When Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak called Phil Jackson to tell him the Lakers were hiring Mike D’Antoni instead of him as coach, he responded the only way he knew how.
“I laughed,” Jackson told ESPN’s “Mike & Mike in the Morning” show Wednesday. “It was humorous to me when Mitch said that we think that Mike is a better coach for this group of guys.”
Jackson had been prepared to tell Kupchak whether he was interested in returning to the Lakers’ bench the next day, but the GM called Jackson late that Sunday night, Nov. 11, to tell him the Lakers had decided to go in another direction.
Jackson said he thinks the Lakers made the decision largely based on catering to Steve Nash, their 39-year-old point guard who was limited to 50 games this season as he battled a variety of injuries.
“I think it didn’t happen because there was some concern, How are we going to move in the right direction for this ballclub?” Jackson said. “When Mitch gave me the call close to midnight on Sunday night right before I was going to give them an answer Monday morning and said, ‘We’ve made a choice. We’re going to hire Mike D’Antoni. We think he’s the best coach for this group of guys,’ My answer was, ‘For Steve Nash, yes, I agree, but for Dwight Howard, I’m not so sure.’
“In the process of thinking about how they could best use the team I think they thought first and foremost about Steve Nash and how Steve Nash was going to fit inside of an offensive system that I coach. … I think that was a concern for them.”
D’Antoni’s up-tempo style had worked well in Phoenix with Nash as the point guard, and there was a feeling that reuniting the two would create another version of “Showtime” in Los Angeles. But Jackson felt that the Lakers could win by focusing on their talented big men rather than forcing them to run and shoot from the outside.
“They wanted to move to a quicker, 3-point-oriented game, which is kind of the rage right now in the NBA,” Jackson said. “I felt like with Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard we could emulate a lot of what we did with Andrew Bynum and Pau and pound the ball inside and have an interior game that was strong. But it was their choice, and that’s all right with me.
“It was OK with me if that’s what they wanted to do. In fact, there was a little part of me that felt relief in not having to strap it up and make the decision and get on the road. I think it was only five games into the year, so we still had 77 games left to go in that season.”