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Kupchak: If Phil Jackson hadn't hesitated he might be Lakers coach

Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak insists there was no agreement to wait for Jackson's decision. Jackson says midnight phone call seemed 'slimy' and 'weird.'

November 13, 2012|By Mike Bresnahan, Los Angeles Times
  • Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak insists there was no agreement to wait for Phil Jackson's decision before choosing a coach.
Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak insists there was no agreement to wait for Phil Jackson's… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

History could have been different if Phil Jackson had said he was ready to coach the Lakers while meeting informally with two team executives on Saturday morning.

He might be the Lakers' coach right now, Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said Tuesday.

"We would have gone back immediately and gone back and holed up with Dr. [Jerry] Buss and decided what we were going to do that day," Kupchak said.

Instead, Jackson asked Kupchak and team executive Jim Buss for two more days to think about a return after an 18-month layoff. The Lakers waited about 30 hours, didn't hear from him, and decided to hire Mike D'Antoni on Sunday night.

"There was no agreement to wait for [Jackson's] response on Monday," Kupchak said. "He told us that's when he would get back to us. I could see where he might interpret that as 'You guys would wait for me.' But I thought when I said I had to go on and interview other candidates that it was clear I had a job to do."

The Lakers interviewed D'Antoni by phone Saturday afternoon not long after meeting with Jackson at his Playa del Rey home. D'Antoni could not fly to Los Angeles last weekend because of recent knee-replacement surgery.

The Lakers hired D'Antoni mainly because of his high-flying offense. "He plays the way we see our team playing and our personnel executing," Kupchak said.

Kupchak himself wasn't sold on meshing Jackson's share-the-ball triangle offense with the Lakers' present-day roster. "I know the triangle," he said. "Obviously I wasn't convinced."

The Lakers decided to hire D'Antoni at 6 p.m. Sunday, half an hour before they tipped off against Sacramento at Staples Center.

Negotiations took some time, and then an unexpected electronic gaffe delayed the process once the sides agreed to a three-year, $12-million contact with a team option for a fourth year.

D'Antoni's fax machine was not working properly and could not transmit his signed contract back to the Lakers, according to a team spokesman. Finally, by 11:30 p.m. Sunday, the Lakers officially had a new coach, hiring D'Antoni despite the "We Want Phil!" chants by Lakers fans at Staples Center.

Kupchak acknowledged the "groundswell of support" for Jackson, who had the popular vote from the fans and received positive reviews from Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, though Bryant and Nash also endorsed D'Antoni.

"There was a lot of pressure to seriously consider bringing Phil back," Kupchak said. "We sorted through the PR backlash and decided that we ultimately could withstand it."

They still had to withstand one other thing. They had to call Jackson on Sunday near midnight. He was sleeping.

"In those kind of situations, there's not a lot of small talk," Kupchak said. "He was very complimentary of Mike under the circumstances. I just told him . . . that we just felt the present makeup of the team and the kind of basketball we wanted to play going forward, we just felt that Mike D'Antoni was the choice.

"I didn't look forward to calling somebody at midnight to tell him that he's not going to get a job that he might or might not accept," Kupchak said. "But the only other thing I could do was wait until Monday morning and that would have been worse."

Jackson told The Times on Monday that the midnight phone call seemed "slimy."

"I wish it would have been a little bit cleaner," he said. "It would have been much more circumspect and respectful of everybody that's involved. It seemed slimy to be awoken with this kind of news. It's just weird."

Kupchak confirmed what was already stated by Jackson to The Times — salary wasn't discussed in their Saturday morning meeting. Neither was the concept of Jackson missing games on the road.

Jackson told Jim Buss and Kupchak he wanted the same communication between them on personnel decisions that he held in his second tenure with the team from 2005-11.

Meanwhile, the Lakers have a new coach whose offense can score in bunches. But what about D'Antoni's reputation as a poor defensive coach?

"I know what his perceived deficiencies are," Kupchak said, later adding quote marks with his fingers as he discussed "the defensive thing."

"Mike D'Antoni never had Dwight Howard, Metta [World Peace] and another 7-footer [Pau Gasol] in the back [defensively]," Kupchak said.

Besides, Kupchak said, Jerry Buss is an offense-first owner. "Since I've been here, Dr. Buss' preference has always been . . . up and down, free-styled," Kupchak said.

Kupchak said there would be "a lot more opportunities" for every player on offense under D'Antoni's system.

"We won't go through 16 or 19 seconds on the 24-second clock before you get a shot," he said. "I would hope our shot attempts go way up."

D'Antoni has been criticized in the past for his failure to develop post players. Knicks power forward Amare Stoudemire spent seven seasons playing for D'Antoni in Phoenix and New York but was quoted by a Houston TV station a few months ago after working out with Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon. "To now develop a post game is going to be remarkable for me," Stoudemire said.

Kupchak obviously hopes for a different result when D'Antoni and his staff work with Howard this season.

"We look at Dwight as a cornerstone for this franchise going forward," Kupchak said. "Right now, it's Kobe Bryant and right there is Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. But the cornerstone for this franchise, just based on talent and age, is Dwight Howard. A big part of getting the most out of Dwight was important in the search."

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

twitter.com/Mike_Bresnahan

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