Let the Truth be ToldTNT has used this as a catch phrase for its NBA coverage and it was the first thing that I thought of when I listened to Phil Jackson's Sunday Conversation with Jim Gray on ESPN. For over a year many people have accepted without question that Kobe Bryant "broke up" the Lakers--in no small part because of some of Jackson's statements and actions (if you haven't done so already, grab a copy of Lindy's 2005-06 Pro Basketball Preview and read the excerpt from Roland Lazenby's upcoming book The Show: The Inside Story of the Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers in the Words of Those Who Lived it for details about how Jackson artfully shifted critical attention away from himself and towards Bryant). In the Sunday Conversation, Jackson sets the record straight, explaining part of his reason for returning to the Lakers' bench: "In March (2005) I really started to consider what this team could possibly be. At some point--and I'll bring the topic up--I saw that Kobe was maligned during the course of the year last year...he had to shoulder so much of the blame of the breakup of the team--which really was not an accurate statement. I kind of felt like this kid needs a break." Gray then asked Jackson, "How much of the malignment of Kobe was due to you and what you said in the book and people felt that could become open season because his former coach felt that way?" Jackson replied, "Just the one comment that he was uncoachable was the outstanding thing that jumped out of that book--but it was a diary. People forget that it was a day to day diary, a journal."
A little later in the interview Jackson made a very key point about the breakup of the Lakers: "I think that it was all financial. Emotionally, relation-wise, spiritually, Kobe and Shaq coexisted together even though it was not a great relationship or a happy one but it was certainly as fruitful as any relationship has ever been in the NBA." People forget that before the 2003-04 season Shaquille O'Neal very publicly demanded that Lakers owner Jerry Buss grant him a maximum contract extension, something that Buss was not inclined to do considering Shaq's age, injury history and physical condition. Jackson was also reportedly angling for a larger deal than Buss was willing to provide at that time and those financial considerations are the primary reason that Shaq ended up in Miami and Jackson left.
Since Jackson's book seemingly influenced so many people to blame Kobe for breaking up the Lakers, it will be interesting to see if, now that Jackson has admitted the truth about what happened, the "mainstream" view of Kobe's culpability on this issue will soften. A few other random facts about this situation intrigue me. One, the Lakers team that was "broken up" had in fact not won a championship in two years. This was not the dissolution of the 1998 Chicago Bulls, who almost certainly had at least one title run left in the tank. A lot of teams that don't win championships make significant roster changes and the Lakers not only traded Shaq, but they also did not retain the services of Karl Malone, Gary Payton and Derek Fisher. The real issue is how much (or how little) the Lakers got in return for Shaq, which is a question more properly addressed to management than to Kobe. Two, the Shaq-Kobe partnership produced three titles. In every interview he gives Shaq tries to convince us that Wade is better than Kobe but until Miami wins three titles (or at least one) that argument sounds very hollow. Three, Jackson could almost certainly have had any open coaching job in the NBA, which means that he had the opportunity to go to New York--where he won a championship as a player--or go to Minnesota to coach Kevin Garnett or go to Cleveland to coach LeBron James. Yet he chose to return to L.A. to coach Kobe Bryant. Unless Jackson is a fool or a masochist--and there is no reason to believe that he is either one--he must believe that his best chance to break his tie with Red Auerbach and win a tenth championship as a coach is to build a team around Bryant's talents. That, more than words uttered in a press conference or written to sell books, speaks volumes about what Jackson really thinks of Bryant as a player.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:38 AM