EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Pau Gasol got home from the game and read about it on Twitter, while Dwight Howard got a midnight message on his BlackBerry. They shared most Los Angeles Lakers fans’ mix of surprise, trepidation and anticipation.
Just when everybody thought the Lakers were getting back together with Phil Jackson, they switched course in the middle of the night and went with Mike D’Antoni.
What a weekend in Hollywood — and the real drama isn’t over yet.
The Lakers reacted with ample excitement and a little bewilderment Monday to their front office’s surprising decision to hire D’Antoni as coach Mike Brown’s replacement over Jackson, the 11-time champion who discussed the job at his home Saturday and apparently wanted to return. D’Antoni didn’t even interview for the job in person, speaking to the Lakers over the phone.
“It has been crazy, but all this stuff will just make this team stronger,” said Howard, who has been in a Lakers uniform for about six weeks. “Everything that we’ve been through so far, it’s going to make us stronger, and we have to look at this as a positive situation.”
The Lakers’ third coach in four days won’t take over the team until later in the week. D’Antoni still hadn’t been cleared to travel Monday after undergoing knee replacement surgery earlier in the month, although the Lakers are optimistic the former Knicks and Suns coach will arrive in Los Angeles on Wednesday.
So interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff was still in charge Monday when the Lakers gathered for an informal workout ahead of Tuesday’s game against San Antonio. Just two weeks into the regular season, the Lakers (3-4) are about to start over with a new offense and another coaching staff — and a renewed certainty they’re expected to compete for a title this season.
“It’s been a zoo,” said forward Antawn Jamison, a 15-year NBA veteran who played for D’Antoni on a U.S. national team. “But as I was telling somebody, it’s just a typical day here in L.A. It’s interesting. ... It should be a lot easier to adjust to than the system we were trying to get adjusted to early on in the season. We’ve got Steve (Nash) that can help us out.”
Two Lakers who supported both Brown and his two potential replacements weren’t available in El Segundo to weigh in on the hire. Nash missed the workout while getting treatment on his injured leg, while Kobe Bryant left before it ended to share a helicopter ride back home to Orange County with point guard Steve Blake, who needed an exam on his abdominal injury.
And the tall, professorial coach with all the rings wasn’t at the Lakers’ training complex at all.
Just 24 hours after Jackson seemed headed back to his oversized chair on the Staples Center bench, D’Antoni had the job.
It’s too soon to tell how the Buss family’s latest counterintuitive move will sit with Lakers fans, who chanted “We want Phil!” during the club’s weekend games, both victories after a 1-4 start.
“I think everybody had expectations about it, and they were all pretty high,” Gasol said of Jackson’s potential return. “We all understood what Phil brings to the table ... and what he means to the city and the franchise. It just couldn’t work out for whatever reason.”
Jackson issued a statement to a handful of media outlets Monday, implying he was essentially offered the job after meeting with Lakers owner Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak. Jackson thought he would be able to come back to the Lakers on Monday with his decision, but instead was awakened by a midnight phone call from Kupchak.
“The decision is of course theirs to make,” Jackson said in his statement. “I am gratified by the groundswell of support from the Laker fans who endorsed my return, and it is the principal reason why I considered the possibility.”
The Lakers largely echoed the thoughts of Howard, who was looking forward to playing for Jackson: “Management had to do what they felt is best for the team, and we as players have got to find a way to win.”
The Lakers publicly offered no reason for passing over the coach with the most championships in NBA history. Although nobody could claim the Buss family is afraid of spending money, Brown is still owed well over $10 million for the remaining three seasons on his four-year, $18 million contract, while D’Antoni will make $4 million a season for the next three years — and their salaries together might be less than what Jackson would command.
The Lakers largely know what they would get with Jackson, but D’Antoni intrigues this older, top-heavy team with an urgency to contend for a title before Howard’s free agency next summer and Bryant’s possible retirement in a few years.
Howard and Gasol both believe D’Antoni’s up-tempo style can work well for the Lakers. Howard would seem to be a natural to partner with Nash in the pick-and-roll attacks loved by D’Antoni and Nash, although Gasol doesn’t immediately fit into the definition of a big man who can play on the perimeter and shoot 3-pointers.
“It’s a great system, (but) I don’t think he ever had a defender such as myself or a defender such as Dwight Howard on those teams,” Metta World Peace said. “I don’t think he ever coached those type of players, so his defense should be self-explanatory, and his offense is amazing, so it should be fun for Laker fans.”
The rest of the NBA sat back and watched the Lakers’ drama with amusement over the past two days, with Dallas owner Mark Cuban weighing in gleefully on the mess: “I hope they have to do it again and again and again.”
Jackson’s flirtation with the job is the strongest indication yet that he’s interested in coaching again, which makes him a prime candidate for another franchise. Yet D’Antoni also received praise around the league — even from New York, where he resigned last March after failing to win a playoff game in four years with the Knicks.
“Despite all the hoopla ... that was going on about me and Mike, we actually have a pretty good relationship, especially behind closed doors,” Carmelo Anthony said. “We actually talked a lot, talked basketball. Hopefully he brings some positive energy over there. Anytime guys are losing like that, there’s always negativity, a lot of negative energy. So sometimes change is better.”
Added Dwyane Wade, who has played for D’Antoni on the U.S. national team: “He has a tough job ahead of him, but I’m sure he’s excited about the opportunity that he gets to be with America’s team.”