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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Zen Master Returns

Phil Jackson's return to the L.A. Lakers after a one year hiatus adds an interesting twist to the whole Shaq-Kobe-Phil drama that has fascinated basketball fans for several years. The generally accepted "spin" is that Kobe Bryant exiled Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson because he wanted to "prove" that he could win a championship without them. The problem with this version of events is that it conveniently ignores some well documented facts: Jackson explains very clearly in his book that he, not Kobe, went to Lakers' management during the '04 season and said that the Lakers should choose between him and Kobe; the Lakers (specifically, owner Jerry Buss) were not willing to pay Shaq the $80 million contract extension that he wanted after the '05 season (Pat Riley of the Miami Heat has promised to do this and it will be interesting to see what happens considering Shaq's questionable health); despite the well documented clashes that often happened between Shaq, Kobe and Phil, the team won three titles and made it to the '04 Finals, clearly demonstrating that this troika functioned well as co-workers no matter how dysfunctional their non-work relationships with each other were.

Now that Jackson will again be coaching Kobe and the Lakers, it is much less plausible to suggest that Kobe "exiled" Jackson in the first place. Even when Jackson was coaching the Bulls he often spoke of the need to take a hiatus to rejuvenate himself; it is increasingly clear that he decided on his own to leave. On the other hand, he would not come back to the Lakers unless he believes that a Kobe Bryant-led team has a good chance to be successful. Jackson had his choice of coaching jobs around the NBA and by electing to take the Lakers' job it is obvious that he does not feel as negatively about Bryant as a player, teammate and leader as many in the media and general public do.

It has been said that the only blemish on Jackson's coaching resume is that he has never built a championship team, that he has taken over contending teams and pushed them over the top (not much of a knock when you think about it, but after you win nine championships and helm the team with the best regular season record in history--the 1996 Chicago Bulls, who went 72-10-- and then coach a different team to the best postseason record in history--the 2000-01 Lakers, who went 15-1 in the playoffs-- your critics really are reduced to grasping at straws...). No one would argue that the current Lakers are a championship contending squad. What will the critics say about Jackson--and Kobe--if the Lakers win a title in the next 2-3 years?

posted by David Friedman @ 9:04 PM

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