It seemed a good idea last summer: In the midst of unloading Shaquille O'Neal and letting Phil Jackson walk, the Lakers gave a five-year, $30 million contract to coach Rudy Tomjanovich in the hope he could create a new dynasty around Kobe Bryant. But Rudy T resigned on Feb. 2 because of health concerns, forcing G.M. Mitch Kupchak to devise yet another rebuilding strategy. Lakers fans can only hope he'll come up with a better idea than rehiring Jackson, whose name surfaced as a potential replacement. "Nothing is going to happen in a knee-jerk fashion," says Kupchak. "This is an emotional period of time, and we have to give these guys [the players and coaches] a chance for things to settle down."
A Tomjanovich confidant says two sets of pressures had been building for a month on the 56-year-old coach, who took the Lakers' job after sitting out last season while recovering from bladder cancer. One was a concern that work stress could lead to a recurrence of the cancer. The other was a sense of isolation that was only natural for a Rockets legend who had spent the previous 34 seasons as a player, coach and consultant in Houston, where he was surrounded by a staff of longtime friends to whom he was comfortable delegating authority. Not only was Tomjanovich worn down by having to manage more of the day-to-day video work and game-planning in L.A., but he also found it unusually upsetting when team owner Jerry Buss said after a Jan. 28 loss to the Nets that he wanted Luke Walton and Slava Medevedenko playing more.
Jackson bade farewell to L.A. a year ago by writing an entertaining diary, The Last Season, in which he betrayed confidences and trashed Bryant. Yet Kupchak insists that he and Buss won't throw the book back at Jackson when considering whether he should replace interim coach Frank Hamblen. "I find it hard to believe that anything could stand in the way of us wanting to win, including a book," said Kupchak last Friday, adding that he and Buss hadn't seriously discussed rehiring Jackson, whose agent says he won't take an NBA job this year. "The obvious answer is that Phil is available and he's one of the best coaches of all time--why wouldn't he be considered by any team?"
Yet rumors of a Napoleonesque return sound like grandstanding on both sides: For Jackson they serve to drive up his price with the Knicks, Mavericks, Timberwolves, Trail Blazers or other potential suitors this summer; for the Lakers, and for Bryant in particular, the open-mindedness to Jackson this year looks very much like an attempt to prove that Bryant wasn't responsible for forcing him out.
After watching Jackson wear out his welcome and Rudy T simply wear out, it's clear that the Lakers need new energy. Their core players-- Bryant, Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Chris Mihm and rookie guard Sasha Vujacic--are 26 or younger. By 2007, when every contract but Bryant's, Odom's and Vujacic's are due to expire, L.A. could be a player in the free-agent market. Instead of going back in time to hire Jackson or Larry Brown, Kupchak should choose a young NBA assistant who has served on a title team, such as Pacers associate head coach Mike Brown (a member of the 2002-03 Spurs staff) or Bucks assistant Jim Boylen (who aided Tomjanovich during the Rockets' championship run in the mid-1990s). Find the next Pat Riley. ?