Lakers Report Card: Phil Jackson
In the 15th edition of the Lakers Report Card, we focus on Coach Phil Jackson.
While the Lakers sulked immediately following their 122-86 Game 4 eliminating loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals, Phil Jackson smiled. While the Lakers walked off the floor with their heads hung low, Jackson held his head high. And while the Lakers lamented their season ending a month too short, Jackson actually expressed relief that it was over.
"It feels really good to be ending the season, to be honest with you," Jackson said. "I came back this year with trepidation."
It's not exactly the answer fans would expect or like to hear, but there's no escaping the fact that Jackson was reluctant to return. He had thought about retiring after collecting his 11th championship, with the 2010 NBA Finals, mostly due to health concerns. All the travel and stress wore on him. Chronic pain in his knees and hip was burdensome. Still, he struggled with walking away from the game, having made attempts to do so in both 1998 and 2004. But he returned after much cajoling -- from longtime girlfriend Jeanie Buss, who is Lakers executive vice president; co-captains Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher; Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak; and owner Jerry Buss -- even though Jackson got a $2-million paycut, from $12 million to $10 million.
It would be easy to say Jackson's heart was never in this season and that he didn't fully prepare the Lakers for the rigors that a three-peat would demand. And though Jackson has 11 championship rings in 19 seasons, he's not immune from criticism. Jackson, like Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, laid out a blueprint for maintaining a big-picture perspective, but oftentimes that approach meant that bad habits continued, accompanied by a lack of focus. Still, although Jackson could've adjusted better, this is more a case of his players not heeding the wisdom of an 11-time NBA champion than Jackson suddenly becoming ineffective.
Jackson admitted to the gap between himself and his young players.
"They've treated me like a lame-duck administrator," Jackson said in a half-joking manner entering the 2011 postseason. "By not using what Ron [Artest] terms 'mind control,' not letting me control their minds when they've gone through some errant journeys on the floor or irrational behavior I'm not appreciative of."
Jackson didn't go into detail at the time about what exactly irked him, but it could have been many things, such as Pau Gasol falling to fatigue while picking up heavy minutes for Andrew Bynum despite taking the whole summer off, Kobe Bryant's penchant for breaking out of the triangle, Ron Artest struggling with the offense, the backcourt's poor three-point shooting and the bench's inconsistency. But Jackson handled all of that with a mixed bag.
Jackson at first needled Gasol because he had responded to that in seasons past and refused to sit him out in hopes that that would build mental toughness. But Gasol eventually tuned him out and lost confidence, making Jackson's berating of Gasol during Game 3 of the Lakers-Mavericks series seem both desperate and uncomfortable. Jackson had pushed just about every button for Gasol -- zinging him, providing positive reinforcement and criticizing officials on his behalf. When Jackson thumbed at him, it was a fitting image of Gasol's playoff collapse.
Jackson's needling of Artest backfired, but his confrontation with Jackson in the middle of the season actually helped spark a turnaround. Some can argue that it hurt Artest's confidence level even more, but I think it helped: Artest eventually felt frustrated enough to call Jackson out in practice. In turn, Jackson showed a willingness to bite his tongue because he saw Artest actually cared. As inconsistent as Artest has been this season, he showed a remarkable turnaround in the All-Star break.
He was lenient with Bryant when it came to Bryant's health, allowing him to sit out practices, dictate his playing status and even trusting him when he refused to have an MRI or X-rays done on his injured left ankle in the postseason. He did pick his arguments, pointing out that the medical procedure would help and taking Bryant to task when he repeatedly took a large number of shots at the expense of a fluid offense. It was a somewhat precarious balancing act -- deferring to Bryant while subtly reminding him he was not above criticism.
And despite Fisher and the bench's inconsistency, he rarely called them out for their performances. Jackson's deference to Fisher had paid off in previous playoffs. With everyone lacking confidence on the bench, Jackson allowed them to play through their mistakes. There were surely tactical strategies I didn't agree with, such as Jackson downplaying the Lakers' Christmas Day game against Miami, his answer that he wasn't worried following a double-digit loss to Boston because the playoffs hadn't started and his tendency to play starters heavy minutes in blowout games. But there were also some small victories.
Jackson was instrumental in persuading Andrew Bynum to play an integral part in the Lakers' defensive scheme, which largely led to the team's 17-1 start following the All-Star break. Lakers forward Lamar Odom also admitted that Jackson's frequent criticism in past seasons had helped push him until, ultimately, he won the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award, honoring the most consistent stretch of his 12-year career, a season during which Jackson rarely needled him and a time in which Jackson put trust in Odom's ability to balance basketball with his reality-television show.
So, what do we make of all this?
Jackson's approach mostly backfired this season, so he deserves some criticism for not adapting more quickly and giving his players a greater sense of accountability and urgency. Just as he earned praise for his past teams showing great preparation and sharpness once the postseason hit, Jackson should earn equal scrutiny for this year's team looking not even remotely ready for the 2011 playoffs. But it should come with the same measured perspective with which I viewed his practice routine.
Jackson largely avoided physically intense practices and had his starters sit out most of them following games, knowing that a fatigued team that went through three consecutive NBA Finals needed to conserve as much energy and health as possible entering the postseason. There were times he felt it necessary to ratchet up the intensity, such as when the Lakers fell too far in the standings or the poor chemistry proved too egregious to watch. But tightening the reins likely would have resulted in more severe consequences, with further injury to key players.
If this team couldn't bring its best effort for a coach who won 11 championships and had handled every scenario imaginable, they likely would've fared worse with a coach who had less clout, experience and composure. Surely, Jackson's smile and comments following their final game showed a sense of relief and a feeling of finality. But don't equate a grin with indifference to the Lakers' sweep.
Knowing his immediate reaction would be broadcast a long time after, Jackson likely maintained his smile to show he's comfortable with the legacy he had already set, even if the finale was something of an embarrassment. He stayed in the moment even when it was difficult, something Jackson had trouble preaching and the Lakers had trouble executing all season.
-- Mark Medina
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Top photo: Coach Phil Jackson leaves the court after the Lakers' Game 4 loss in Dallas. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times
Middle photo: Lakers Coach Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant often talked about how their relationship improved after Jackson returned to coach the Lakers in 2005. Credit: Wally Skalij, Los Angeles Times
Bottom photo: Phil Jackson had the Midas touch when it came to dealing with superstars like Kobe Bryant, enigmatic figures like Lamar Odom and veterans like Derek Fisher during his coaching tenure with the Lakers. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times