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InsideHoops NBA [Home] Mar. 9, 2004

Cracks in the mirror

 






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Strange utterings have been emanating from Lakerland in recent weeks. Just when you thought you had heard everything, coach Phil Jackson is suddenly being questioned as one of the team's problems instead of the franchise's Knight on a White Horse.

First, Laker management decided to put negotiations on a contract extention, on hold. Then Kobe Bryant announced to the press that he dislikes his coach personally and now Gary Payton, unhappy with his minutes, role and the Lakers' offense, has threathened to bolt the team in the summer if Jackson is still around. Payton has since calmed down, but clearly there are issues. Suddenly, the man who for years seemed to be perfect coach is a candidate for a possible pink slip or being nudged into "retirement."

In his first three seasons in L.A., Jackson guided his team out of one crisis after another to win three consecutve championships. At times, he seemed to be doing it with mirrors. Now that mirror is showing cracks.

Although being an NBA coach is the position with the least job security in the United States these days, Jackson's problems are real. For one, Jackson is simply mortal like all of us, and not a wizard or magician as he's sometimes seems to be. Coaching the Lakers has been a much more daunting task for Jackson than coaching the Chicago Bulls was, even when taking the Dennis Rodman sideshow into account. There was much better chemistry on the Bulls and a much clearer hierarchy of authority. At times, he needed to re-establish team cohesiveness and unity, but it wasn't like the Lakers' internal combustion chamber that's always ready to explode.

The Lakers' three championships made the improbable seem commonplace and expected, but by last season Jackson was already showing signs of wear of tear. The Lakers weren't even close to themselves until the final month and a half of the season and Jackson at times seemed burned out. After they finally did get it together, Jackson developed cardiac problems during the opening round of the playoffs.

Jackson's other problem may be his exposure to the Hollywood limelight. In Chicago, Jackson was more or less on the same wavelength with players pitted against a management that was seen as stingy and not always looking out for the best interests of the club. Since coming to L. A., Phil has gone from Zen Master to Celebrity Coach, and on a roster with superstars fighting for attention, this has to complicate his role.

Kobe's complaints about Jackson might be seen in the context of his current search for independence and the desire to break free from a father figure. The Laker management's decision to wait before committing further to Jackson could be linked to both sides wanting to see how Bryant's situation plays out, vis--vis free agency but Payton's unhappiness is a clear warning sign. The Glove came to Los Angeles for only one reason and that was to get a championship ring before the end of his illustrious career. He sacrificed a lot of money for that goal and surely knew what his role would be and what offense he would be playing in. His complaints are an indication of doubt that Jackson can still get the job done.

The cornerstore of Jackson's success is not the triangle offense. It's always been his unique ability to communicate with players and help them succeed at the most important times and sometimes in the most difficult situations. Without that, Jackson loses what sets him apart from just about any other coach in the history of the NBA. There is still time for Jackson to set things right and pull off yet another miracle this season, but as more cracks appear, it seems less and less likely.



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