Analyzing the psychology behind Phil Jackson's comments about Miami
The words struck the Miami Heat as trash talking. The words struck the NBA's coaching circle as disrespectful. And the words struck the media as one of the Zen Master's old tricks.
With Miami off to a far from desirable 8-6 start, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said out loud on "The Waddle and Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000 in Chicago on Tuesday what the general public has been speculating since the season started. That involves the ongoing debate on the job security of Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra.
"The scenario that sits kind of behind the scene, is that eventually these guys that were recruited -- [Chris] Bosh and [LeBron] James -- by [team President] Pat Riley and Micky Arison, the owner, are going to come in and say, 'We feel you [Riley] can do a better job coaching the team,' " Jackson said of Miami, which is now 8-7. " 'We came here on the hopes that this would work,' and whatever, I don't know. That's kind of my take on it, is that eventually if things don't straighten out here soon, it could be the Van Gundy thing all over again."
The Van Gundy reference, of course, alludes to current Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy, who stepped down as head coach during the 2005-06 Miami season for varied reasons depending on who you ask. Van Gundy's version: he resigned because he wanted to spend more time with his family. Everyone else's version: Riley forced him out 21 games into the season so he could eventually lead the Heat to the 2005-06 championship.
Jackson took his comments further before the Lakers' 98-91 victory Tuesday over Chicago.
"I don't think it'll happen like we're talking about it tomorrow or anything like that," Jackson said. "But I think eventually if things don't turn around, eventually the weight is going to fall there where we were promised this success and we're hoping for it. It'll be a real drive for the players to have some kind of change. It'll be easier to change coaches than to change teams after they made all of those player adjustments. There's a chance, but I would say it would take a lot more losses than the ones we've seen."
The reaction regarding Jackson has already been quite spirited. Van Gundy called the comments "inappropriate" and "ignorant." Spoelstra simply tried laughing it off. And Heat guard Dwyane Wade raised questions on Jacksion violating the unwritten rule amongst coaches that publicly talking about others' job security is a strict no-no.
This sentiment will fall on deaf ears in this corner of the blogosphere, but I understand why there's anger over Jackson's comments. It's the equivalent of someone else outside of the Lakers giving their assessment regarding Jackson's coaching uncertainty last season. And generally speaking, it's not the classy thing to do.
But as far as the psychology behind it? I agree with ESPN Los Angeles' Brian Kamenetzky that to strictly paint this as one of Jackson's mind games is a tad too simplistic. Even if Jackson's comments drew the ire of Van Gundy and Wade, his comments in full are about as fair and nuanced as you can get.
He stressed that Miami isn't going through anything surprising, but perhaps only so because of the heightened expectations surrounding that team ("They really haven't had the opportunity to get that all together.") He blamed the media for overhyping the Heat's conflicts and overanalyzing each performance ("There's a little bit of competition or maybe bantering or stuff that the media can focus on and pick apart and the team starts to look at itself in the mirror.") And he concluded that Spoelstra shouldn't ultimately be the first one held responsible for any shortcomings ("The responsibility ends up coming back to the players and performing").
For as experienced and successful as Jackson is as a head coach, I don't buy that he was just making an off-the-cuff remark. He's very well aware what the media will ask him at some point during a season and have most times formulated the main message he wants to convey. There's no doubt Jackson's fully aware how sharing his views would get this type of reaction and add another story line to the Lakers-Heat showdown. But Jackson's comments seem more directed toward his team than Miami itself, as there's really no reason he should feel threatened at this point in the season at what Miami could do. Save the mind games for the Heat if the Lakers actually meet them in the NBA Finals.
Just like he contended a few weeks ago that the Heat have a better chance than the Lakers of winning at least 70 games, Jackson's speculation about Miami's coaching future was meant to motivate and remind the Lakers the keys to maintaining a championship team.
Naturally, Jackson's commentary on Miami's situation led to him answering questions about dealing with the tension between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, winning his first championship with the Lakers in just his first season and about the recently decreased media spotlight on the Lakers. As professional and mature as the Lakers have shown en route to a 13-2 record, there's no question that Jackson wants to ensure that mind-set stays the same by reminding them it's actually a good thing if they start feeling bored. Sure beats battling the endless scrutiny and drama that involves the Heat.
Lately, the Lakers have embraced their business-like approach. They've prided themselves on blowing teams out so they can get enough rest. The newcomers feel forever hungry in wanting to fit in with the championship culture. And everyone from Kobe Bryant down to the bench senses satisfaction in mastering little nuances in their performances. But just like it's unfair to label anything definitive about Miami just based off its start, it's also incomplete already to paint the Lakers as the team waltzing to a three-peat. More challenges will arise when the schedule becomes tougher, the grind becomes more magnified and the glow of a new NBA season rubs off.
Jackson's latest commentary on using his critique on Miami into launching a discussion about how he dealt with the Lakers' problems earlier this decade served as another reminder that keeping it simple and drama-free isn't a bad thing. Even in Lakerland.
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Photo: Lakers Coach Phil Jackson recently suggested the Miami Heat may fire Coach Erik Spoelstra. Credits: Stephen Dunn / Getty Images, Rick Osentoski / US Presswire