Cracks in the mirror
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-à-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.