The biggest question of the Los Angeles Lakers' offseason didn't take long to answer. On Thursday, a day before the deadline he set for himself to decide on his coaching future, Phil Jackson announced that yes indeed, he'll return to L.A. for one more go. Just last week, he said he was leaning toward retirement. Phil has had his share of health difficulties, and the unfortunate example of George Karl, who had to leave the Denver Nuggets midseason to attend to cancer treatment, loomed in his mind. Toss in the persistent rumors that the Buss family would ask Phil to take a substantial cut on his $12 million salary, a bizarre suggestion for a coach who's given the franchise back-to-back titles and five banners in total, and it seemed very possible that we'd seen the last of Phil Jackson, NBA coach.
Unfortunately for 29 other teams, it will not be Brian Shaw or Byron Scott captaining the Lakers next season. The Los Angeles Times reports that either Phil will take a "minor" pay cut or a small portion of his salary will be deferred. Thus, all essential pieces will be back to attempt a three-peat, which, if it comes to pass, would be the fourth time Jackson has pulled the trick. Only two other NBA coaches, Red Auerbach and the Minneapolis Lakers' John Kundla, have done it even once.
Assuming the Lakers reach agreement with free-agent Derek Fisher, and outside interest in Ol' Man Fish is not likely to resemble an iPhone 4-caliber frenzy, the Lakers will return their full top-six rotation. Those six players (Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum) accounted for 74 percent of minutes played in the 2009-10 regular season and 84 percent of minutes played in the playoffs. With Phil back at the wheel, continuity is assured.
It would have been an odd sight, a defending NBA champion needing to find a new coach. Only three have ever attempted it. In 1958, the St. Louis Hawks, fresh off the franchise's first and only title, fired Alex Hannum when he threatened to go back to working as a carpenter if he didn't get a raise. In 1969, Bill Russell won a title as player-coach with the Boston Celtics and promptly retired as both player and coach. And in 1999, in the midst of the NBA's lockout, the Chicago Bulls replaced Phil Jackson with (ahem) Tim Floyd, perhaps the steepest year-over-year slide in coaching talent since ever. I like to think that when the time comes for the Lakers to hire a successor to Phil, the candidate search will not involve the words "Tim Floyd."
That the Lakers' roster is stocked with fine players is beyond question, but it doesn't follow that they're an easy team to coach. Kobe is a force of nature both on the court and in the locker room. His relationship with Jackson has been forged over nearly 15 difficult years, and with the possible exception of Kobe's Olympics coach Mike Kryzyzewski, there may be no other mentor on the planet whose guidance Kobe would accept. Had Phil chosen to retire, Kobe might have slowly (and uncomfortably for everyone involved) transformed into a de facto player-coach.
Phil's deft touch with other key Lakers would likewise have been irreplaceable. Phil knows when to bait Gasol and when to cosset him. He knows when and how to call Odom out in public. He understands to ignore Artest's Twitter outbursts and all-purpose weirdness. More to the point, he can get away with ignoring them, because he's Phil Jackson. If it were any other coach, he'd be accused of weakness, of letting the inmates run the asylum. Instead, Phil gets the benefit of the doubt. If Phil isn't worried, it's a signal that no one else should be worried, either. Phil has it under control. If you doubt this fact, please direct any and all questions to his 11 rings.
His return, furthermore, allays fears that Laker ownership would look to slash expenses this offseason. If the Buss family is paying full freight for the best coach in the business, it means they're down with funding another title run. Odom won't be shipped out in a salary dump. There now seems a great likelihood that the front office will use the mid-level exception to add a free agent or two, rather than filling out the roster with minimum-salary detritus.
That last point is important. Although Jackson's return was by far the most crucial item on the Lakers' offseason to-do list, it's not the only one. Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar are on the open market and looking for pay hikes. If they both end up elsewhere, Mitch Kupchak will need to find someone to soak up minutes in the backcourt. The news Thursday night that the Lakers are in talks to sign Mike Miller is more evidence of their commitment to ruling the NBA, and to spend the cash necessary to do it. Why Miller might want to play for any other team, or any other coach, is difficult to fathom.
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