Summer’s Over: Time For Phil Jackson And The Lakers To Face Reality
Once the Lakers finished their summer league play, Phil Jackson packed up the game tapes and sent them to Tex Winter, his longtime mentor and assistant coach who now serves as a team consultant.
Jackson wanted from Winter what he has always wanted — that perfect set of basketball eyes to look over the games, break them down in detail and determine if the team has found any players who can help once the games get serious this fall.
It’s something that Winter has done for Jackson since the days when they were assistant coaches and Winter was assigned to teach Jackson how to be a head coach.
Winter has always broken down the tape of each Laker game and gone over it with Jackson, taking the time to point out players’ strengths and weaknesses as well as team strengths and weaknesses.
“I go over the tape with him,” Winter said. “He’s always liked that.”
This time around, Jackson and his coaching staff wanted to see what Winter thought of the play of the team’s young players, especially teen-aged center Andrew Bynum.
“We all were in hopes that he would really arrive,” Winter explained.
However, after studying the tape, Winter offered the truth. The 7-1 Bynum had “a couple of really good games,” Winter said, but the 84-year-old guru came away with questions about Bynum’s intensity, his lack of “fire in the belly."
"His energy is a question,” Winter said.
Winter also raised questions about Bynum’s quickness, his reaction to the ball, to events on the floor.
Part of that lack of reaction time is due to his size, Winter said. “He seems to still be getting bigger. He is huge, but the bottom line, in my opinion, is that we can’t rush him.”
Because Bynum is so big, and a true center, his development is going to take longer, Winter predicted.
And that means bigger questions for the Lakers in terms of the upcoming season, Winter said. “The organization has to make some tough decisions. You bet. From what I saw of the summer league tapes, there’s just not a whole lot of players there on the roster who can make a difference."
Winter said rookie first-round pick Jordan Farmar could possibly help. “He’s tough, but he’s still probably not ready. I also liked J.R. Pinnock. He could be some help as a reserve. He’s a keeper. He has enough talent.”
Winter also liked the play of Devin Green. Beyond that, though, he said there’s not much in the way of talent ready to help.
Which means the Jackson and the Lakers must toss back a stiff dose of reality — life without Shaquille O'Neal means thin opportunity.
Unfortunately, it’s not just a question of players learning the offense. “As far as execution, I thought our summer league team did an excellent job. It’s just a question of how good the talent is,” Winter offered. “The people on the floor can execute the offense, but do they have the skills to make the offense function?”
Winter says he’s pretty sure that Jackson is concerned about the situation. “Phil’s got the attitude that he’s gonna do the best he possibly can do with the players available,” Winter explained. “He’s back to the point of knowing that he’s not putting an NBA championship team on the floor but of having the best team he can have with the talent available.
“I think Phil is pretty realistic about things. He’s not a dreamer.”
What makes this reality so problematic is that this is the Lakers, Winter said. “The expectations are always so high. They won’t go away. That’s part of the franchise.”
Although Winter has said often that the Lakers had little choice but to trade O’Neal because of his huge contract demands (he wanted roughly $30 mil per season to play for the Lakers but agreed to a $20 mil per season extension with Miami), the reality of the center’s absence will likely set in this season as the team struggles not to be locked into the middle of the league.
This brings immediate questions about Kobe Bryant’s patience as the guard watches the best years of his career slip away in a rebuilding situation.
“His patience might be wearing a little thin,” Winter said of Bryant. “On the other hand, he seems okay with things. I think he likes the idea of it being his team. That’s what he wanted and that’s what he’s got. He’s like Phil. He’s a realist.”
On the other hand, Winter said, a realist also has to look at last season and realize the Lakers exceeded expectations. “We could still wind up being a pretty good team this season,” he said. “It wouldn’t take a whole lot more for us to win 55 or 60 games. Actually it would take people continuing to get better like they did last year. You would hope we could duplicate last season and improve on that. But each year is a new situation.”
In other words, for the Lakers to have a good season, they’ll have to hope for very good fortune, because the talent level is good but not overwhelming.
Jackson has always done better with overwhelming talent, although many observers thought he did some of the best coaching of his career last season.
Other observations from Winter’s tale of the tape:
• If the team can find guard help (if Jordan Farmar or one of the veterans can play well), the Bryant can move to the 3 and that frees up Lamar Odom to play more at the 4, or power forward. “I think Odom will end up playing quite a bit of 4 depending on who fills those guard spots,” Winter said.
• As badly as the team needs players with experience in the triangle offense, it was time to cut loose Devean George. “He couldn’t develop the kind of consistency it takes to help us,” Winter said. “In his defense, he was hurt an awful lot and that hurt his efficiency. (Brian) Cook is another one in that situation. Can he show he’s more than just a shooter?”
• The Lakers staff is divided on free agent Kareem Rush. Some want to sign him (likely Jackson and Winter), while others (assistant GM Ronnie Lester) don’t think Rush is the answer. “Some say he might help us a lot,” Winter said.
• Luke Walton has tremendous value as the team’s sixth man. “He’s versatile. He can do a lot to help us. He can play both forward spots, plus he can even help us in the backcourt.”
It all adds up to the question upon which reputations will rest: Will it all be good enough?
Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, an oral history of the Lakers based on his 18 years of interviews with the team’s players, coaches, owners, fans, media, and opponents. In a review, Booklist called The Show “the best book about the NBA since The Jordan Rules.”