Phil Jackson will be a better coach this NBA season.
That’s the opinion of Tex Winter, Jackson’s longtime assistant and mentor.
“He’ll have more enthusiasm and energy,” Winter confided recently. “It’s not that he’s done a bad job. But he coached in real pain through all of last year.”
Jackson’s recent hip replacement surgery has helped ease his pain, although the Laker coach could require surgery at some point after the season on his other hip.
“The operation has done him a LOT of good,” Winter said. “He’s walking much straighter now. He’s using a cane, but it doesn’t appear he really needs the cane. His mood seems to have lifted now that his hip is better.”
The coach’s improved condition is one of the reasons Winter — who revealed the extent of Jackson’s troubles during a summer interview — now believes the Lakers have a chance to show substantial improvement this NBA season.
Winter wasn’t so optimistic a few months back. After watching tape of the Lakers’ summer league team, the veteran coach expressed concern about the organization’s talent level.
Three weeks into the preseason, Winter still sees problems, but he also sees a lot more promise.
As he nears his 85th birthday, the spry Winter still reserves the right to disagree with and debate Jackson. For example, Winter would like to see Kobe Bryant play the small forward spot more often. Jackson hasn’t been as enthused publicly with that shift. “I’m not sure of Phil’s feelings on that,” Winter said. “He hasn’t said.”
Winter also adds a reserve clause to Jackson’s preseason comments that Bryant will have to take fewer shots to allow his teammates more opportunities.
Winter cautions that the number of Bryant’s shots should not be the focus. “The important thing is the quality of Kobe’s shots, not the quantity,” Winter said. “If he has a high percentage shot, the shot should be taken.”
Focusing on the number of Bryant’s shots could be a false indicator, the coach said.
The Lakers welcome such debate. There was a time that GM Mitch Kupchak said Winter was the only person in the organization who could really stand up to Jackson’s strong personality.
However, Winter points out that assistant coach Kurt Rambis has shown an ability to challenge Jackson in a positive way.
Rambis, who is running the team while Jackson recuperates (and observes practices), has a good job of organizing things and teaching, along with assistants Frank Hamblen, Jimmy Cleamons, and Brian Shaw.
The organization realizes that Jackson is also a better coach with Winter around. The Lakers have asked Winter to spend all the time he possibly can with the team.
This season, Winter’s involvement should be greater due to the improvement in the health of Winter’s wife, Nancy.
So his job is to help Jackson figure out how to bring about a change of pace. “We’re trying to run more,” Winter explained. “That’s Phil’s decision, and I agree with it. Phil from day one has said we’re putting emphasis on defense and running with the basketball.”
Such a shift raises new and old questions for the Lakers. For example, where to play budding star Lamar Odom? One, two, three or four?
“Where is Odom going to be the most effective?” Winter said.
Last year, Jackson began by talking of Odom as a player with skills that mirrored former Chicago Bulls great Scottie Pippen. There was talk of Odom playing Pippen to Bryant’s Jordanesque presence.
“Phil likes that big guard, that Pippen type, at the one or two position.”
Last year, Odom was just learning the triangle offense, so he wasn’t able to approximate Pippen’s performances within the offense.
“We’re hoping he’s closer to Pippen this year,” Winter said.
Defensively, it’s virtually impossible to copy Pippen’s effectiveness as a help defender who could recover and patrol the lane like a hydra.
Odom’s simply not that type of player. Perhaps no one is.
“Defensively, Odom’s not a Scottie Pippen,” Winter said. “But Odom has his own defensive strengths. One of those is his ability off the defensive boards, to pull down the ball and power out on the break. That’s a big factor for our team.”
Actually the player who has most impressed Winter in the preseason is Luke Walton, another versatile player who can work the boards with Odom.
“He can run this offense,” Winter said of Walton. “He’s the best playmaker we have.”
Walton can even bring the ball up against pressure, Winter said. “He can advance the ball in the backcourt. We trust him to do that. Plus he can rebound the ball and power out like Odom. He finds the open people and can really be a factor in our running game.”
