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Derek Fisher, on the offense, Phil Jackson's coaching style and learning

November 17, 2009 |  1:56 pm
There's almost always an upside to extended conversations with Derek Fisher, and it's typically two-fold.Derek_fisher First, he's a given for introspective, thoughtful copy. Second, the discussion will often take unexpected turns that spotlight additionally interesting topics. Eight or so minutes with Fish after Monday's practice proved no exception.

This particular chunk of conversation began with a discussion about the recently stagnant, struggling Lakers offense, then ended up delving into the essence of what makes Phil Jackson unique and- in the eyes of many- extremely effective as a coach. Here's what Fisher had to say:

Over the last couple of games, you guys have faced a lot more double teams in the post.  Is the best way to counter those defenses just hitting outside shots?

    Some of it is shooting the ball better, but some of it is also having better spacing, so that the person that receives the pass out, if his shot isn't there for him, there's space on the floor to swing it, then swing it, (then swing it) back inside.  Those are the problems we're running into.  We're not really that concerned about guys making shots, ultimately.  We're concerned about the lack of execution that comes from if the pass is kicked out of a double team, or just offensively coming down and not ever really seeming like we've gotten into an offensive set or flow of any kind.  Those are the things that are bothering us the most, the coaches and obviously, as players.  We're confident we'll make shots if we get good open shots. 

So that's why things have looked a little more stagnant the last game and a half or so?

    Yeah, we're just kind of locked into throwing the ball down to Kobe (Bryant) or throwing the ball down to Andrew (Bynum) and even though those guys have had success with that at times, there's been kind of an in and out flow for everyone else.  Ron (Artest) has had good moments, and (then) hasn't. I've had good moments, haven't.  Sasha (Vujacic) has hit some shots, sometimes he hasn't. That's kind of going all the the way around the whole team.  So as we improve our spacing and execution, I think you'll find that we'll have six, seven, eight guys playing in the flow. The ball moving well.  Even if guys aren't necessarily getting a lot of shots, the shots will be higher quality and everybody will feel involved and you'll see more of a team game happening.  So far, I think the Phoenix game is the closest we've come to that this season, and even during that game, we had some stretches where we were still too focused on forcing the ball into guys when the ball has to move for us to be successful.

AK: Does that lack of spacing come from what the defense is taking away or you guys just never getting it right to begin with?  

Mk5djhdd_-_space_madness_cover    No, we're not even close to setting it correctly.  (Laughs)  We're so far away from, in the game at least, the type of spacing and execution that we practice.  And that's what today's practice, the whole two hours was spent on: Setting up correctly.  Other than maybe my time in Utah, I've never been on a team where every day, we generally do 80% of the same things that are related to spacing, ball movement, player movement, guys being in the right spot so you know where you're going to get your shots from.  You have the ability to get back on defense if the shots don't go in.  You have the ability to rebound if the shots don't go in.  And the way we're doing things in the game, we're just not allowing ourselves those opportunities. So that's something we really have to step up our commitment and be a much more disciplined team.

    We've shown some stretches of being able to do some things right, but right now, we're just not even close.  Because we're so talented, we still figure out a way to win seven games, but we could easily be 6-4 or whatever.  We had a couple of overtime games.  So we have a long way to go, and we understand that. We're hopefully going to get healthy.  Get
Pau (Gasol) back in there.  Kobe will be day-to-day.  But that'll help a lot.

(AK's NOTE: Before talking with Fisher, I asked Phil Jackson about adjustments being made against the Lakers' assault on the paint, and he felt that defenses were in fact making adjustments that alter their ability to properly space. Thus, it's probably a little bit from column A, a little bit from column B. But either way, Fisher emphasizing how the onus starts with preparation and attention nonetheless holds.)

When you're working on setting up and you've got Lamar Odom (currently starting at power forward) vs. Pau Gasol, obviously such different players, do you still want to set it up the same way, even though they do different things?

Yeah. Our offense, it doesn't really matter who's on the floor. Obviously, you have different guys who have different strengths and weaknesses, but it doesn't change the spacing on the floor and where guys will be setting up. What type of things that we should be able to execute and take advantage. Pau's another guy we can put in the post, take advantage of his size and passing ability, but still, we gotta space out correctly around him. We can't just give him the ball and then just stand there and kind of watch him do his thing.  (Pause, grin)  Although some of us feel that since the rest of us have playing for ten games and he hasn't, that we should just give him the ball every single time. Just let him get beat up and worn down and smacked across the head.  Let him catch up with the rest of us. Then we'll start spreading it around. (Laughs)

When you talk about not setting up correctly, is it a matter of certain guys still being unsure, or simply a matter of not paying attention to the details?

    To me, it's more of not paying attention to the details. Ron (Artest) is the only that still has a lot of questions about how to respond or what happens if we call this or do this, and that's to be understood. But what would make his life a lot easier is if the other four guys would do the thing right, because there's only one place for him to be, if the other four guys are in the right spots. We're slowing down his learning curve by not paying attention to the details, and that's not fair to him and it's not fair to the team. Regardless of the win and loss record, we could just be playing much better.  Sometimes you play good and you still may lose because the other team plays good, but we could be playing much better if we really were paying attention to more details.  

