If Phil Jackson wanted to secure his reputation as a great basketball coach, he would have stayed in retirement with nine NBA championships.
If he wanted to break a tie with Boston’s Red Auerbach, the co-leader with nine titles, he would have accepted a coaching job with Cleveland, which had an opening, or Detroit, which may have one. Both are closer to championship status than the Lakers.
However, Jackson chose the Lakers and put his reputation on the line.
He’s taking over a team that went 34-48 and didn’t make the playoffs. If he can guide this group to some playoff success he will surely earn the admiration of critics. But if he can’t, they’ll say “See, we told you so. He could win with Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal, but not without the greatest player of our time or the most dominating big man.”
Since Jackson’s decision to return to the Lakers two weeks ago, Laker fans haven’t focused much on his reasoning. They’re just happy a coach with his credentials chose to take on the challenge.
Jackson has proven he can direct great talent to championships. But he faces a new test, trying to fix a franchise that has lacked direction in the last year.
Owner Jerry Buss fired Jackson and traded O’Neal. Jackson then wrote a book containing major criticism of Kobe Bryant, the Lakers’ most talented player.
At the press conference announcing his return, he said:
“I never thought this would happen.’’
He meant it was hard to believe that an owner who sent him away wanted him back just one year later.
But Buss’ decision to discard Jackson and O’Neal was a disaster that equaled his prior decision to go without Jerry West as general manager. The Lakers have the reputation of being an outstanding organization, but some awful decisions have been made in recent years.
There’s a feeling around town that everything will be all right now that Jackson has returned. Certainly there is hope that a reshaped roster and Jackson’s savvy will improve the situation.
But so much needs to be fixed. The thing people dwell on is the relationship between Jackson and Bryant, and that is certainly important. But it is only one of several problems that must be solved. The team had no inside presence last season and O’Neal isn’t coming back to provide the muscle.
And someone other than Chucky Atkins must be the point guard because he lacks the skills Jackson requires there in his system.
Jackson signed a three-year contract, but he has already said it will be difficult for the Lakers to become an elite team during that time.
The Lakers are the worst team in the Pacific Division at the present time. They finished three games behind the Clippers and were tied by Golden State, which made up an eight-game deficit late in the season.
Rudy Tomjanovich, Jackson’s replacement, lasted only half the season before resigning, citing health problems. With interim coach Frank Hamblen guiding the Lakers they lost 19 of their last 21 games.
Jackson called the roster “unappealing.’’ But he has told friends there is some talent that can be successful in a modified version of the triangle offense he employs.
He has asked veteran forward Brian Grant and veteran center Vlade Divac to get in shape and be ready for at least 20 minutes of playing time each game.
Neither held up physically last season and it would be remarkable if they can do what he wants.
Meanwhile, other Western Conference teams are trying to improve too.
Minnesota, which didn’t make the playoffs, hired a new coach, Seattle assistant Dwayne Casey.
Phoenix, which lost to eventual champion San Antonio in the playoffs, is attempting to obtain a power player and is talking to New York about forward Kurt Thomas.
From all my years around the Lakers, I expect two things — some improvement because of Jackson’s greatness, but nothing close to a championship.
The test will likely be how he handles the adversity of a team that is nowhere near elite. Will he lift the Lakers back toward the top? Or will they drag him down to their level?Phil Jackson coaching an average team will be an experiment. And nobody can accurately predict at this time how the experiment will turn out.