Where Odom will play and whether Walton will play sixth man may ultimately depend on what happens at other positions.
The question marks for the Lakers remain big — about seven feet tall, to be exact. “We’ve got a chance to be a better team,” Winter said, “but an awful lot depends on our big people. The post position is ultimately the determining factor on how good we can be.”
The team is keeping a close eye on how Chris Mihm returns from an injury that first sidelined him last season against Charlotte.
Mihm is the team’s only true offensive threat at center. But his recovery has dragged on leaving huge questions.
The other posts — Kwame Brown and teen-ager Andrew Bynum — have both improved. “Brown and Bynum have got a long way to go,” Winter said. “They’re working hard, and Brown is a good strong defender, a strong rebounder. Bynum has improved and has turned in some good play recently.
“But neither one of them can score the ball. They both want to score and try to score, but they don’t. So we lose the post scoring option out of the triangle.”
That sort of flattens the offensive geometry into a beeline for Bryant.
What’s worse, with Brown and Bynum pressing so hard to score “they’re really not the feeders out of the post we want them to be. Seeing and feeding the cutters is important for the post in the triangle. They realize it, and they’re trying to do the right thing. Both of them are pretty good passers. So they’re supposed to be feeders first. But right now they’re looking to score and struggling to score as opposed to being feeders first. If help is needed for this team, it’s there. We really don’t know when Mihm could help us. Or what’s going to happen there.”
The other critical area for the team is guard play, specifically getting help for Bryant in the backcourt. And Winter says both Smush Parker and Sasha Vujacic have shown strong improvement and good play. “Smush has had a very good camp, and Sasha has too. He's shooting better,” Winter said. “We’ve got a lot of guys vying for those guard spots. Some good looking players — (J.R.) Pinnock and (Shammond) Williams — but they’re still learning what we’re doing.
“I think Mo (newcomer Maurice) Evans is gonna help us. I like what I see in him. We’ve been playing him at the two and three. I’m not sure where he’ll end up playing. The problem is, he’s really a three, with his work on the boards and along the baseline. He’s very effective crashing the boards, and he’s a great jumper. We’re looking at him as a two, but the guard spot takes him away from what he does best.”
A big issue for the Lakers is how the guards will play defensively. Traditionally, Jackson’s teams have featured lots of ball pressure. But the league last season began a new policy of calling touch fouls on the perimeter to help free up offensive players. Thus, Miami’s Dwyane Wade’s big performance in the NBA Finals last June.
That means the Lakers’ pressure style has to shift.
“I think you have to play more of a containing defense,” explained Winter, a critic of the NBA’s new guidelines for officiating the game. “You can still put some pressure on the offense. You can contain them and slow the ball up.”
But the new guidelines “change how you force turnovers,” Winter explained. “You can’t be as aggressive as you’d like to be with your hands. You can’t be ‘into’ the guy as much.”
As a result, defense now becomes a matter of waiting for the offensive player to make a mistake, rather than forcing a turnover, Winter said.
The Lakers would like to exert the kind of ball pressure they used to deploy when Derek Fisher wore the Forum Blue and Gold.
But the new guidelines are still murky, Winter said.
Before games, officials have visited with teams to explain the new approach, Winter said. “They come in and tell us all this stuff. Then the first four or five plays of the game, you see them doing just the opposite from what they said. You don’t know what they’re going to call. So you have to adjust accordingly, depending what’s going on from game to game, even half to half.”
As for the league’s new ball, the old school coach says, “My personal opinion, from what I’ve seen of it, I don’t like it. Maybe the players will get used to it. I don’t know. It’s got a funny feel to it.”
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, released by McGraw-Hill.
I forgot where I read it But I know Tex is a big Reason ( his input on the kid )
Farmar is still playing instead of sitting. He recognized that Farmar was getting the triangle very well and watched closely how Farmar, Bynum and Pinnock were doing in the summer league.