The Clippers have a hole in the middle. Without a coach, a voice, a system, an identity they are wanderers. Just a few weeks ago they were the hunted but now everything feels different as if they have suddenly woken up from a nightmare and are confused as to why they are rambling down the hall. The questions have changed. It’s no longer how many games will it take to win the NBA Finals but what do the Clippers do now? Clearly, this is Steve Ballmer running things, mimicking a bold and fearless Jerry Buss. But to quote Mike Tyson. Everyone has a plan until they are hit in the mouth.
While Ty Lue seems like a no-brainer as to the Doc replacement, you can’t trust Steve Ballmer to take the reasoned popular choice after aborting the often bumpy tenure of Doc Rivers. Right now, anything goes and no one can say for certain where this is headed.
Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated floated the idea of giving Phil Jackson a call. The Clippers are the kind of reclamation project the Zen Master built his career on. Superstars? Check. Depth? Check. Talent? Check. Potential? Check. Jerry West? Uh-oh.
Clippers advisor Jerry West despises Phil Jackson and it harkens back to when both were with the Lakers. West was the GM and Jackson came in on his white horse to heroically save the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant partnership. It worked.
In 1999-2000, Jackson’s inaugural year, the Lakers won 67 games, were 1st in defense, 6th in offense, 1st in rebounding, 4th in blocks, and 1st in 3-point defense. The year prior when Kurt Rambis was the coach, the Lakers were 25th in defense, 2nd in offense, 13th in rebounding, 6th in blocks, and 9th in 3-point defense.
Like the Clippers of 2019-20, the 2000 Lakers led 3-1 and then had to summon the energy to win a Game 7 against the Portland Trailblazers. They were shaky, trailing by 15 points in the 4th quarter. But unlike the Clippers, the Lakers kicked it up a notch, starting with effort. Shaq scored. Brian Shaw hit a three. Robert Horry made a three. Shaq and Kobe hit free throws and the lead was 5. Four minutes left and the score was tied.
In that tense and stressful fourth quarter, the Lakers had leadership on the floor and on the sidelines. Phil Jackson demands excellence, attention to detail, and effort. He wants players who think the game and when in trouble can think their way out of it. It’s exactly what the Clippers of 2020-21 need. Except….
There is the Jerry West problem.
West felt humiliated by Jackson who has a habit of pushing people out in his quest for power. Outlined in the book West by West, Jerry West admitted “Phil and I had no relationship. None. He didn’t want me around and had absolutely no respect for me- of that I have no doubt.”
Not a difficult conclusion to come to after Jackson kicked West out of the locker room. West remembers it as Jackson saying “Jerry get the f**k out, I’m not finished here yet.”
So Ballmer, if he decided to go the Phil Jackson route, would be leaping and hoping the net would appear. The results would be a long shot at best, a Hail Mary. Jackson left the Lakers in 2011 because of a variety of health issues that created chronic pain. He couldn’t travel anymore. The physical stress of coaching ruined his body. Nearly a decade later, the league has changed. During Jackson’s last year, the most threes taken in a game was 26. This year it was 46.
The triangle isn’t exactly archaic as a strategy. It is used in some forms, but its usefulness belongs to another long-gone era we are nostalgic about.
Jackson’s strength has always been coaching great players of which the Clippers have one in Kawhi Leonard and a very good player in Paul George. But have the methods of Jackson died a quick death? Jackson effects change by way of a snarky, passive-aggressive getting under your skin blueprint. Will it work with this new crop of players?
Ballmer should call Phil just for the hell of it, to see what he says. That said, Ballmer also has to consider what he has to lose in whoever he hires. Leveraging a competent front office with Jerry West as an advisor with his zealous need to fulfill grandiose expectations can create a bigger mistake than firing Doc Rivers, one that is long-lasting and can be a disastrous move. It just might short circuit this narrow championship window of the Clippers.