitute the NBA’s winningest franchise. Last year’s No. 2 overall pick and rookie point guard D’Angelo Russell could certainly pick Jackson’s mind, as could rebounding machine and hustling forward Julius Randle, forward Larry Nance Jr., and versatile guard Jordan Clarkson.
Add that to a potential top-three pick in the 2016 draft, and Jackson may consider spurning the Knicks for the Lakers.