Lakers Coach Phil Jackson contended during his exit interview that he was leaning toward retirement because of health concerns. He reiterated that sentiment over the weekend in Montana at the Western Governors' Assn. annual meeting, pointing to George Karl's situation in which throat cancer prompted the Denver coach to miss the last part of the 2009-10 season as a reason why he wouldn't come back another year unless he knows he can last an entire season. Jackson also brought up the grind of the NBA season and how it becomes increasingly difficult each year to go through it.
Despite all those concerns, Lakers fans revealed in a series of polls that 79% many of them believe Jackson will still return as the team's head coach. There are plenty of reasons beyond wishful thinking why Lakers fans believe this will happen. Jackson still made it clear he hadn't made up his mind, saying he'd decide sometime later this week after getting the results of various medical tests he took following the Lakers' championship. Though he's had two hip replacements, a sore knee and kidney stones, Jackson suggested that those tests could sway him back into the coaching fold. That's why 20% of fans believe Jackson will come back.Then there's 12% of fans who argue that the allure of capturing his fourth three-peat will be too enticing for Jackson to pass up. As of right now, the Lakers main core --- Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest -- are locked into long-term deals, and it appears likely veteran guard Derek Fisher will stay (68% of voters believe he will stay because of his playoff performances and his leadership). So even if the attempt to three-peat will present numerous challenges with facing an opponent's best performance and the exhaustion that's come with three consecutive Finals appearances, Jackson returning would help keep the continuity intact and give the Lakers a best chance to win the title again.
That sentiment is shared by Fisher, who recently told ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne that "not even just the Lakers, but the NBA as a whole, would lose a big part of what this game has been about the last 20 years if he's not back. If he's not back, it changes the whole landscape." Lakers fans agree, with 58.2% saying keeping Jackson serves as the Lakers' most urgent need this off-season. Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak recently said solidifying the Lakers' backcourt remains the team's highest priority, but only 20.4% agree with that sentiment, while Toronto forward Chris Bosh remains the top choice in a trade among Laker fans (27.4%).That's because Jackson's future indirectly affects other variables, such as who among the Lakers' six free agents will come back and who the Lakers would get as Jackson's successor if he decides to retire. There's 41% of fans who believe Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw would take the vacant position, but The Times' Broderick Turner reported this morning that Shaw is probably going to agree to a deal that will make him Cleveland's head coach. There's 46% of fans who believe former Laker Byron Scott would succeed Jackson, but Scott recently told Yahoo! Sports' Marc Spears that he's not going to just wait for Jackson to make his decision. If either of those two candidates aren't available, Lakers fans lack definitive consensus on who else could fill the position.
In fairness, there are other issues the Lakers must tackle. If the fans are accurate, Jordan Farmar will leave (92% of the vote), as will Shannon Brown (50.8%), who recently opted out of his contract. All of the team's reserves on the front line -- Adam Morrison (95%), D.J. Mbenga (64.4%) and Josh Powell (55%) -- will be gone. And the possibility that the Lakers would dump Odom's salary? There's 70% of fans who don't think that will happen, with 47% saying the Lakers only floated that report out there to grab Odom's attention and make him aware he needs to play better.
But very little of that has concerned Lakers fans. Heck, 64% of them insist they don't care whatsoever about where LeBron James lands. That's because all eyes are on Jackson. Even though Lakers fans are optimistic he'll return, they know deep down inside what the consequences will entail if that doesn't happen.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Despite Phil Jackson's health concerns, the majority of Lakers fans believe he will remain the team's head coach. Credit: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters.