The Los Angeles Lakers stunned the NBA when they hired former Nuggets, Suns and Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni to lead the team on a full time basis ten games into the 2012-13 season. D’Antoni’s candidacy and ascension wasn’t exactly a stunner, he was the 2005 NBA Coach of the Year winner and the head coach in Phoenix when Laker guard Steve Nash won MVP trophies in 2005 and 2006. Rather, it was his selection over two-time Laker head coach and 12-time (including playing career) champion Phil Jackson as Laker sage.
Jackson had seemed not only fit for the job, despite the uneasy circumstances following the team’s 1-4 start under Mike Brown, but the front runner in spite of his contentious relationship with Laker executive vice president of player personnel and part owner Jim Buss. Jackson’s then-girlfriend and eventual fiancée Jeanie Buss is the Lakers’ executive vice president of business operations, and in an excerpt from her new book published in the Los Angeles Times, she describes her “stunned” reaction to the hire of D’Antoni, and the “betrayal” she felt at his hiring over Jackson:
There was no discussion of money at the meeting or any of the supposed demands by Phil that were later erroneously reported in the media.
Looking back, I wonder where the media was getting its information. Someone was talking.
As Jim and Mitch were preparing to leave, Phil got in the last word, telling them, "I'm going to consider this but I have to check with some people," meaning he had to get cleared by his doctors and talk to his family.
This could be a life-changing decision. He wasn't going to just say, "Okay, where's the contract?" He was retired and they had just dropped a bombshell on him. He needed a little time to think it over. So they agreed to talk again on Monday morning.
Jim and Mitch made it very clear they were still going to talk to other people. During that weekend, they spoke to both Mike D'Antoni and Mike Dunleavy.
Phil understood that. He wasn't pleading for the job, and they weren't negotiating yet. . . .
Then, late on Sunday evening/Monday morning, Jim Buss shocked the basketball world:
The sequence of events — Phil almost coming back and then being told someone else was better for the job — practically destroyed me. It almost took away my passion for this job and this game. It felt like I had been stabbed in the back. It was a betrayal. I was devastated.
I felt that I got played. Why did they have to do that? Why did Jim pull Phil back into the mix if he wasn't sincere about it? . . .
Phil wasn't looking for the job, and then he wasted 36 hours of his life preparing for it when they were never in a million years going to hire him anyway.
How do you do that to your sister? How do you do that to Phil Jackson?
Jackson led the Lakers to three titles between 2000 and 2003, and another two in 2009 and 2010 as head coach. D’Antoni struggled immediately out of the gate with his injured, mismatched, and ill-fitting Laker team. Despite the off and on appearance of Kobe Bryant (mostly on), Dwight Howard, (mostly off), and Steve Nash (off, though his side part was perfectly in place), D’Antoni started his Laker career with a 12-20 swoon before righting the ship with a 28-17 finish that may have cost Bryant (who was playing huge gobs of minutes and shouldering too heavy an offensive load) a right Achilles tear.
The Lakers ended up their season with a pathetic first round sweep at the hand of the San Antonio Spurs, as Howard fled to the Houston Rockets in the offseason, complaining about both Bryant and especially D’Antoni along the way.
As a result, the Lakers head into 2013-14 as a fringe contender for the playoff bracket, once again relying on a recovering Bryant and aging Nash to keep the team’s postseason hopes alive, hoping that a massive paycut from Kobe and the lure from Los Angeles could be enough to draw a boffo free agent to Los Angeles in the 2014 offseason. Howard’s Houston movement and Bryant’s actual words should get in the way of hopes along those lines, however.
Jeanie Buss describes one small conversation she and Jackson had before the hiring of D’Antoni, one that saw her asking the 1996 NBA Coach of the Year whether he was the right coach for the Lakers’ personnel. “D'Antoni is a better coach for Steve Nash,” Jackson confided, “but I'm a far better coach for Dwight Howard."
D’Antoni may well be the better coach for Nash, who struggled with an injury-plagued campaign at age 39, his worst season in over a decade. Howard, though, was traded for in August of 2012 to be the team’s center and centerpiece for the future, as the league’s best pivotman who was about to enter his prime. Jackson’s triple-post offense may not have been the Buss family’s cup of tea, but it would have provided Howard with touches, Bryant with a familiar (and less taxing) support system, and Steve Nash’s giant basketball brain for all manner of ways in which to contribute.
Instead, part of the Buss family went with Mike D’Antoni. We saw where that led their franchise; we saw what effect it had on their team late in the regular season, and how it helped lose Dwight Howard to a conference rival for less money and fewer guaranteed years on a contract in July.
And now we know, in her own words, what Jim Buss’ stunning decision did to the working and personal relationship between him and his sister.