LOS ANGELES -- Every potent NBA franchise comes with a face. It can be a coach (Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers), an executive (Pat Riley, Larry Bird), an owner (Mark Cuban, Mikhail Prokhorov) or a player (Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose). In rare cases it can even be a former player (Hakeem Olajuwon), a fan (Spike Lee) or a ghost (Red Auerbach). Dozens of more anonymous figures are required to make an organization hum, and in many instances, the face is but a figurehead. But on those special occasions -- a summit with LeBron James in Akron, for instance, or a dinner with Dwight Howard in Beverly Hills -- the face provides the gravitas necessary in a star-powered league. It took Riley to show the rings. It took Olajuwon to sell the vision. When Deron Williams didn't sign with Dallas, he cited Cuban's absence from a key meeting. When James spurned Chicago, Rose's reluctance to recruit was a factor.
Part of what separated the Lakers over the past three decades is they had the most faces. It wasn't just a coach, an exec or an owner, but all of the above, and so many more: from Riley to Phil, Magic to Shaq, Jerry West to Jerry Buss, with Chick Hearn on the soundtrack. They're all gone. Buss and Hearn are dead. Riley is in Miami. West consults with the Warriors. Shaq is part owner of the Kings. Magic is part owner of the Dodgers. And, now, Phil Jackson is president of basketball operations for the Knicks. He wasn't technically with the Lakers these past three years, but he lived in L.A. and he was engaged to Jeanie Buss, so he was more of a Laker than anything else. The expectation remained, when time came to court LeBron and Durant and the others, he'd be in the room with his rings and his books. And when stories were written about how it all went down, the next great Laker would invariably flash to something Phil Jackson said.
The inevitable veered toward official Friday, and while it's a big win for the Knicks, it's a far bigger loss for the Lakers. Jackson was their insurance policy, resting comfortably in Playa Del Rey, waiting for the day that Jim Buss inevitably realized the family business needed more wattage. Jackson would do the job better for the Lakers -- because he is less than three years removed from the organization, because he lives close to the headquarters, and because he already injected the triangle offense into the club's DNA -- than he will for the Knicks from 3,000 miles away.
Jackson was the Lakers' best hope for a quick fix, only accomplished through a free-agent bonanza, and now they must embark on the same rebuilding slog as everybody else. Kobe Bryant is the lone face left for the Lakers, but it's hard to know if he's operating in their interest or his own, which are entirely different. Bryant wants to compete next season and will prod the Lakers to spend their cap space this summer, even on B-list stars, so he can at least make the playoffs again. If it were 2007, the Lakers would have to heed his wishes, for fear he'd force a trade. But Bryant has no recourse anymore. Nobody is trading for him, not with that $48 million extension he signed, and the Lakers have no reason to exceed the tax line for B-listers. They don't need to appease Bryant when they're paying him so well, and in many ways, they can't even afford it because of the deal they gave him. Bryant will have to seethe while the Lakers wait for future free-agent classes, using his contract as a place-holder.
This unpleasant scenario underscores just how reckless it was of the Lakers to offer Bryant that extension, and how short-sighted it was of Bryant to sign it. His age, temperament and salary are ill-suited to reconstruction. Bryant wants to pursue a sixth championship. The Lakers want to start fresh with flexibility and a top-five pick. They could have parted amicably, agreeing to meet back at Staples Center for the jersey retirement, but now they are looking like an old married couple destined to live out their final years in discord. The Lakers are essentially paying Bryant $48 million to help groom whomever they draft, a risky choice for a tutor, and a role he may or may not embrace.
Bryant and the Lakers are stuck with each other, and contractually, so are the Lakers and Steve Nash. Committing to a rebuild, though, may include a buyout. The pulled quote from Nash's acclaimed documentary series on ESPN's Grantland -- "I'm not going to retire because I want the money ... I'm going to take that last little bit" -- was admirable for its candor. But it undermined a major point of the series, that Nash is driven by a desire to play, and the sound bite leads to some questions about his motivation. Nash said he was just being honest, though many immortals have walked away from cash at the end to spare embarrassment, and one can only imagine the outrage had Bryant shared the same sentiment. Nash is obviously entitled to every last million, but if money is truly the guiding reason he wants to continue, then trainer Gary Vitti can better use his time researching Joel Embiid's back.
The most important acquisition for the Lakers this summer, beyond their draft choice, could be a new coach. They are building a foundation, with the relationship between the coach and the pick being the first element. Before the Knicks lured Jackson, they were reportedly targeting the Bulls' Tom Thibodeau as their next coach, even though Thibodeau is under contract. If the Knicks had any shot at Thibodeau, who has clashed with management, so should the Lakers, in case a Doc Rivers-style swap presents itself. Thibodeau, as a side benefit, has known Bryant since the Lower Merion days. He is just one example -- along with his mentor, Jeff Van Gundy -- of a coach who can alter the identity of a franchise, through force of personality, and put a much-needed new face on it.