(AK's Note: The point about everyone else needing to be on point for Artest to get up to speed is fantastic. He's learning through a player-provided blueprint, so if the blueprint sucks, the ceiling for his successful immersion automatically lowers)

Phil's not the kind of guy that's going to cram details down your throat this early in the season, and I've come to believe that some things get lost in translation if you just keep on (cramming details). Season's too long. Eight or nine months until June, that's too long to have a coach already start having a coach down your throat every time you make a mistake. So that's something we have to take more seriously ourselves and not just wait for him to throw us the rope, so to speak.

From here, an interesting little exchange between me and Fisher.
Phil Jackson whistles to his players AK: I would think, at least, that you also begin to truly understand it better as you discover it for yourself, as opposed to just having it.  If you're told something but don't really understand it, you may not be much better off than you were to begin with.

Fisher: Do you have kids?

AK: No, but I've been around them. Taught them.

Fisher: You sound like a parent there.  That's what I try to tell my stepson all the time as far as homework. It's one thing to just kind of get the homework done or come to us for the answers and we kind of help you through it. But if you don't fully understand it and the test comes, that's why you're gonna have low test scores, if you don't understand it yourself.  It's not for us to try and help you understand it all the time. So it's the same concept.  

And p
eople still question it. They wonder why didn't (Jackson) call a time out. Why did he bring in these substitutions?  Why isn't the rotation this? But he understands that all these guys need to be able to help us win. And all of them need to be in and out of different situations in order to fill a collective, vested interest in what's happening. I've really come to believe that it's the best format there is. He's got the results to prove it.  

If nothing else, we learned today that Derek Fisher occasionally listens to sports talk radio.  

But his endorsement of the "letting players figure things out" approach isn't simply the by-product of years spent under a coach that clearly trusts the hell out of him. Players with relatively little time around PJ often feel the same way, too.  

About a week ago, I was talking with Josh Powell about an unrelated topic and mentioned Phil's "allows players to figure things out" reputation. Before I could even toss out my actual question, Powell immediately interjected, declaring it "a good thing."

"There are a lot of teams, there are a lot of situations, where they don't allow guys to play or make some of those mistakes to learn and grown from.," he said. "A lot of coaches, the way that they handle things, they may mot have the patience for whatever's going on.  You usually have less of an opportunity to improve."

Phil Jackson at the parade I wondered if being forced to truly understand a situation without the benefit of having it spelled out ultimately makes you a better player.  "I think it does. At the end of the day, it's pressure, that's what makes players, too.  To be able to succeed and still find a way to get it done.  At the end of the day, it's all good for everyone."      

Fisher and Powell's sentiments get to the heart of why PJ can sometimes frustrate the crap out of fans, but has ultimately enjoyed an enormous degree of success: He doesn't coach for the regular season. He coaches for the playoffs. That's not to say he's indifferent towards the regular season or could care less about losing. Neither is true. But Jackson's goal is ultimately centered around the bigger picture.  

There's a well known saying about the bigger picture: You can win a battle, but lose the war. Along these lines, Phil clearly sees the regular season games as "the battle(s)," and the playoffs as "the war."  He wants to win every "battle," but whatever decisions are made will prioritize the "war" first and foremost.  If losing a few battles means being better prepared, particularly mentally, 
for the war, it's a trade off PJ will make every day of the week. I happen to agree with that philosophy. Losses can be very bit as valuable a commodity as wins. Maybe even more valuable, depending on what gets taken away from either result. 

Obviously, this approach isn't fool proof.  Like everything, "time and place" plays a role, and I don't think PJ has been perfect along these lines. For example, I thought he let Game 4 of the series against Houston last year get way the hell outta hand. Beyond simply letting the game slip beyond reach so quickly, the on-court action was absolutely haywire, frazzling the team to the point where I doubt they were even thinking straight. A head-cleansing deep breath- in the form of a time out- was clearly needed and this was a "risk/reward" scenario where Jackson should have tread more conventionally. But by and large, there's a method to Phil's "madness," if you even want to refer this as such, since the thought process itself isn't really all that radical when you remove the purple and gold fanaticism and just evaluate it at face value.

Phil's forcing players to truly learn.  

And more importantly, to have whatever is learned turn instinctual.  Something can be explained over and over, but it likely won't click without application and living (hopefully with eventual success) through specific experiences.  And in particular, that's important for a system like the triangle, which is extremely reactive.  That doesn't mean that literally "nothing" ever gets explained, of course. By definition, a two hour session devoted to the finer points of spacing proves otherwise.  But like most things in life, you really learn the most through trial and error, whether it produces positive or negative results.  Luckily, Phil allows players that luxury.   


Photo: Derek Fisher dribbling: Credit: Elsa, NBAE, Getty Images
hoto taken by Elsa/NBAE/Getty Image
Photo: Phil Jackson at the Lakers parade: Credit: Jeff Gross, Getty Images, North America