Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss ought to be pinching himself, not pennies.
Buss is about to nickel-and-dime the best coach in professional sports, creating ill will where none need exist. A dispute over money might wind up prematurely disbanding what could be the dynastic Lakers.
Night after night, there’s Coach Phil Jackson, a free agent at season’s end, standing at the podium and deflecting questions about what’s next. Will you be back for another season, Phil? Do the Lakers even want you back, Phil? Do you have to take a pay cut, Phil? Will you return to Chicago, Phil? What do you think of Mikhail Prokhorov and the Nets, Phil? Are you insulted, Phil?
On and on. So many questions. Only roundabout responses.
Jackson, 64, is unable to answer with any sort of certainty because the mercurial owner hasn’t given any indication on how he intends to proceed.
The defending National Basketball Association champion Lakers tomorrow night host the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the Finals and Jackson, the man with two artificial hips and 10 championship rings as a coach, is being treated as if he’s still got something to prove.
Buss could have ended the speculation and interrogations with a simple statement, a few lines detailing how much he cares about Jackson and how much he values the coach’s contributions to all those golden championship trophies visible from the court of the practice facility.
One Man’s Worth
All it would have taken was a public recognition of the man’s worth to winning, which can’t be overstated. Not with this coach, whose longtime girlfriend is Jeanie Buss, a team executive and the boss’s daughter.
Word is the Lakers want Jackson, who is being paid a league-high $12 million this season, to take a $7 million pay cut. That’s not trimming the fat. That’s taking a cleaver to the meat.
Jackson two weeks ago addressed the proposed reduction, refusing to get specific but saying that a salary cut has been “indicated.”
The indication is indicative of mismanagement.
The Lakers, according to Forbes magazine, are the NBA’s most valuable franchise at $607 million. Moreover, the team earned $51 million during the 2008-09 season fueled, in part, by courtside seats that run $2,600.
In order to charge that much in Los Angeles you need two things. The first is star power, which the Lakers have in Kobe Bryant. The second is success, which the Lakers have, in large part, because of Jackson.
If Buss thinks that any ol’ coach has what it takes to guide first Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, and now Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest, to titles then he’s sorely mistaken.
It’s hard to fathom that General Manager Mitch Kupchak, an acute basketball brain, doesn’t understand that there’s something special about Jackson’s ability to forge a team out of disparate pieces who consider themselves mini-corporations.
Much of the same was written about baseball manager Joe Torre, who used the word “insulted” when, after four World Series titles, the New York Yankees offered him an incentive-laden contract. The Yankees correctly believed that any ol’ Joe -- meaning Girardi -- given superior talent, could win the World Series.
The Yankees were right. Buss would be wrong.
Buss is obviously thinking about cost-containment. You have to wonder, though, if he’s considering the long-term costs that would come with losing Jackson.
No other coach gives his players books as gifts, hoping and helping them to grasp the bigger lesson and apply it to the basketball court.
Bryant, for instance, some time ago was given Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” Jackson wanted Bryant to understand that, as the book says, the general can’t command respect from the soldiers if he enjoys perks not available to everyone.
What makes Buss’s stance so mystifying is that he knows what life is like without Jackson, who was allowed to walk for the 2004-05 season. Turns out, it was the only losing season in Bryant’s career.
No other coach in the NBA abhors time outs during the regular season more than Jackson, who wants his players to work things out for themselves, even if it costs the Lakers a game. Everything is geared toward playoff preparation.
The Lakers wouldn’t be this good without him.
Athletes can be great one day, putrid the next. You don’t always get what you pay for. You do with Jackson, who is presiding over his third straight Finals and seventh in his decade as coach.
The opponent is archrival and historically significant Boston, which embarrassed the Lakers in the title clincher two years ago.
It should be a good one. Basketball fans are pinching themselves.
Buss should be, too.
(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)