Will Phil Jackson teach the bumbling Lakers how to win again? Or is he foolishly setting himself up for failure?
So Phil Jackson is back where he belongs, coaching the purple and gold. This is a good thing for Lakers fans. A very, very good thing. Jackson's return brings instant credibility back to a flailing franchise. A strong, steady hand, something the team sorely lacked with Rudy Tomjanovich and Frank Hamblen at the helm, will finally lead the Lakers. There will be a coherent offensive system. The team will actually play defense. Seasoned free agents might be persuaded to sign for less money now that Phil is on board.
All those reasons for rehiring Jackson are just gravy when you consider one, undisputed fact: Phil Jackson has nine rings. Let me state it again, Phil Jackson has nine rings. One more time for those with learning disabilities: PHIL JACKSON HAS NINE RINGS!
If you had a choice between Jackson and oh, I don't know, Red Auerbach, then maybe there might be room for debate. Heck, there might be room for debate if Gregg Popovich was available. Problem is, they're not. The coaching vacancy reportedly was either going to be filled by Phil Jackson or Kobe's choice, Brian Shaw.
Yeah, that Brian Shaw who has only been coaching for a couple years now. As Phil Jackson's understudy. Nice guy, good leader, could be a good coach some day. Doesn't have nine rings.
Who else would you hire if you were owner Dr. Jerry Buss? Flip Saunders? His Timberwolves teams never won anything. Larry Brown? He isn't interested in the job, and even if he was, is in poor health and is a notorious vagabond. Someone from the college ranks, maybe Roy Williams? College coaches have had a phenomenal track record of success in the NBA... uh, wait a minute.
If you need a coach and the market is thin, you might as well hire the guy with nine championships on his resume. Jackson has proved he can handle the insane expectations that come with coaching the Lakers, the same expectations that made two-time Finals champion Tomjanovich run kicking and screaming back to Houston midway through last season.
The questions will now turn to Kobe. Doesn't he hate Phil? Don't they have a terrible relationship? I say, so what? If Kobe doesn't get with the program, and he will, since Kobe always does what's best for Kobe, and complying with Phil's wishes is definitely in his best interests, then trade him. There will always be an owner dumb enough to sacrifice his young talent for a spoiled, seat-filling, ball-hogging superstar. If presented with the right opportunity, Jackson and Dr. Buss, who desperately wants to return the Lakers to glory, won't hesitate to pull the trigger.
Besides Kobe and maybe Lamar Odom, the Lakers are chock-full of mediocre, overpaid players. This, obviously, is a major cause for concern. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, the Lakers shouldn't plan any parades down Figueroa Blvd next spring. This is a long, hard rebuilding project the Lakers have in front of them. It's exactly why Jackson took the job.
Jackson knows that he has a reputation as a "closer" — a guy who can't build a champion but can take a talented, underachieving team to the top. This crop of Lakers might not be talented but they sure are underachievers.
Well, Jackson now has his chance to prove he can build a team — the last major challenge of his remarkable career. The Lakers are presently in salary cap hell, so any major upgrades to the roster are unlikely (unless, of course, Mr. Bryant finds himself on the trading block).
If there's any coach you would want in this situation, it's Jackson. Jackson will squeeze every last ounce of talent out of this group. He's done it before, nearly taking a mediocre, Jordan-less Bulls team to the Eastern Conference Finals in the 1993-94 season, possibly his best coaching job.
The bottom line is Jackson has been successful everywhere he's coached, in the CBA, with the Bulls, and most recently with the Lakers. Jackson is simply a winner and the Lakers, more than anything, desperately need to learn how to win again. The coach with nine rings is exactly the man to show them how.
— Bob Plain
As a passionate fan of Phil Jackson — as a guy who not only admires the man but also looks up to him because of his confidence and his leadership abilities — I'm telling you: I think this is a horrible idea. The only thing I'm not sure of is who will suffer the most because of Jackson's decision: him, the Lakers, or their fans.
For years, Jackson's critics have complained about the Zen thing and the haughty attitude. But winning took care of those complaints — at least he got results. But even the results were questionable to some people, leading to the most niggling criticism: Hey, he only coaches championship-quality teams. Of course, he's a "genius." Give me Michael Jordan or Shaq or Kobe, and I could win you a bunch of rings, too.
Forget for a moment that this last critique is shortsighted. Yes, Jackson surrounded himself with good players, but somebody still needed to coach them. Somebody had to stand up to Jordan and convince him about the team concept. Wanna ask the 76ers how simple it is to have the best individual player in the game and win it all? Somebody had to figure out how to implement a Dennis Rodman and make him congeal. Wanna ask the Portland Trail Blazers about how easy it is to get a nutball to play team ball?
Jackson won, and he won with style. In a game of intimidating big men and elegant finesse players, he was both. Physically, he's a bear of a man — the white beard and squinted eyes make him look even more grizzly-esque — but his essence evoked tranquility and quiet strength. Superstars have ungodly pressure on them to succeed — from the media, from the public — and Jackson provided them a soothing center of gravity. I once said Jackson was George Martin to Shaq and Kobe's Lennon and McCartney — and when the Lakers broke up, their solo careers proved as equally mixed.
When the rumors began forming that the team was in talks with Jackson, I dismissed it as someone's wishful thinking. No way would he go back there. I'm a fan of the Johnny Carson/Barry Sanders school of retirement — you leave on top, and you stay gone — and I assumed Jackson was a student of this philosophy. He had proven everything he needed to prove, right? Why go back to Los Angeles? To demonstrate to the naysayers that he can, in fact, take a mediocre team to the top? Who wants that hassle? Taking a different mediocre team would have been an intriguing challenge — say, LeBron James and the Cavs — but returning to Staples feels like just the sort of weak-minded, undisciplined thinking Jackson never tolerates from his players during the playoffs.
Dealing with Bryant — whom he memorably eviscerated in his memoir, The Last Season — will quickly be a repeat of the trying 2003-04 contest, where a very talented (but troublingly shaky) Laker team finally met its comeuppance at the hands of a unified Detroit Pistons squad in the Finals. This time, though, there will be no Shaq. Or Derek Fisher. Or anybody who resembles their pure guts.
And so, the Lakers will make the playoffs again, probably getting a seven seed in the West. They'll play with composure but still lose in the first round to the Suns or somebody like that. And what will all the skeptics say?
"I told you he couldn't win without a bunch of superstars."
"I told you he was overrated."
Whether it's Jeanie Buss (the girlfriend) or the pride that's brought him back to Los Angeles, I can only express my disappointment at the decision and my guarded hope that somehow his reputation makes it out alive. More realistically, I fear that Jackson will be thought of in the same breath as the James Bond series, The Simpsons, and his beloved Grateful Dead: great institutions that shoulda quit while they were ahead.