Phil Jackson is stepping down as head coach of the Lakers, but his ghost isn't going anywhere. Phil's presence will continue to hang over everything that happens in Lakerdom long after someone else has taken over on the sidelines. Depending on whom the team hires as his successor, the offensive and defensive systems Phil installed might remain the core of the playbook. The assistants he's groomed over the years, Frank Hamblen and Jim Cleamons, could stay on the payroll. His protégé Brian Shaw in a strong candidate to ascend to the Lakers' head gig. To the front office, Shaw represents the "stay the course" option. His hiring would be a play to ensure maximum continuity from the Phil Jackson era, akin to the election of George H.W. Bush after Ronald Reagan served out his two terms.
Even if the team hires someone from outside the organization, Phil's track record will be the standard by which many Laker fans judge the new regime. And what a track record it is: on Phil's watch, the Lakers averaged over 55 wins a season, made seven trips to the NBA Finals and won five titles. It wouldn't be a surprise to see a Phil Jackson statue outside of Staples Center someday. He's a true colossus of the coaching profession, and though it's not fair to the mere mortals who'll follow in his footsteps, anyone who agrees to coach the Lakers must know that a big chunk of fans will measure their performance against what Phil accomplished. Besides, he'll be dating the owner's daughter. Phil's part of the Laker family in an almost-literal sense.
Tactically, we most associate him with the Triangle offense, which he installed with the assistance of guru-figure Tex Winter. At the outset, though, Phil's influence was greatest at the defensive end of the floor. Pretty much from the moment Shaquille O'Neal moved to Los Angeles in 1996, the Lakers had a terrific offense. But from 1997 through 1999, under head coaches Del Harris and Kurt Rambis, the Laker D slipped badly. When Phil arrived, he immediately brought discipline and organization to the Lakers' defensive efforts. After finishing 23rd in the NBA in defensive efficiency in 1998-99, the Lake Show finished first in 1999-2000.
Although his playbook didn't change much over the years, Phil proved remarkably adept at selling his systems to players who might've been suspicious of them. He persuaded Shaq and Kobe, for a time at least, to value concepts of movement, spacing and ball distribution over individual stats. (It helped, of course, that he'd already demonstrated the potential of his playbook via six rings with the Chicago Bulls.) In 2003-04, he found a way to incorporate Karl Malone into the Triangle, despite the Mailman's having spent the entirety of his career as the centerpiece of the Utah Jazz flex offense. (Phil's work with Gary Payton was less successful.) In the last two seasons he even made good use of Ron Artest, perhaps the NBA player most naturally unsuited to the Triangle system.
Phil never really had much of a chance to show whether he's a good developer of young talent. For the most part his teams have been veteran-heavy, and a side effect of his enormous success is that for over a decade the Lakers have had very few blue-chip draft picks. Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton showed early promise under Phil but never really developed into credible starters. On the other hand, Trevor Ariza got rich playing for Phil, and Shannon Brown managed to get his career off life support. And Phil's done a fine job nurturing the progress of Andrew Bynum from clueless 17-year-old to the second-best center in the game.
A refusal to play rookies is a tic often ascribed to Phil, but I'm not sure you can look back and identify too many rooks who deserved more playing time than they got. A couple of his other supposed tics, like a reluctance to call timeouts and a tendency to let struggling lineups stay on the court and figure things out for themselves, are real. At one time or another, every Laker fan has found him- or herself telling at the TV, vainly imploring Phil to stop an opponents' run with a TO or yank his reserves for giving up a lead -- to conform, in other words, to our ideas of how a classically interventionist coach would behave. Phil's stubbornness was often maddening and didn't always work out in the end. But it did work out a whole damn lot. His willful, almost theatrical passivity expanded our notions about how a coach can elicit excellence from his players.
His greatest role was as a guardian of organizational stability. Jerry Buss first hired him in 1999 to bring order to the anarchic mess the early versions of the Shaq-Kobe Lakers were threatening to become. His authoritative voice redirected the stars' energies toward becoming an unstoppable, triple-champion superpower. The centrifugal forces generated by Shaq's conditioning and salary demands, Kobe's rape prosecution and the ill-fated experiment with Malone and Payton eventually proved too much even for Phil, and that convinced ownership they could do without him. He was let go after the Lakers' loss to the Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals.
It only took one season in freefall for the organization to recognize its mistake. After a 2004-05 season that saw the Lakers win a glittering total of 34 games, Dr. Buss asked Phil to return. Phil spent the next two years dragging an undertalented squad to the playoffs, until the emergence of Bynum and the trade for Pau Gasol in 2008 once again blessed him with the talent to which he was accustomed. The last phase of his career, beginning with the Gasol deal and ending with the Game Four loss to the Mavericks on Sunday, has been filled with near-constant drama. Just in the past few years we've lived through (to select but a few examples): Kobe's very public trade demands, the pummeling from the Celtics in the 2008 Finals, numerous Bynum injuries, a dozen ridiculous Ron-Ron incidents, a feud between player and assistant, arrests of players, incessant back-and-forth over Kobe's shot attempts, and Lamar Odom's marriage to (and subsequent attempt to become) a reality-TV star. All unfolding inside the L.A. media panopticon, fevered and unblinking like the Eye of Sauron.
Most NBA coaches, faced with the challenge of holding it together amid the storm, would respond by locking things down as tight as possible: shout at players, berate the press, call for discipline and secrecy at every turn. Phil did the opposite. He persuaded his guys to chill and tune out the noise by exposing it as nonsense. He refused to play the part of the angry, film-obsessed gym-freak coach, because really, why should someone as cool as Phil Jackson have to change to meet your expectations? His contempt for stylistic orthodoxy, not to mention his commitment to treating his players like adults, informed how they thought about themselves. They internalized the idea that when you're good enough at basketball, the other stuff is just vapor.
That's what the Lakers will miss most: the sense of order and clarity that Phil's presence seemed to ensure. I trust the front office to hire someone who's thoughtful about X's and O's and who can figure out rotations. But finding someone who can smooth the sharpest edges off Kobe's competitive drive? Or keep Ron Artest more or less in control? Or who won't overreact when T.J. Simers writes a bitchy column about him? That's a tougher thing to replace. I hope that Phil's example will continue to exert its influence on the Lakers organization. If it doesn't, a return to chaos looms.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.