Who Needs Who More, Kobe Bryant or Phil Jackson?
It's times like these that sort of make you feel like you're living in the matrix, a pre-scripted virtual sporting reality where of course the Los Angeles Lakers wind up with Phil Jackson.
Of course the storybook season would get off to a dramatic start, replete with a hilariously swift scapegoating of Mike Brown and the team's legend telling impatient fans to "shut up." And of course it would turn out that the most impatient of them all was owner Jerry Buss.
Ever the statesman, Kobe will maintain he wasn't behind Brown getting canned. If you believe that, chances are you also believe Dwight Howard didn't have a thing to do with Stan Van Gundy's slightly more protracted exit from Orlando.
When ownership broached the possibility of a coaching change, I can see it now, Bryant responding with a hunky-dory, "Gee, I don't know, what do you guys think!?"
No, my guess is that this was brewing all summer, at least once Andrew Bynum magically turned into Dwight Howard. Phil calls Jerry, starting the conversation with, "So when I said I wanted to retire..."
Kobe puts in a good word for Phil, taking a moment to endorse his coaching skills on LinkedIn.
Buss makes it happen.
He made it happen, because this is ultimately what Kobe wanted all along. And now, it's also what he needs.
There are few coaches who command respect from the titan likes of Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. If you don't go by Pop, Doc or Thibs, you really needn't even apply. Jackson can speak for his locker room and let the players focus on actually playing.
Contrast that with the world as we've recently come to know it, one in which it was Kobe's job to defend his coach, himself now an emasculated caricature of the post-Phil regime. Bryant may be a fine multi-tasker, but he'll just as soon go back to speaking for himself rather than for the guy who's supposed to be his boss.
Beyond the intangible things Jackson brings to Kobe's locker room, he also brings something important to Bryant's game.
Yes, Kobe knows this game as well as any coach, and that's the problem. He needs someone who will actually push him to be better, a source of developmental inspiration. In that respect, Jackson is as much a muse as he is a master, of the Zen variety or otherwise.
He's the one who helped ensure Kobe was more than just another transcendent scorer, that he did what it took to actually win.
In the context of praising LeBron James for his versatility, Phil told HBO's Andrea Kremer as much this summer, saying he, "tried to get Kobe to do both [score and pass] for numbers of years." The numbers certainly suggest there's something to Jackson's ruminations.
Under Mike Brown last season, Kobe's assist numbers were the lowest they'd been since 2005-06, Jackson's first year back on the job after his first hiatus. Bryant's supporting cast was atrocious back then, at least by Lakers standards. That explanation didn't fly last season, though.
Last season, he was shooting the ball like a guy whose coach didn't have any better ideas.
That was, after all, the impetus for transitioning to the Princeton offense. The ball needed to move. The question quickly became how Bryant would become part of the solution, especially in light of Steve Nash's nomination as Playmaker-in-Chief.
Apparently, Mike Brown didn't have an answer for that question.
This was a case for the Kobe-Whisperer, the guy who gets superstars their rings.
The irony about Kobe Bryant's regret that he "wasn't able to give him everything [he] had" on account of a bad knee in 2011 is that this really isn't about what Kobe can do for Phil. It's about what Phil can do for Kobe.
Though he'll be remembered as the guy who coached MJ and Bryant, his greatest gift to the latter may be what he's done for those Laker bigs: Shaq, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and even Lamar Odom.
Dwight Howard is next in line. If Gasol survives the rumor mill (again), he could use some re-centering of his own.
As good as these Lakers look—on paper or otherwise—they remain a club with little margin for error. They won't outrun teams, and they won't jump over them. They won't be winning them at the three-point arc.
They'll win with execution, by optimally syncing their respective talents, and they'll do so because they had the right guy at the helm.
That guy could certainly afford to sit this one out. Bryant is the one who can't quit now. They both need one another, to be sure, at least as far as future rings go.
Kobe just needs this a little bit more.
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