PHIL'S QUESTION MARK
By Roland Lazenby
Still aching after watching their three-games-to-one lead over the Phoenix Suns slip away in the playoffs, the Los Angeles Lakers now look ahead with a new urgency.
No one smarts more than the team’s two leaders — Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson. They both are eager to continue building the team to gain some measure of redemption after the playoff fold.
The biggest obstacle to that, though, may be Jackson’s health.
“The hip has really been bothering him,” said Tex Winter, a Lakers consultant and Jackson’s longtime assistant and mentor. “He doesn’t know what to do about it. His health is the big challenge for the team.”
The team’s trainers work regularly with Jackson to find ways to relieve his pain and to gain better mobility. The situation begs the question: If Jackson is still having trouble this offseason, how will he cope with two more years of NBA travel?
After watching Jackson on a recent trip to Los Angeles, Winter asked the Lakers coach if his health would allow him to fulfill the three-year contract Jackson signed last summer.
“He said he thought so, but it wouldn’t be easy,” Winter said.
After working in Los Angeles for the recent draft, Jackson headed north to Montana to the huge new home he has built on Flathead Lake. There, later this summer, Jackson’s daughter Chelsea will be married.
One person who doesn’t seem to share Jackson’s love of Montana is his girlfriend Jeanie Buss, a team executive and the daughter of Lakers owner Jerry Buss. Jeanie Buss is a very L.A./ Southern California kind of girl who needs to stay close to the city due to her work with the team.
Buss also plays a substantial role in Jackson’s health by helping him maintain a healthy diet. She has even taken charge of how he dresses, cuts his hair and trims his beard.
A big part of the Lakers’ incentive for the upcoming season is the success of Shaquille O’Neal in winning another championship with the Miami Heat.
“I don’t think anybody regrets letting Shack go,” Winter said of the Lakers’ management team. “I don’t think they had any choice.”
Before leaving via a trade in 2004, O’Neal had been pushing the Lakers for a contract extension at approximately $30 million per season. He later signed a $20 million per season extension with the Heat, the kind of deal he wouldn’t even discuss with the Lakers.
If O’Neal had only asked $20 million per season from the Lakers (which would have been a pay cut), he and Bryant would likely be teammates today.
The irony, of course, is that Miami coach Pat Riley had come to Los Angeles in 2004 to talk with the Lakers about replacing Jackson. Riley had pitched himself as the ideal candidate to help Shaq and Kobe stay together.
However, Riley came away from his meetings with the Lakers with a key nugget—there was no way Jerry Buss was going to give Shaq the huge extension he wanted.
So Riley returned to Miami, where he was then an executive, and began working out the details of the trade that brought O’Neal to the Heat.
Riley later signed Shaq to the bargain price for four seasons, and in so doing set in motion the drive to the 2006 NBA championship.
Winter is quite pleased with the Lakers’ selection of UCLA guard Jordan Farmar in the draft.
In his physical tests with the team, Farmar “tested about as high as anyone ever has” in terms of speed, quickness, leaping, etc., Winter said.
However, there are other elements of Farmar’s game that please, the 84-year-old assistant coach, who has spent his life developing the triangle offense.
“He knows the game. He’ll be a good system player,” Winter said of Farmar. “I think he’s got a chance to be pretty good. I don’t know how long that will take.”
Winter was also pleased that the Lakers got journeyman guard Maurice Evans in a draft night trade. “I think he’s a lot better player than we could have gotten with the 51st pick of the draft,” he said. “Every team he’s been on, he’s been in a backup role, but when he did play, I was impressed.”
Evans could give the team some much-needed depth at guard, Winter said.
Winter said the recent draft results were clouded for many teams, except for Portland and Chicago who came out winners.
“I don’t know how much these other teams helped themselves,” he said. “Chicago did a good job. And I think Portland helped themselves. They did an awful lot of trading, but things ended up pretty good for them by the end of the night.”
Just how important will it be for the Lakers to own their own Development League team?
Well, all the details haven’t been worked out, but there are already plans for the Lakers’ D-League team to work out with the Lakers in their El Segundo training facility.
The Development League team offers the opportunity for the Lakers to teach players how to thrive in the triangle offense. Sometimes the Lakers have had trouble finding replacement parts for their offense. No other teams in the league run the triangle, and it often takes players a season or two to become familiar with the system that is based on the players making offensive reads rather than simply relying on set plays.
“It will be good to keep the group working out in our facility,” Winter said.
Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, The Inside Story Of The Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers In The Words Of Those Who Lived It, recently released by McGraw-Hill. He also has written Mindgames, a Phil Jackson biography.