LOS ANGELES – The soul patch is gone. He hasn't published a book in nearly five years, and who knows when he and Luc Longley last checked a lobster pot. One of his assistants claims he's even gone, yikes, soft.
These days, it's all about the basketball for Phil Jackson. Well, he's still dating the owner's daughter, which has led to some memorable appearances on Jeanie Vision, but that's also about the basketball, sort of.
Jackson gets his third crack at Title X, starting this week, and if he seems a little more urgent, his focus a little more narrowed, that's because of the basketball, too. Seven years after his last championship, seven years after nearly everyone west of Causeway Street anointed him Greatest Coach Ever, or, at least, (Arguably) Greatest Coach Ever, Jackson has found himself with something to prove.
Specifically, can he still win this thing?
The Lakers' loss to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals led to Jackson's departure for a year, and their subsequent failings led to his return. But last season's Finals loss to the Boston Celtics also led to some personal angst, even if Jackson was loathe to show it.
"We feel like we failed our team as a coaching staff in both situations," Jackson said last week.
In truth, the Lakers were a year ahead of their time. The team was young and not yet whole. The road to the Finals had come too easy: a sweep of the Denver Nuggets, six games against the Utah Jazz, and then, most surprisingly, a five-game dismissal of the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, whose lone day of preparation was lost after they were stranded aboard their charter flight.
Still, it is a coach's job to have his team prepared for any situation, and the Lakers weren't ready for the Celtics' toughness and physicality. In Game 5, he threw Chris Mihm(notes) onto the floor for three minutes, a move that appeared to be a reach, considering it was Mihm's only appearance of the playoffs. The day after the Lakers' Game 1 loss, he tried to tweak the Celtics by mocking Paul Pierce's(notes) wheelchair ride to the locker room. Phil simply being Phil? Or a sign of desperation?
Now, the Lakers are back in the Finals, favored again, and last season's disappointment could also lead to Jackson's final validation. With Jackson's nine championships matching the nine belonging to the Celtics' late patriarch, Red Auerbach, for the most ever, he can erase his own personal asterisk. Sure, he won with Jordan. Sure, he won with Shaq. But can he grow a team into a champion?
"He's never tried building a team and teaching the fundamentals," Auerbach famously said. "When he's gone in there, they've been ready-made for him. It's just a matter of putting his system in there. They don't worry about developing players if they're not good enough. They just go get someone else."
There's some truth in that. Andrew Bynum(notes) injured his knee last season, so the Lakers simply traded for Pau Gasol(notes). But that move was also more a testament to the dedication of Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak and how he brilliantly constructed this roster – as well as the bumbling nature of the Memphis Grizzlies – than it should be construed as Jackson inheriting another "ready-made" team.
Teaching fundamentals? Developing players?
Look at these Lakers. Jackson's taught and developed them. Their starting small forward, 23-year-old Trevor Ariza(notes), bounced from New York to Orlando, allegedly without a shot in his game. He's now an efficient outside threat, as well as a strong perimeter defender. During these playoffs, he's made half of his 60 3-pointers, second only to Atlanta's Mike Bibby(notes) among players with at least 30 attempts.
Bynum, 21, starts at center for the Lakers, and for all his struggles in these playoffs, it's hard to find a scout who doesn't think he can regain the dominating form he showed early this season before his latest injury. Backup guard Shannon Brown(notes) couldn't get minutes in Charlotte. He's since helped ignite the Lakers' sometimes-listless bench in the playoffs.
The past 20 NBA champions have featured a total of just four starters 23 years or younger. The Lakers have two, and that blend of youth and inexperience has caused Jackson to alter his approach some. Assistant Brian Shaw, who also played under Jackson, has told his old coach he's grown soft.
"He allows a lot more now with the guys in terms of talk-back and even just taking their opinions into account, more so than he did when we played," Shaw said. "It was more, 'This is how it's going to be done and I don't want to hear anything else about it.' "
Jackson uses a different word to describe the change:
"Patience," he said.
The Lakers haven't always rewarded Jackson for that, and, perhaps, he's also backed off too much, at times. For most of the season, the Lakers played as if they were ready to coast into the Finals, with Jackson constantly downplaying any hint of trouble. After the Houston Rockets pushed back in the second round, the Lakers acted surprised at the challenge. True to form, Jackson said he saw no reason to worry.
And, in his mind, why should he? “What makes Phil unique is that he views the playoffs as a journey rather than a series of games,” said Phoenix Suns GM Steve Kerr, a member of three of Jackson’s championship teams in Chicago. “Everything is done from a very thoughtful point of view, and each series is like a puzzle. As a player, you really do feel like Phil is figuring out how to beat the opponent as the series goes on.”
More often than not, he did, and winning nine titles in 12 seasons gave Jackson the right to operate with a sense of arrogance. After joining the Lakers in 2000, he mocked the Spurs by saying their first title deserved an asterisk because it came in the lockout-shortened season. Privately, he joked that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and his staff should be called the "Simulator Crew" because none of them had ever played in the NBA. During the Lakers' battles with Sacramento, he once famously spliced the scouting film with alternate shots of Kings coach Rick Adelman and Hitler.
These days, Jackson usually saves his sharpest barbs for the league office rather than his opponents. He's shown respect toward Popovich and even Adelman in recent seasons, and his only disappointment about reaching the Finals for a 12th time was that "the NBA takes the fun out of the Finals because they're everywhere, on our bus … everywhere."
Fun or not, Jackson has come to appreciate the challenge it takes to get to this stage, and he now better understands the difficulty it takes to win here. The Lakers are talented enough to make another run next season, but Jackson always assesses his career plans year by year. Who knows if he'll ever get back?
"I wouldn't be surprised as things unfold that he's willing to step outside of things of his own level of comfort to make sure we accomplish this goal this year," Fisher said. "I don't think he's going to take the approach that we can do this again at some other point. I think he's going to ensure as a team that we don't let this opportunity slip by. Exactly what that means, what he does, how he does it, I can't speak to that. Only he can.
"But I definitely think he's as excited and as enthusiastic about a Finals as I've seen in a long time. It was old hat for him when he showed up and we won three."
It's not old hat now. Jackson hasn't won a title in seven years. He turns 65 in September and he's still even with Red. No, this season is different.
This season, Jackson has something to prove.