Blame starts at top for Lakers' bungling of Jackson's return

Bill Plaschke / Los Angeles Times /

LOS ANGELES —

In the final minutes of practice Monday, the Los Angeles Lakers were playing a pickup game. The rich and gifted athletes were running up and down the gym floor like chaotic children on a playground, gunning and fouling and arguing.

They were playing like a team without a coach or a vision, which was appropriate because, at that moment, they had neither.

Has it really been less than three years? Was it really just June of 2010 when they experienced one of the greatest triumphs in franchise history with a Game 7 NBA Finals victory over the Boston Celtics? Have they really fallen this far, this fast?

Less than three years ago, the Lakers were in the discussion of the greatest franchises in the history of American professional sports. Today, they are a drifting, dysfunctional mess.

Less than three years ago, Jerry Buss was arguably the best sports owner ever. Today, his declining health, combined with his decision to delegate his power to curious son Jimmy, has left the Lakers looking uncertain, unsettled and increasingly unstable.

They allowed the NBA’s greatest coach to walk away while scrubbing the organization clean of his memory. Then, when they needed him most, and when he would have returned, they refused to bring him back.

They hired a coach lacking in championship credentials, fired him just five games into his second season, then immediately replaced him with another coach lacking in championship credentials.

They unceremoniously dumped two of their championship veterans and Lakers favorites from a team that hasn’t made it past the second round of the playoffs in the past two seasons.

And, oh yeah, they just signed a deal to place most of their games on a television network that millions of their fans cannot watch.

Is it any wonder that Lakers fans have become so upset that even one of their best courtside customers was recently involved in a heckling incident with nice guy Steve Blake? Is it any wonder that interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff could only laugh when asked Monday about his conversation with new coach Mike D’Antoni?

“When I talked to him, I told him to hurry up and come on and get this seat,” Bickerstaff said. “Because it’s hot.”

Even though Mitch Kupchak did a great job assembling perhaps the most talented starting lineup in the league, his Buss bosses have done a lousy job with everything else, and everyone around the Lakers is as heated as Bickerstaff’s seat. The exception is perhaps the actual Lakers, who are 3-4 and preparing for what could be a difficult transition to a track coach who has never made the NBA Finals, has never coached defense, and has never been willing to slow down to fit his team’s old sneakers.

D’Antoni’s biggest problem, of course, is that he is not Phil Jackson. This is where this latest bit of Lakers looney tunes begins. The hiring of D’Antoni late Sunday night when former coach Jackson expressly wanted the job is the sort of arrogantly tone-deaf move that has marked the baffling transfer of power from Jerry Buss to Jimmy Buss.

Like other bad decisions in the past three years, this one was made on impulse rather than insight, a gut move instead of a basketball move, a son perhaps trying to impress a father who wants the kid to still know who’s boss.

It was also a move like last week’s firing of Mike Brown without having Jackson already hired. Who does that? Who leaves a city treasure vulnerable and exposed in the middle of a season by canning a coach without having a replacement already signed up? That was Jerry Buss’ call, and it was a lousy one.

All of these problems, plus the fans chanting and Kobe Bryant begging, gave Jackson plenty of leverage in this weekend’s negotiations, and I’m sure he used it. The question is, did he go too far in perhaps trying to make Jimmy Buss look bad after Buss embarrassed him two years ago by firing everyone close to him? The answer is, who cares?

Hiring Jackson was the only thing that could have made sense of the Brown firing. Jackson is the only coach with the credibility to immediately convince this potential championship team that it can play like a champion.

Short of a larger ownership slice than the 4.5 percent that Magic Johnson was once allowed to buy, Jackson was worth every bit of the Lakers’ time, money and pride. That Jim Buss suddenly turned to a quirky offensive mind with a losing playoff record and smoldering New York Knicks wreckage on his resume makes it seem like Buss was angrily running from Jackson.

Jackson was a bridge while D’Antoni is a ladder, and now the Lakers have less than a full season to climb out of this morass before Dwight Howard becomes a free agent and Bryant moves to within one year of retirement and Steve Nash starts pushing 60 and they risk having to start from scratch again.

“I took philosophy of logic at the University of San Diego, and after I left, I abandoned it,” Bickerstaff said Monday. “So now I’m not surprised at anything.”

Sadly, in the wake of this latest bit of Buss madness, neither is anyone else around here.