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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

Yes, when it comes to the Lakers in 2007 it’s mostly about injuries.
Or is it?
Is there something else going on here?
If there is, be sure of this: If it involves Phil Jackson, it’s complicated. Extremely complicated.
And it definitely involves good old PJ.
Some of his old friends wonder if he hasn’t lost his way.
Check that.
They don’t wonder.
They’ve been saying for a while now that he’s lost his way, that he sold out, that he began believing the hype in a big way, that the things that once worked for him now strangle him and his team, that just maybe his ruthlessness has caught up to him, that he changed when he got caught up in all that California worship, and not for the better.
They say there are too many yes men around him.
They say that he’s put himself on a pedestal, much like the big chair he perches atop each game night.
That he’s gotten old.
That he’s gotten greedy, grubbing his big salary around himself while refusing to accept the personal challenges that would make him face reality.
They say it’s too easy to sit on that big chair each game night, smug in the loftiness of Michael Jordan’s and Scottie Pippen’s six championships, smug in Shaquille O’Neal’s and Kobe Bryant’s three championships.
They say he doesn’t need this current Lakers thing, at least not for his reputation.
They say he came back to the Lakers because he felt guilty about all those nasty lies and half-truths he told about Kobe Bryant in his public comments and in that horrible book, “The Last Season.” (Note: PJ has written a great book, Sacred Hoops; a very good book, Maverick; and two books that weren’t worthy of him.)
They say he came back because he wanted to help Kobe. (Note to Kobe: Be wary of help.)
Oh, and they say he came back for the money, to be paid like a rock star, to be sucked up to like a rock star.
Well, are “they” correct?
Is that Phil in his 60s? A mere shadow of the former man of light and energy and innovation.
Perhaps. Only Phil himself really knows for sure. Or maybe nobody knows.
This much is true. If Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown and Luke Walton had stayed healthy, we’re probably not having this conversation.
But this is the NBA. Excuses are for losers. Phil and his Lakers are treading dangerously close to that domain. Land there and suddenly Phil no longer has his miracle worker status. Land there and suddenly Phil is just another working stiff, a coach whose blah-blah emits no light.
So it’s gut check time. Time to search.
And the dominant question is, what exactly is Phil Jackson’s genius?
Well, longtime assistant and mentor Tex Winter knows him better than anyone. (By the way, Tex is not one of the “theys” quoted earlier, so don’t even think about cheap retribution against the guy that has meant so much to you, Phil).
Tex has always said that one of the most amazing among the numerous amazing things about Phil is his ability to establish a relationship with his superstars.
Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan. Perhaps the ultimate coach/player relationship in the history of the game. Nothing lovey/dovey. Just cutting edge competitive mindset. Wolves sharpening their teeth together.
Just as important was the number two relationship in Chicago: Phil and Scottie Pippen. Pip had no great high attention needs, no high maintenance. Happy to be Michael’s number two guy.
Phil’s other great superstar relationship came with Shaq. Not anywhere near as fulfilling as working with Michael, Phil once told me. Shaq’s different. Not as keen, not as brilliant, not nearly as energetic. Shaq was all about focusing raw power and sometimes juvenile emotions. Still, a very productive relationship.
Of note was Phil’s lack of a relationship with Kobe Bryant. Not allowed, not possible to make nice with Kobe if he wanted to keep that special bond with Shaq. The big fella couldn’t handle it.
So Kobe was disrespected. Big time.
Phil proved to be very good at disrespect. In retrospect, he realized he was too good. Some people around him told him he was wrong in how he was treating Kobe. Phil’s answer? He banished those people. Or marginalized them.
And Jerry Buss saw it happen and did a beautiful thing. He fired Phil Jackson, sent Mr. Nine Championships packing.
So Phil spent a year away from the game.
And came back with a mission to form a third great bond with a superstar. He now wanted to nurture Kobe and explore the range of his vast competitive nature.
This effort produced growth in that first season, just as it did with Michael in 1989-90. The harsh, selfish young Jordan began to mature.
And then things went very right in Michael’s second season with Phil.
It seemed a reasonable and correct formula for reviving the Lakers. Nice progress the first year. And big things simmered early in their second season “together.”
But the NBA often offers a harsh bottom line. As a player, PJ learned this lesson long ago. As a coach, he has been fortunate to avoid it for most of his career.
Now, the Lakers have many injuries. Which means that the supporting cast that was growing around Bryant has been shattered.
Where Phil’s relationship with Michael and Shaq worked because of a strong supporting cast, Phil’s relationship with Kobe is now perhaps suffocating a superstar.
Once he forms a relationship, Phil tends to cut off communication between the rest of the coaching staff and the superstar. It’s Phil and the star, with little outside interference tolerated.
This season for the Lakers is mostly kaput. IT’S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN.
So Phil needs to lighten up a bit with Kobe. Let him loose to enjoy whatever they can find in this year’s circumstances.
But Laker fans also have to lighten up. Phil’s basic premise, his MO of forming a strong bond with his superstar, is a proven thing.
The Lakers must start again next season, once again bringing along the supporting cast as Kobe matures into the star and leader he can be. When they were healthy and growing dynamically as a team, they earned the fans’ patience and forbearance.
In this case, “wait until next season” is not a platitude. It’s a legitimate strategy. Kobe was making tremendous progress, despite coming off difficult knee surgery.
So, fans, hear me again. Lighten up.
And Phil. Come down off your perch on high. Listen to your old friends. They may not be entirely right. But they love you. They’ve seen you at your best. They know what works, and best of all, they understand your magic.

