Eyes off thePrize
His Lakers won't win the championship, but Phil Jackson has reaped otherrewards during his best season as a coach
Phil Jackson hasalways encouraged his players to evolve by embracing new challenges, but noLaker has been challenged more this season than the coach himself. Afterearning nine NBA titles, averaging 59 victories and achieving a league-record.725 winning percentage over 14 seasons, Jackson came out of retirement lastJune to experience something new and, surprisingly, refreshing. Through Sunday,Los Angeles was seventh in the West with a 40-35 record. "I've never had ateam that I felt couldn't win a championship," says Jackson. "Therecould be a coach [who] could've taken this same team and maybe done better thanI have, but I think the growth of the group is what I'm after, notwinning."
Jackson's friendssay that his year away from basketball, during which he traveled to Australiaand New Zealand, gave him a new perspective on coaching which has helpedreshape his often strained relationship with Kobe Bryant. He's allowed his starguard to fire at will: The league's top scorer at week's end with 34.8 pointsper game, Bryant was averaging an NBA-high 27.1 shots. "It's something Iwould have fought against if I was trying to win a championship," Jacksonsays. To critics who believe that Kobe's dominance is stunting the growth ofhis teammates, Jackson counters that the younger Lakers are learning from howwell Bryant prepares and how hard he works to improve. "And now thateverybody is closing in on Kobe in all parts of the game and there's nothingeasy for him, [his teammates] have to step up and fill that next rung orrole," says Jackson. "It's accelerated [our improvement]."
Only Bryant andbackup forwards Devean George, Brian Cook and Luke Walton remain from Jackson'sprevious tenure in Los Angeles. The difference now, say the veterans, is thathe holds longer practices and offers more individual instruction--evidence thattheir coach has evolved as a teacher. "He's a lot more hands-on now,"says Bryant. "This is the best coaching job he's done."
With eight playerswho have two years of experience or less, Jackson also manages games much moretightly; he notes that he's probably already broken his personal record forcalling timeouts--many of them coming in the third quarter, in which the Lakershave been frequently outscored. "I've bailed them out--I've been moreprotective of them," he says. "There are times when I've told them thatif you keep having these third quarters, you may look up and [see that] I'm notthere. Don't expect me to call timeout, because I may be in the lockerroom."
On pace for a10-win improvement over last season, Jackson has answered the sniping of RedAuerbach and others who have accused him of riding the coattails of MichaelJordan and Shaquille O'Neal. While Jackson admits that he's enjoyed nurturingthis group, he refuses to address the future beyond 2007-08, the final seasonof his three-year, $30 million contract. The crucial factor in his decisionwill be which star free agent the Lakers can lure in the summer of 2008, whenthey will be way under the salary cap. To preserve that cap space, L.A. must befrugal for at least two more seasons. "We're not going to be able to shedthis team and move on to another group of guys next year," says Jackson,who is banking on the continued development of Andrew Bynum and Kwame Brown by'08.
As difficult asthis season has been for Jackson, for perspective he need only look to hisformer team, the Knicks, who courted him before hiring Larry Brown last summer.While Jackson's attempts at fostering long-term growth are succeeding in L.A.,Brown's have exploded in his face. "I agree, but his veterans aren't asmalleable as mine," says Jackson, referring to Bryant and forward LamarOdom. "The [New York veterans] aren't as willing to be part of makingchanges to get better."
He may not be in aposition to win ring No. 10 anytime soon, but there's consolation in thealternative: He's not in New York.
On Bulls center Tyson Chandler, who at week's end led the league in boards per48 minutes (16.5), while averaging 1.40 blocks:
"He'sestablished his niche as a less offensive-minded version of Marcus Camby. Notonly is he an excellent rebounder, but also when he's in the game, theirperimeter people are able to pressure the ball, knowing that he's protectingthe basket behind them like a goalie. Earlier in his career he didn't seem tofit with the tough, physical style that [coach] Scott Skiles was looking for.But Chandler has developed that style because he knows that Skiles won't playhim otherwise. Now the Bulls know that if they can add a scoring big manalongside Chandler this summer, they're going to take off."
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JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (JACKSON)
NEWTITLE - The Zen Master has acquired a new label from Kobe & Co.: masterteacher.
MANNY MILLAN (INSET)
JOE MURPHY/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (CHANDLER)