Phil Jackson, in a revealing interview, laments the way Los Angeles has ‘eliminated [Dwight Howard's] assets’

Ball Don't Lie

For someone who only recently decided to buy the NBA’s League Pass package (it’s weird to think that your routinely broke author had League Pass 13 years before Phil Jackson did), former Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson seems awfully tuned in to how this league works. And in discussing Xs and Os with legendary Sports Illustrated scribe Jack McCallum he once again seems effortless as Jackson breaks down the current NBA, the Los Angeles Lakers’ woes, and the ubiquity of the screen and roll offense amongst NBA play sets.

It’s a must read, as Jackson (who recently bought League Pass because his fiancée Jeanie Buss “didn't want people thinking that her boyfriend is so poor he can't get all the NBA channels”) tackles with accuracy and without malice the woes behind a Laker team that should be led on both ends by all-world center Dwight Howard.

From McCallum’s session with the legend, starting with a discussion on Los Angeles’ disappointing season:

Jackson: They just don't put the ball in the post. They'll use a screen-roll to get the guy in the post. But there's no consistent plan to do it. Yes, Kobe will go in there. But Dwight [Howard] just doesn't get any touches. They've basically eliminated his assets.

SI: But wouldn't his assets be rolling off the screen-roll, with either [Steve] Nash or Kobe?

Jackson: You want the ball 10 feet away from the basket. Throw it into the post, make them double-team and have everybody around to make shots. That's what Shaq could do. That's where you have the Robert Horrys, the Derek Fishers and the Rick Foxes sitting out there getting wide-open jumpers.

SI: But Dwight is not Shaq in that aspect of the game, drawing the double team and finding people. Isn't that true?

Jackson: I think he can be. But he is not where he needs to be physically because of the back surgery. He needs a year to recover from something like that. He's starting to come around, but he has a massive upper body to carry around. He's a terrific athlete, but he still has to get all that back. He's looking better all the time, but his problem right now is turnovers. He's got to have a little better recognition, and that will help him gain the confidence of his teammates and coach, which he does not have now.

For a coach long known for rarely hesitating before launching passive/aggressive lobs at opposing coaches, Jackson’s sly way around criticizing Mike D’Antoni seems like your typical Phil. Always smirking, always getting one in, and probably right.

It’s hard to tell, from Jackson’s various interviews since last November, whether or not Jackson completely put himself out there for the Laker job that D’Antoni surprisingly accepted. In this session with McCallum, Jackson again points out that he asked Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak for some time to consider whether or not he wanted to coach the Lakers – a few days that Jackson thought he had earned by leading the team to five NBA championships – because the hiring situation was different in Los Angeles due to the fact that the Laker gig in his old building wasn’t “about moving or going somewhere else and learning new players.”

Kupchak and Laker brass, infamously, chose D’Antoni instead of giving Jackson (literally) that extra day to mull over and decide whether he wanted to coach again. For various reasons, D’Antoni has gone 20-24 as Laker coach heading into Wednesday night’s game against the Boston Celtics.

Outside of the soap opera-y digs, the interview is a must read because of its reliance on Xs and Os talk. Jackson still falls back on the Tex Winter-style of discussing the hows and whys behind competent offensive play, pointing out that plays should start 10-feet away from the basket in his talk about Dwight Howard, while calling basketball “a simple game” predicated on penetration.

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Penetration that too often comes from ball handlers, as the NBA adjusts to increased hand checking scrutiny and relies on the screen and roll game seemingly every single time down court. Jackson, after a career spent defending that game from the sideline, isn’t as smitten with pick and roll ball.

From McCallum’s interview:

Jackson: […] Your goal is penetration, get the ball close to the basket, and there are three ways to do that. Pass, dribble and offensive rebound.

The easiest one is -- or should be -- the pass. But the new rules allow you to throw more people at post-up players. NBA basketball is a big man's game, and in the past they protected that aspect of the game. Well, those rules went out the window and what they didn't do was consider this: If they're going to continue to allow zone defenses to work and shut down the paint, then they have to put six more seconds on the shot clock. A 30-second clock. But they're so attached to the idea of the 24-second clock that it doesn't happen.

SI: Did you bring it up when you were coaching?

Jackson: All the time, all the time. But general managers always dominated those competition committees. Anyway, it [allowing limited zones] has eliminated some of the post passing and made dribbling a major part of our game. As a result, I think people forgot that there are still ways you can get the ball inside rather than just standing there and throwing the ball in. You have to have a system that makes all things work. Pop [San Antonio's Gregg Popovich] has that.

SI: How would you describe that system?

Jackson: Popovich made significant growth 10 years ago or so after David Robinson left. It had been pretty stilted. You know, two big guys. A lot of stuff he does represents the triangle offense. They flow into it a different way. Strong-side triangle. Pinch-post action. Some of it may have come about because we were going at each other all the time in the playoffs and he had to defend against it.

Jackson is spot on. Popovich did masterful work with both the high/low offense with his David Robinson-led squads, but at times the offense (full of Tim Duncan and David Robinson and a series of spot-up shooters) was as predictable as offenses came; especially in the heat of a seven game series. So much so that the Spurs were trounced by the Lakers in both the 2001 and 2002 despite coming to work with a formidable lineup, only taking one game in nine tries before restructuring the system in Robinson’s final season and downing Los Angeles in the 2003 playoffs.

There was significant concern in Jackson’s first year with the Lakers back in 1999 that the NBA’s legalization of strong side zones could hinder both Shaquille O’Neal’s overall play and the team’s development of the triangle offense. Instead, not only did the Lakers ease into the triangle quicker than Jackson’s Chicago Bulls teams managed in their first two years, Los Angeles also won 67 games on its way to a title. After the team’s second consecutive title in 2001 the NBA legalized just about every form of zone defense, making life much harder for centers and post players. Still, Jackson managed to win three more titles over the years in Los Angeles.

This is probably why, when pressed by McCallum as to whether or not Pau Gasol is a good fit on this current Laker crew, Jackson responded with this aside:

SI: How about when Pau Gasol comes back? There seemed to be some problems when they were out there together.

Jackson: Well, what is the problem? We won two championships that way [with two big men]. Pau is one of the best big men in the game. I mean, Pau Gasol is going to be in the Hall of Fame.

(McCallum disagreed with Jackson’s Hall of Fame assertion, which marks the first time in over 25 years of reading Jack McCallum that I find myself completely disagreeing with Jack McCallum.)

If these come off as shots, it’s because they are. Phil Jackson has a fundamental disagreement with not only perimeter-based basketball, but basketball orthodoxy in general.

To watch a league of copycats on his League Pass disappoints him; and if you disagree with his points, just watch a Spurs game the next time they come across your tube and tell me that you’re not enjoying not only the complexity but the flexibility of the team’s offense. An offense that looks like it never runs out of options, even when the end of the bench is on the floor and Tim Duncan is in street clothes.

Jackson goes on to tell McCallum that he wouldn’t mind running a team as a personnel chief, wanting the final say on all basketball decisions. Not a GM gig, because Jackson doesn’t “like that term,” but an el jefe nevertheless. Former coaches who didn’t pick up League Pass until 2012-13 and probably have little clue about Collective Bargaining Agreement rules or the promise of advanced statistics aren’t usually at the top of my candidate list … but it’s Phil Jackson. You’d give him a chance.

Read the interview. You will come out of it more knowledgeable and with a greater appreciation for the game of basketball. That’s sort of the point of all this, right?

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