Posted on: March 26, 2010 5:00 pm
Edited on: March 26, 2010 9:23 pm
OKLAHOMA CITY -- A significant domino tumbled Friday in the 2010 free-agent guessing game, but it didn’t involve who you might think. It came in the form of an important proclamation from a 6-foot-8, 64-year-old man with a gruff voice and an artificial hip.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson told NBA.com Friday that barring health concerns, he expects to be back coaching the Lakers with a new contract next season.
Jackson will undergo a physical exam after the season, as he does ever year, but said Friday he doesn’t expect health or financial issues to cloud his future.
“Probably not,” Jackson said. “I go at the end of the year for a medical checkup now. There are a couple issues I deal with, and if they're all ‘go,’ then I’ve cleared myself. If it’s a warning situation, then I’ll have to have another consideration.”
Jackson was less forthcoming during his pre-game media briefing Friday night before the Lakers played the Thunder.
"No decision, no leaning at all," Jackson said. "I'm leaning against a wall. ... I'll do the whole physical checkup after the season and then make a decision. It's pretty easy, It'll go pretty quick. It's a two-day thing and then I'll be back and see what happens."
He reiterated that his health is "fine," that he anticipates a clean physical after the season, and that he's not concerned about the financial aspect of the negotiation. "There's some ways around that, and I think that we can find a way to make that work," Jackson said.
The Zen Master also cleverly noted that it was he who compelled the owner, Dr. Jerry Buss, to re-sign Lamar Odom last summer -- hinting that it would be difficult for him to walk away only one year into that commitment. "At a time when it's tough in this league, he took the step," Jackson said.
If the Lakers were to win another title, Jackson said, "It's imperative to give it another shot. But that's a lot of ifs in there. There's four playoff [series] you have to get through before you can say, 'We won,' and have a chance to do something special again. ... How we make it through the year has a lot to do with it."
Jackson’s intention to return as long as he’s healthy will have a profound impact on the potential 2010 free agent everyone has forgotten about: Kobe Bryant. The four-time champion decided not to terminate his contract after last season, but the extension he was subsequently expected to sign with Lakers has not come to fruition.
Bryant has steadfastly refused to discuss his contract situation this season, and his agent, Rob Pelinka, did not respond to a request for comment. But until Jackson’s situation was clarified Friday, executives around the NBA had come to believe that it would be unwise to assume Bryant was a shoo-in to re-sign with the Lakers this summer rather than exercise his player option for $24.8 million and join the elite free-agent class that also included LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
“He’s definitely in the mix,” one GM told me recently. “What if they don’t win it this year and what if he’s [ticked] off at Dr. Buss for not re-signing Phil Jackson or he’s sick of playing with whoever and he says, ‘You know what? I’m gonna go put on a New York Knick jersey.’ All of sudden he and Mike D’Antoni hook up in New York and they can talk some Italian.
“Don’t rule him out if LeBron says no to New York,” the GM said.
Buss, whose daughter, Jeanie, is Jackson’s girlfriend, said in a recent interview that Jackson’s desire to consider his health after the season was the only impediment to finalizing his return. Jeanie Buss, the Lakers’ executive vice president of business operations, also denied recent reports that family strife could prevent Jackson from returning to coach in 2010-11.
"I would serve at the behest of the Buss family," Jackson said.
Jackson returning next season would remove a significant tipping point in Bryant’s decision to leave $25 million on the table July 1 and accept significantly less as an unrestricted free agent. Speculation that Bryant would stay in Staples Center and sign with the Clippers are farfetched, according to sources who believe New York is the only place Bryant would go if he left the Lakers.
“There’s a greater chance he crosses the country and goes to New York than he crosses the hallway and goes to the Clippers,” one executive said. “He can use the Clippers all he wants, but he’s not going to the Clippers -- unless he gets to pick his own coach and GM or something like that. I had no inkling that he would leave the Lakers last summer. Now, New York could be a legitimate option. I wouldn’t rule it out.”
And with that, here are the rest of the Post-Ups:
• The real question about the free-agent period that begins July 1 is this: If LeBron James stays in Cleveland and Dwyane Wade stays in Miami, what do all these teams do with their cap space? Teams like the Knicks, Nets, Bulls and others will have to decide if they’re going to overpay for a second-tier free agent, use the money to sign several second-tier players, or hold some back for the 2011 free-agent class, which could include Carmelo Anthony. Sources say that the Knicks’ likely fallback option if they don’t get LeBron is Atlanta’s Joe Johnson – but that strategy comes with a caveat. On one hand, Donnie Walsh is too smart to overpay for a player like Johnson who probably isn’t quite deserving of the max. Then again, the Hawks will pay Johnson the max to stay, so if anybody else wants him, the max is what it will take. Johnson said recently that he’d sacrifice to pair up with another elite player, meaning he’d take less than the max. But there’s no reason for him to take less under any other circumstance.
• For similar reasons, Walsh will have to decide whether Chris Bosh is worthy of a max deal if he strikes out on LeBron. Sources familiar with Walsh’s thinking are convinced that he does not regard Bosh as being on the same level as James and Wade, who will be the only two clear-cut max players on the market. “That’s the fallacy with the max,” one prominent agent said. “It allows you to buy Chris Bosh for the same price as LeBron James.” In fact, another person familiar with Walsh’s strategy said if it came down to deciding whether to keep David Lee or sign Bosh to a max deal, Walsh would choose Lee. “There are questions about whether Bosh is the kind of player who can carry a team by himself,” the person said. “He certainly hasn’t done it in Toronto.”
• When the topic of the Magic’s chances of getting back to the NBA Finals comes up, the emphasis is always on whether Vince Carter can be the complement to Dwight Howard that Hedo Turkoglu was last season. But internally, sources say Magic people believe their success is much more closely linked to the performance of point guard Jameer Nelson. Point guard issues helped sink Orlando in last year’s Finals, and Nelson still wasn’t in optimal shape at the start of this season after missing significant time late last season with a shoulder injury. Nelson then tore cartilage in his knee and missed 16 games in November and December, setting his conditioning back even more. “As he’s gotten healthier and gotten in better shape, he’s gotten his quickness back so he’s been able to get in the paint more,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “And he’s also gotten his legs back to where he’s able to shoot the ball better.” Atlanta coach Mike Woodson, whose Hawks beat the Magic this week for the first time in four tries, said Nelson is “still the player that runs their team. Make no mistake about it, he’s an All Star.” But the proof will be in the playoffs, when the issue of whether Nelson’s teammates trust him as a championship-caliber point guard will be resolved one way or another. “We go as the little guy and the big guy go,” Orlando GM Otis Smith said. “You’ll never get an argument from me on that.”
• The Pacers have won four straight and five out of six as they march to the end of another disappointing season. One thing you can count on, according to a person with knowledge of their plans, is Danny Granger being in a Pacers uniform next season. Although teams on the fringes of the free-agent chase will be probing to determine Granger’s availability should they strike out on other options, the Pacers have no intention of moving him, the person said. Indiana wisely embarked on the latest phase of their rebuilding plan with an eye toward the 2011 free-agent class, rather than the 2010 bonanza. With a potential lockout looming, a small-market team like Indiana could not risk committing max money to a free agent this summer with no certainty as to what salary structure will be in place a year from now. As things stand today, the Pacers have only $15.6 million committed to the 2011-12 payroll.