Roland Lazenby is the author of Mindgames, a Phil Jackson biography, recently released by the University of Nebraska’s Bison Books in special revised edition.

3 Comments:

Blogger daniel vincent john said...

thank you for the positivity roland, thank you.

hopefully the team can maintain there spot as the sixth seed and perhaps come together and at least make some positive noise in the playoffs.

spurs or suns?

10:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

while i agree with most of the above, i do disagree with the "wait until next year" notion. yes the lakers have lost much hope for advancing to the second round now that they cannot catch houston and utah (had the lakers been the 5 seed they would have had a legitimate chance against either of those two in the first round, even without home court advantage). so being the 6, 7, or 8 seed means another first round exit, that is, if they can get healthy enough to even qualify for the playoffs. yes they match up better against phoenix and san antonio than dallas but should they get in, the lakers would be projected to get swept or at best lose in 5 games in the first round. but even in losing the team can build unity and gain experience (and motivation to improve over the summer for next year). we all saw it last season when the team beat phoenix 3 times in a row before coming back to earth. and as we suffer from injuries now, we all know anything can happen in an instant. in 2000 duncan went down with an injury and the spurs became a perimeter team -- the defending champion spurs won 1 playoff game in that year's playoffs. you never know. we all remember how injuries affected the 89 finals. from a coach blaming injuries sounds like an excuse, from the outside it's just common sense.

so the lakers are suffering from injuries and struggling big time. is that a reflection of phil's abilities? maybe. or is circumstance giving the critics a an opportune time/clear path to the lane to rip phil. yes phil is getting older, but has he really lost it? has his coaching ability left him since as recently as january 17th when the lakers were 26-13 and had just won a tight game on the road in... san antonio? yes the lakers are in a free fall, but if they did so with all five (or even 4) starters intact at full strength, then i would clearly place the blame on phil. but that's not the case is it? but to blame phil's coaching would just as simplistic as it is to attribute all the credit to phil when the lakers win. success in team sports is a collaboration and when one part is not working the whole thing can collapse (kobe getting suspended in new york and milwaukee). for both of the long losing streaks 3 vital parts (starters) were not working. red auerbach was the first to admit that you can't win without talent.

much of our disappointment stems from the heightened expectations after the team got off to an unexpectedly good start. look at the roster. after kobe and odom everyone else is pure potential, and not near their prime.

roland you know more than most of us -- you have access to interview coaches and the team -- but from the outside, despite your legitimate concerns, it seems like phil has been reflective of his own efforts and made some changes, like when he responded to a team meeting by changing his behavior during time outs by getting closer to his players by sitting in front of them face to face instead of standing over them. it might be nothing, but it seems like at least the guy is trying. whether he's succeeds or not may be how he responds to the latest losing streak. it is said that your true colors come out when the chips are down. so how will phil react? will he bail on the team, panic and start ripping everybody and give up on the season? or will he stay positive, say that now is the time to regroup, refocus, and be resilient. that's what players want in a coach no matter how frustrating the situation. let's see how he responds over the rest of the season.

2:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been a Laker fance since knee high....and I will tell you that as long as smush parker starting at point guard and the lakers are still running this boring and stagnent triangle offense.....the lakers cant be serious. You watch all the Contenders....Miami, San Antonio, Pheonix, Dallas, Houston.....there all running, High pick and rolls, screens, back cuts, motion offenses that attack the the hole. those types of offenses create good spacing, draws fouls, and allows the point guard to creat mismatches with pick and rolls to draw fouls, dish to open shooters....the triangle makes the game tooo difficult and is too predictable. No legitimate point guard could excel in the triangle that's why we can't attract the top players. The triangle is not an attacking offesnse like the others...it's a perimeter offense....that's why you'll continually see a bunch of long range shots all day, while other teams consistently put pressure on our defense with pick and rolls, screens.....that almost forces you to draw fouls

4:24 AM  

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