In 2011, the Los Angeles Lakers aimed for a three-peat led by Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. It was also the season dubbed as Phil Jackson’s last dance as a coach because he made it clear that he was ready to retire in the summer to focus on his health.
Jackson was battling prostrate cancer and needed surgery to recover in the offseason. Unfortunately, the Lakers brass didn’t make his last year one to remember because of complications that arose in the middle of the season.
Jim Buss fired Phil Jackson’s staff
The purple and gold got through the 2011 regular season with a record of 57-25 and were second in the Western Conference. The team’s main focus was entering the Playoffs healthy, where they knew they could turn on another gear. But it just so happened that in that year, Jim Buss (the Lakers’ executive vice president of basketball operations) decided to clean the house and fire Jackson’s staff in the middle of the Playoffs because he knew that the 11-time champion wasn’t going to return.
Jackson admitted that Buss firing the staff played a huge role in the Lakers’ meltdown against the Dallas Mavericks, who swept them and their championship hopes out of the Playoffs in 2011.
“That was probably my hardest year of coaching and I was ready to retire. I’m dealing with a situation of a cancer operation at the end of the season. It was a fumble at the end and it led to an uneasy feeling for the team,” Jackson revealed in episode 9 of Legacy: The True Story of the Los Angeles Lakers documentary.
Aside from Jackson, role players like Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes (who were part of the team in 2011) admitted that the drama affected the cohesion, enthusiasm, and focus the team needed in the Playoffs. It wasn’t acceptable and fair for Jim Buss to fire Jackson’s staff in the middle of the Playoffs, especially during a championship run.
Jim Buss explained his side
According to Buss, the staff’s contract was close to expiring, and he needed to make changes immediately. What was the point of re-signing them if Jackson was set to retire in the next few months? The former executive vice president admitted that it was just a practical decision that needed to be made.
“Coach comes into the team and he basically surrounds himself with his own staff and that includes the workout guys, the assistant trainers, the assistant coaches, the medical staff. Basically, you don’t renew the staff of the coach when the coach is not coming back and Phil wasn’t coming back,” Buss said.
In retrospect, both Jackson and Buss had their reasons. Buss may have a legitimate case, but his timing was definitely off. It significantly affected the Lakers’ chances of winning a championship and sending Jackson off to retirement in the best way possible.