Jackson? Bryant? Malone? Who will wear purple and gold next year?
Posted: Wednesday June 16, 2004 1:22PM; Updated: Wednesday June 16, 2004 1:22PM
Following his first Finals loss in 10 trips, Phil Jackson sounded an awful lot like a man who had walked onto the floor for the last time as the Los Angeles Lakers' head coach.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Phil Jackson -- minutes after losing his first Finals in 10 trips, and now two weeks from officially being a coach-without-contract -- was heading down the hallway toward the postgame press conference in the bowels of The Palace of Auburn Hills on Tuesday night when he suddenly stopped and whirled around. The Los Angeles Lakers coach, he of the dueling arthritic hips, does not stop suddenly for anything. Yet he held out his arms -- his wingspan is still as substantial as the days when he roamed the court as the New York Knicks' designated game-changer -- and gathered in a handsome quartet. Suddenly, there they were: The Jackson Five.
"Players always bring out their kids after games, so I thought I'd do it, too," he said with a big smile. Behind him, daughters Brooke and Chelsea wiped away tears while twin sons Charley and Ben didn't exactly express cheery countenances. With his children next to him, Jackson then began to answer the slew of questions that surround his team's performance and its future. After a couple halting queries, the big one came: "Phil, with your kids up there and all, this looks like a farewell ceremony. Is it?"
Jackson uttered a few half-answers before finally offering: "The chances are slim I'll be coming back."
I have no reason to disbelieve him. Four weeks ago I put his chances of returning to coach the Lakers at about 60 percent. But the strongest factor working against his return, he told me, was the continued prodding of his children to leave the purple and gold insane asylum behind and take at least a year off. Taking that into consideration -- along with the fact that coaching the Lakers became harder, not easier, during the playoffs and along with his "chances are slim" comment -- I now believe he will not return. (The early line on the man to replace him: assistant coach Kurt Rambis, whom Lakers owner Jerry Buss wanted as coach before Jackson became available five years ago.)
Whether Jackson returns or leaves is not, of course, totally up to him. There is the matter of whether or not management -- headed by Buss, the father of Jackson's girlfriend, Jeanie Buss, also a Lakers executive -- will offer him a deal. But I doubt it will come to that. It's been said that Jackson wants $10 million a year (who doesn't?), but I think he will weigh his options and inform Buss whether or not he wants to get into a bidding war. My best guess is that Buss won't, sending Jackson into the sunset.
Important as he has been, Jackson's return is not the primary concern of most Lakers fans. Kobe Bryant has already announced he will test the free-agent market, and Buss has already announced he will move heaven and earth to re-sign him. Many believe -- and I was in that camp -- that Bryant's chances of returning depended on whether or not Jackson came back. If Jackson were at the helm, Kobe was gone; if Jackson were gone, Kobe would stay. That's how poor their working relationship had become. But even if Jackson hangs it up, I'm sticking with the opinion that Kobe will go, too. I think he has too much ego to go to a team in a small-market city, but there are places that would do almost anything, which means they would clear salary-cap space through trades, to get him. Like, say, New York City.
Another possibility is the Clippers; as one Laker put it, "I think Kobe would get a kick out of walking across the hall." (The Lakers and Clippers share the Staples Center as a home arena.)
Karl Malone, whose injured right knee kept him out of Tuesday night's final and limited his productivity throughout the championship series, said he honestly doesn't know whether he'll be back. "I'm going to take some time with my family and talk everything over," he said. "I know this: I will not disrespect the Lakers or myself by coming back if I'm not 100 percent. Not 95 percent or even 99 percent. 100 percent!" I believe him.
Malone has alternatives, though. He can opt out of his deal (he signed a two-year contract last summer with the final year at his option) and could conceivably find a team that would pay him the approximate $2 million due him while he chases the NBA's all-time scoring record. He could, of course, return to the Lakers. Or he could while away his hours cutting down trees at his lumber business in Arkansas. I can't predict whether his knee will come around -- who can? -- but I think he will be in the NBA next season. Whether it's with the Lakers is about 50-50.
Interestingly, the one player most likely to return seems like the guy the Lakers would want least. Gary Payton is due considerably more than Malone next season (about $5.4 million), and the chances of another NBA team paying that are slim. Despite how badly The Glove played throughout the final month of the season, he doesn't think he's through. And if the Lakers get a different coach, that means a different system than the triangle offense, and that means Payton will figure he can once again function as a top point guard. I'm not sure he's correct about that, but that's probably what's on his mind. There's little doubt the Lakers would want to work a sign-and-trade deal for him, but that still means they'd have to find another team willing to pay him the $5 million, unless he would agree to a restructured contract. All things considered? He'll probably be back.
In the midst of all this, Shaquille O'Neal, with two years still left on his deal, has been talking about a contract extension. Oh, what a busy summer it will be in Lakers Land.
If Jackson and Malone are finished, I will miss them both. Sports, not to mention the entirety of American culture, keeps getting dumbed down, and Jackson is one of the few guys who smarten it up. Watching him handle this lunatic team, not to mention the tough questions that came his way, was a pleasure that I would miss if he's gone.
As for Malone, he is a stand-up guy who never eluded a tough question and became, in his first (and only?) Lakers season, the face of the team, especially in bad times. "Whatever happens," he told me after Tuesday night's final, "I'll be fine. I feel a little sad right now. But I'll be fine." Whether the Lakers will be making that claim next season is anyone's guess right now.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jack McCallum covers the NBA for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.