By Ben Golliver
The Lakers' search for Mike Brown's replacement took a sharp turn early Monday morning, leaving both candidates, Mike D'Antoni and Phil Jackson, as surprised as anyone else.
Following two solid days of reports expecting Jackson to receive his third tour on the Lakers' bench, D'Antoni emerged well after midnight with a four-year contract from owner Dr. Jerry Buss, vice president Jim Buss and GM Mitch Kupchak.
"After speaking with several excellent and well-respected coaching candidates, Dr. Buss, Jim and I all agreed that Mike was the right person at this time to lead the Lakers forward," Kupchak said in a prepared statement. "Knowing his style of play and given the current make-up of our roster, we feel Mike is a great fit, are excited to have him as our next head coach and hope he will help our team reach its full potential."
That's a strong endorsement, and D'Antoni admitted to the New York Daily News that even he expected Jackson would be the one receiving those type of compliments.
"Saturday morning, Jim Buss, called to ask if he could come and visit. I did not solicit or ask for the opportunity, but I welcomed both he and Mitch Kupchak into my home to discuss the possibility of my return to the Lakers as the head coach. We talked for over an hour and a half.
"No contractual terms were discussed and we concluded with a hand shake and an understanding that I would have until Monday (today) to come back to them with my decision. I did convey to them that I did have the confidence that I could do the job.
"I was awakened at midnight on Sunday by a phone call from Mitch Kupchak. He told me that the Lakers had signed Mike D’Antoni to a 3-year agreement and that they felt he was the best coach for the team. The decision is of course theirs to make. 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 "I was awakened at midnight" and his clarifying of his understanding of the timeline both hint at a vibe found in multiple reports Monday: that Jackson had the rug pulled out from under him by the Lakers.
ESPN.com reported that Jackson was "stunned" that, one day after he met with the Lakers, they decided to go a different direction.
When the Lakers called to tell Jackson that they had instead chosen Mike D'Antoni to be their next head coach, he was "stunned," according to the source, because he had been under the impression "it was his job to turn down," although no formal offer had ever been made.
Jackson's agent was even scheduled to fly to Los Angeles on Monday to begin negotiating a deal, a source said.
Longtime NBA writer Peter Vecsey confirmed that last detail.
How surprised were Jackson's people? Agent Brian Musberger was on a Chicago [to Los Angeles] plane [to] negotiate with Lakers [regarding] contract when [D'Antoni] was hired.
Yahoo! Sports reports that Jackson overestimated his leverage in the negotiations, believing that the Lakers couldn't turn down his championship experience and ability to manage superstars. In addition to arranging a favorable travel schedule, Jackson's reported goal was to obtain a level of input and authority over basketball decisions, a shift that would have marginalized Jim Buss.
"Phil wanted Jim Buss to walk away with his tail between his legs," one source with knowledge of the discussions told Yahoo! Sports. "He thought he had time to still negotiate with them, and see how much they would give him."
"Phil's assistants convinced him that they had his back on the concerns [Jackson] had about his load as head coach, and he was ready to get a deal done on Monday," a source with knowledge of the talks said. "But this was about Jim Buss giving him a royal you-know-what in the end."
Even if Brown's replacement is a bit startled, he clearly sounds thrilled to be reunited with his All-Star point guard from the glory years of the "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns.
“I am so happy to be back with Steve Nash,” D’Antoni is saying late on Monday morning. “To get one more chance to have him run the thing the way he did for me before (in Phoenix), well, that’s the kind of thing you never think is going to happen. But now it has.”
“Sometimes you have to be lucky,” he said on Monday morning. “Lucky or even blessed. I look back over my career, just what I’ve been able to do so far, and feel like nobody has been more blessed than I’ve been. Now this happens and I look at myself and I really do say, ‘Are you kidding me? I get to come back and coach these guys?’”
Monday's winner is clear: D'Antoni emerges from a swift departure from the Knicks with the NBA's marquee coaching job. Longer term, though, the two coaches have different outlooks.
D'Antoni, without the all-important title on his resume, is being thrown into a pressure-cooker with title-or-bust expectations. Nash is injured, Dwight Howard is rehabilitating, Kobe Bryant is not used to his system and Pau Gasol isn't a track star. There's not much to work with on the bench, especially from an athleticism standpoint. The initial luster of the hire will wear off and the hard work will start soon enough. Simply doing better than Brown won't be nearly good enough and even if he gets everything clicking and all his stars back healthy, there are still formidable teams with established chemistry like the Thunder, Spurs and Heat looming as potential playoff opponents.
Jackson simply heads back to retirement, the drama of the last few days becoming more and more of a lark as time passes. His life, at least the one he's lived since the end of the 2010-11 season, doesn't change much. This wasn't his "dream job" in the most basic sense: he had already held it, and left it, on two separate occasions. There will be no lasting damage to his reputation or his ego; his 11 rings as a coach speak for themselves and D'Antoni winning one won't diminish them. Of course, if this dalliance did provoke in Jackson a strong desire to get back in the game, there will surely be suitors lining up. That could make things interesting. Otherwise, life goes on and he joins the rest of us, watching D'Antoni's march toward his first title -- or a tidal wave of criticism.