The Los Angeles Lakers suspended negotiations to extend coach Phil Jackson’s contract until after the season.
The five-year, $30 million contract Jackson signed in June 1999 expires at the end of the season. Negotiations to extend the deal began last summer after the 58-year-old Jackson decided he was well enough to continue coaching, but ended last week.
“I have no hard feelings at all,” Jackson said before Wednesday night’s game in Houston. “I actually think it’s the right move for them to make with all the free agents they have this summer.”
Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton are three of eight Lakers eligible for free agency after the season. Shaquille O’Neal is under contract through 2006, although he’s been in negotiations for several months to extend his deal.
When asked Wednesday night whether Jackson's contract status would affect his decision to stay with the team or not, Bryant said, "I don't care," the Los Angeles Times reported.
Jackson's relationship with Bryant has never been consistently good, primarily because of Bryant's doubts about the triangle offense and his role in it beside O'Neal, the paper said. And, although several people in the organization described Bryant as being very unhappy with Jackson lately, one tempered it with the observation, "[Bryant] is sour on a lot of people. Phil's just one guy on the list."
The Times said few in the Laker organization believe that the decision will boil down to Jackson or Bryant. Most are convinced Bryant will leave after the season, the paper said.
The Lakers were heavy favorites to win their fourth NBA championship in five years under Jackson this season, and won 18 of their first 21 games. But injuries to Malone, O’Neal and Bryant have taken their toll, and they enter this weekend’s All-Star break with a 31-19 record, fifth best in the Western Conference.
O’Neal and Bryant are back, but Malone, sidelined since injuring his right knee Dec. 21, isn’t expected to return until next month.
Jackson acknowledged surprise at the Lakers’ announcement of talks being put on hold and said he’d speak with general manager Mitch Kupchak this weekend. The coach considered retirement last season based on a lack of energy before undergoing an angioplasty during the playoffs.
“Everyone concerned in this important transaction understands the business side of basketball,” Jackson’s agent, Todd Musburger, said Friday. “We know that the Lakers have great appreciation for Phil’s contributions and we also know that Phil has enjoyed the challenge and has obviously delivered great success to the club.
“While the future might be uncertain, of course we will be here to continue to talk to the Lakers should they choose to do so.”
When asked if Jackson will coach somewhere else next season if no agreement is reached with the Lakers, Musburger replied: “Phil’s professional pursuits cover a wide spectrum. He’s a man who has some wonderful choices in life. My sense is he’s got a whole lot of games left to coach.”
Musurger wouldn’t comment concerning details of the negotiations.
Jackson has coached nine championship teams — tying him with former Boston coach Red Auerbach for the most in NBA history. He guided the Lakers to titles in his first three years. The Lakers were eliminated by San Antonio in the second round of the playoffs last year — less than a week after Jackson’s angioplasty.
Kupchak said keeping Jackson is a priority.
“It hasn’t changed,” he said. “We’re putting this off to the summer. Clearly there’s a lot of uncertainty that surrounds the team at this time — and clearly in the summer, there’ll be perhaps even a lot more. So there is a lot to consider from Phil’s point of view and from an organizational point of view.”
Jackson’s 162 playoff wins are the most in NBA history. He has a regular-season record of 807-309 for a .723 winning percentage — tops in league history.
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