First, a disclaimer: I am an unabashed Doc Rivers' fan and an ardent critic of Phil Jackson. I fall into the camp of Jackson Bashers who believe that much (most?) of his success stems from the great fortune of coaching Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
I do believe in the axiom that good coaches win with good players, bad coaches lose with good players and nobody can win with bad players, so by no means do I think Jackson is a poor coach. He is one of the best in the history of the National Basketball Association.
But I would hire Rivers and Gregg Popovich before Jackson to lead my franchise, and I believe a handful of other coaches—such as Larry Brown or Don Nelson or even the Van Gundy brothers—are better strategists and would out-coach Jackson in a playoff series given similar talent.
I hope to have another opportunity this year to witness Rivers again out-coach Jackson in a playoff series.
That said, one can’t help but notice that it is Jackson and not Rivers who has his team playing its best basketball of the season at the appropriate time. Winners of 15 out of the past 16 games, the Los Angeles Lakers seem to be peaking at the right time and head into the postseason with significant momentum and confidence.
They look the part of defending NBA champions. Meanwhile, anxiety has gripped fans in Boston subjected to the Celtics’ latest listless loss to the Indiana Pacers Monday night, the team’s seventh loss in the past 12 games.
A seemingly apathetic Jackson allowed his veteran-laden squad to experience a similar lull earlier in the year and provided space for team leadership to step up and assert the need for urgency after the All-Star break.
According to an Associated Press recap of the Lakers' Feb. 16 loss to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers, the Lakers’ third straight loss heading into the All-Star break, “After his club’s worst loss this season, coach Phil Jackson didn’t tell his players anything other than what time they’re due to report for practice Monday.”
“I think they took the break before the game started,” the typically sarcastic Jackson told the media following the game.
While the Lakers were struggling, Boston seemed intent on extending its lead in the Eastern Conference in an effort to secure home-court advantage through the conference finals. This makes sense given last year’s NBA Finals Game 7 loss to the Lakers in Los Angeles.
Although he was trying to preserve his starters’ health by rationing minutes when possible early this season, Rivers' intent to win every game came through in his comments to his team and the media.
Conveying his emphasis on consistent focus and effort throughout the season, Rivers quipped after a Feb. 7 loss to the Charlotte Bobcats, “I thought our guys came in with their cool game today and thought they were going to win it, maybe because of our jerseys.”
Rivers felt the need to prod a veteran team of former NBA champs after a tough loss, despite the fact that his team was atop the Eastern Conference standings at the time. Clearly, the late-season fade of the Boston Celtics in recent years has had as much to do with health and lack of depth as anything, but one can’t help but wonder if Rivers’ constant application of pressure during the season is counter-productive for a proud group of veterans who have been there and done that.
Although he did not speak to his team following that February loss to the Cavaliers, Jackson delivered a rather loud message to his squad through his use of playing time. In that final game before the All-Star break, Jackson limited Ron Artest to 18 minutes—11 below his season average—while other starters Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher all played reasonable minutes close to their season averages.
Unlike his teammate Andrew Bynum who played only 22 minutes, but somehow picked up five fouls in that time, Artest’s minutes were not limited as a result of foul trouble. By downplaying the importance of the losing streak to the media, Jackson allowed his proud (and volatile) veteran to save face even as he presented Artest as the scapegoat to the rest of the team.
Whether Artest received a private reprimand from the outspoken Bryant or another teammate or took it upon himself to improve his play after the All-Star break, one thing is clear: He got the message.
Compared to his season averages, over the past 10 games, Artest has increased per game point production (10.4 vs. 8.5), field goal percentage (44 percent vs. 40.7 percent), rebounds (3.8 vs. 3.2), assists (2.4 vs. 2.1), blocks (.6 vs. .4) and steals (2.1 vs. 1.5).
Even his higher fouling rate (2.5 vs. 2.1) can be construed as a good thing, as it implies the aggressiveness and focus Jackson found lacking prior the break. By avoiding direct conflict with his player, Jackson provides the space for Artest to conclude on his own the importance and urgency of his improved play.
At the risk of comparing any Celtics (or humans) to Artest, I have to believe that the Celtics’ troubles closing out the season the last few years also have something to do with occasional lulls in focus.
It is not unreasonable for a group of aging, accomplished stars to check out mentally over the course of a taxing six-month season. Perhaps, Doc would do well to learn this lesson from Jackson and ease off the gas during certain stretches of the regular season so that his team could carry more energy and momentum into the playoffs.
If the parties are so inclined, Rivers could always pay Jackson back by teaching him about humility and class or simply how to draw up a play.