November 24, 2010
The NBA is getting all hand-wringy again because Lakers coach Phil Jackson went on ESPN Radio 1000 in Chicago on Tuesday to discuss, among other things (in the same steadied, frank tone) the Miami Heat's slow start. And then Jackson made the mistake of saying what we're all thinking.
Miami has come out of the gate with an 8-6 record, something that even the team's most dubious followers couldn't have guessed, and rumors (unfounded at press, we must emphasize) are floating that Pat Riley will step out of his role as president of the team to assume coaching duties. As he's done before, in a very skeevy way, to current Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy when Van Gundy coached the Heat back in 2005.
And the latest to add to that sense of déjà skeeve? Phil Jackson. Here's what he said Tuesday afternoon:
"The scenario that sits kind of behind the scene, is that eventually these guys that were recruited -- Bosh and James -- by Pat Riley and Micky Arison, the owner, are going to come in and say, 'We feel you [Riley] can do a better job coaching the team. We came here on the hopes that this would work,' and whatever, I don't know," Jackson said. "That's kind of my take on it, is that eventually if things don't straighten out here soon, it could be the Van Gundy thing all over again."
Mark Jackson called it "uncalled for."
And Van Gundy? Earlier Wednesday he ranted to the assembled masses, and Alex Kennedy was the first to get the quotes up:
"Well first of all, obviously Phil has no idea what the 'Van Gundy situation' was. Even though he coaches in our league, he certainly had no inside knowledge of that so any analogy he would make to my situation would be totally useless because he doesn't have any clue what the situation was in that case," Van Gundy said.
He was also taken aback that another head coach would make those comments.
"First of all, to second guess another coach and to comment on a situation he knew nothing about is inappropriate and it's also ignorant. I don't mean that commenting on Phil's intelligence; he's obviously a very smart guy. I mean that as ignorant because he doesn't know what that situation was and he doesn't know what the situation in Miami is now. I don't think, unless their relationship has changed drastically, that he and Pat talk on a regular basis so I doubt he would have any information whatsoever on what's going on in Miami," Van Gundy said.
Oh, come off it.
There is a good reason for Phil Jackson to believe what he said. Spoelstra has made the playoffs twice as coach of a Heat team that featured Dwyane Wade and a cast of spare parts in his two years in Miami, but his offenses are far from imaginative, and there have already been a host of complaints (in their typical passive-aggressive fashion) from both LeBron James(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) regarding his coaching style and practice habits. Meanwhile, Pat Riley has won four rings as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, and one as coach of the Heat in 2006.
Also, there is a great reason for Phil Jackson to believe what he said. Before Riley took over as coach of the Heat in December of 2005, Stan Van Gundy (a person married to the job like few others in this league) abruptly retired, ostensibly to spend more time with his family. The Heat were 11-10 when Riley took over, mainly because Antoine Walker(notes) was chucking away at a 40 percent clip and Shaquille O'Neal(notes) had yet to play a game.
Of course, when Riley took over, O'Neal played his first game of the season. Walker shot 45 percent the rest of the way, Riles went 41-20, and the Heat won the championship. Van Gundy, to his everlasting credit (and bank account statements) has steadfastly stuck with the company line ever since. And who knows, the company line might be the correct line, but we're also correct in pointing out how all signs point to an unceremonious departure for Van Gundy back in 2005, and how it mirrors what's happening right now.
And it's not cool for Phil to say what's on his and our minds ... why?
He's not allowed to say what has been on the tip of every sports writers' tongue, seriously, since it became news that the Heat were going to clear cap space to try and add another star two years ago? Pull up some cable chat show from two years ago, and I guarantee that's the first quip out of someone's mouth.
And where did Jackson actually throw his support toward this sort of move? Isn't this more of a slam on Arison and Riley than it is on Spoelstra and Van Gundy?
Worse is Van Gundy's assertion that Jackson can't muse aloud, and make guesswork out of those musings. Jackson didn't say "that's my inside information," or "that's THE take." He said, "that's my take." And, Stan, we're not wrong for sharing in his take. Really, the only way it looks as if Spoelstra is going to keep the job at this point is because Riley is staying upstairs for spite, as a pathetic "I told you I wasn't coming down"-move.
Stan, you can't continually implore us to be as cynical and as smart as you consistently are regarding the goings around this league, while expecting us to be Pollyanna-ish in any regard that pertains to you. That's not fair. You're right, we weren't in the office and don't know what went down back in 2005. We weren't in Brad Childress' office when he told Randy Moss to get lost, either, but we can safely assume it was because Moss was acting like a jerk, right?
Apologies for pulling rank on Jackson's behalf, but he's earned the right to a take, mainly because someone asked him a question, but also because of his history. And I'm not talking about those 13 championship rings, including two as a player.
No, Phil deserves the right to comment on a situation like this because he was handed the keys to the Chicago Bulls before the 1989-90 season, and had the confidence in himself and in a system that would result in the Bulls eventually playing better than the total sum of their parts. He taught Michael Jordan and that team to fish, so to speak, and it cost him a lot of credibility around Chicago.
The Bulls lost in the same place (the Eastern Conference finals) that they did under Doug Collins the year before, even if the team was more talented and a year older. The team then started 1990-91 by losing its first three games, as Phil references in his radio interview. Phil Jackson knows about high expectations, initial scrutiny, and long-term results. He's earned that take.
He's not endorsing a firing or throwing his weight behind either candidates, whether real (in Spoelstra) or imagined (by good accounts, Riley wants nothing to do with coaching). He's just apparently breaking yet another one of these myriad unwritten sports laws that allow for grown men to act all churlish when someone, I dunno, walks across their literal or figurative mound of dirt on the way back to the dugout.
Stan Van Gundy, not all of us have to be present and accounted for at murky events of non-record to have an idea about what went down. If that means we're terribly wrong sometimes, great. That means you're in on your own little secret.
But in trying to help, I guess, Spoelstra, you just made this a little bigger. A lot of us weren't even going to touch this story until your retort.
Phil Jackson wasn't playing loose with the facts, he wasn't endangering anyone with his musings, and if anything he just earned coach Spo a stay of execution; even though Spoelstra (MY take) has been awful even considering the nigh on impossible task he's been handed.
Phil Jackson was referencing an idea about a very dubious changing of the guard from half a decade ago that, quite literally, everyone I know shares. And until you get over that, Stan, methinks you're complaining at shootaround a bit too much.