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So comes and goes a familiar dance for Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant(notes), the push and pull of history's most prolific coach and a generation's most prolific player. Jackson calls out Bryant for obliterating his sacred triangle offense with too much shooting, and Bryant fires back at Jackson about his "Zen B.S.," and the bickering comes and goes like that of an old married couple.
"When you've been around Phil for as many years as I have, we all understand that he likes coaching publicly," Bryant told reporters on Monday. "I think it's important for the new guys to understand that – Ron [Artest], Pau [Gasol], guys that kind of have issues with that. That's how he coaches. … Just let him do his job and go about your business."
[Photo: Kobe rocks wild holiday shoes]
They're too invested and too wise to go to battle, too understanding that the elders of these Los Angeles Lakers are nowhere unless they're together. The Lakers are playing lousy basketball now, with mediocre teams blowing out the champs with an alarming regularity at Staples Center. In the final season for Jackson, the run for his 12th title promises to be the toughest of his life. In so many ways, these Lakers struggles should flush the arrogance from his face. He should be replaced with a resolve to take care of his own issues – not meddle with the rest of the league's.
For this team, there's no cruise control. Jackson has to coach this season, and maybe make some changes with the arrogant and condescending way that he conducts business in public. It had been one thing to raise the ire of rival coaches when he questioned the future of Eric Spoelstra and the past of Stan Van Gundy. He's dismissed the legitimacy of titles Rudy Tomjanovich and Gregg Popovich won with Michael Jordan playing baseball and a lockout-shortened season. He can live with stirring those outside his gymnasium, but his constant public griping on Artest and Gasol could come with a price.
At a recent practice, league sources said, Artest loudly confronted Jackson. As he tried to fit into the defending champions a season ago and earn his way, Artest grudgingly went along with Jackson's public floggings. This season, Artest has less tolerance for it. Essentially, Artest told Jackson that if he wants to coach him, coach him. Just stop embarrassing him in public.
The Lakers won't win a championship without Artest fully engaged, and part of that is on the coach. Jackson has always taken such great pain to understand the minds of his players, to get the most out of them and that hasn't happened this season. Is Lamar Odom(notes) too caught up with making the All-Star team and a reality show? Is Gasol investing the ferocity beyond merely calling for the basketball?
There's no disputing Jackson's championship formula, but the hubris of winning that everyone assigns to these players goes to the coach too. He's mocked everyone in the NBA, including those like Jerry Krause, who had so much to do with putting together his championship teams. Winning allowed Jackson to do it his way, on his terms, and seldom did he ever get called on it. He's smug, sure of himself and always insisted he wouldn't live with the regret that Red Auerbach did by retiring with championships still left to be won.
In a lot of ways, this run is nearing an end for the Lakers. The Zen B.S. has run its course, the way every coach's mantra does over time. Why it worked so well, for so long, had far less to do with the meditations and far more to do with the staggering array of talent under Jackson's watch. This promises to be an excruciating season for the Lakers, and they still have so much to reassemble about themselves to be champions again.
Jackson started with a long, hard 2½ hour practice on Monday, and that's what these Lakers needed. For the good of his final championship run, that's the private place where the coach needs to be a coach again.