Former Laker head coach Phil Jackson
The more we kick over the charred remains of this season's Lakers flame out, the more signs that point to failures within the system, failures of the coaching staff to properly implement a system that utilized team strengths and minimized weaknesses.
Is it any coincidence that it's been now a couple of years since Tex Winter left, the Lakers have brought in a number of new players since then, and this year the offense looked to be a bloody mess?
I always praised Phil Jackson during his time here, felt he was worthy of the high-praise he would get. But, this last year though some major cracks appeared in his philosophies. Why? Did he start buying into his own Zen thing?
Did he start believing the whole 'greatest NBA coach of all time' thing? Did he really expect that simply because he was there that his mere presence would elevate the play of his guys, and win him another three-peat?
The greatest of the great basketball coaches left early, when there might have been more titles to pursue: Red Auerbach, Pat Riley, John Wooden.
They left primarily because they felt their message was losing effectiveness. Especially Riley, who basically said as much when he left, his message wasn't getting across after years of preaching to essentially the same core of players (I argued that was precisely what was happening with Jackson a few weeks back, right here in Bleacher Report).
However, it was more than that. The Jackson spiel seemed tired, dated...as did Jackson himself. The magic aura was gone, the invincibility his teams previously displayed and carried themselves with.
The Lakers floundered for major stretches of the season, for weeks at a time, and after a fourth- or fifth-consecutive loss for Laker fans it was getting tiresome and worrisome seeing their head coach just sit on his hands and continue the same-type of coaching mentality that he had used during their peak years. The insistence not to call time-outs, to let the guys 'play through' things.
In other words, Jackson's message was old, his philosophy wasn't working with this group, yet he had no place to turn.
He has never been known as a diagram coach, and Winter wasn't around to meticulously see to it that the guys were adhering to the most minute details of the offensive system he constructed and carried forth for five decades.
None of the assistants would venture to raise up their voices and shake up this group when they needed to be scolded (I'm not taking it out on Frank Hamblen nor Jim Cleamons, but can anyone tell just what their roles were the past few years? If so, please do!). Brian Shaw would on occasion, but that was it.
So, instead of the coaching staff, motivating the players during repeated listless efforts, it instead fell on Kobe and occasionally Derek Fisher's laps, those were the two that would routinely try to do what the coaching staff wasn't doing, inspire and even help coach the team.
I think back to this past training camp, NBA TV had about a two-hour live special in which they covered one of the Lakers preseason practices. Very interesting stuff, and very telling.
Jackson was running the practice, and he was having the team do such things as weaves, cuts, flashes and whatnot. Everything but getting the group together and explain the triangle, the overall system.
So, newcomer Steve Blake at one point spoke with teammate Ron Artest about an aspect of the offense, Artest let Blake know not to worry, he'll eventually get how certain parts of the triangle worked.
Ironically, in a practice video from the year before Laker fans may remember that Kobe was the one to take Artest aside and go over some parts of the offense with him. Now I'm not saying the coaching staff wasn't instructing Artest, or Blake...but it appeared that way.
The Real Training camp special showed the assistant coaches having such meaningful things to do during practice, such as: hold clipboards, chat amongst one another and roll out the passing dummies and set them up on the court.
Phil would walk around and have them do drills in approximately two- or three-minute stretches, then start an entirely new random drill such as three-man weave on fastbreaks (because, god knows, every fast break featured three guys running a weave a la the Globetrotters!).
Kobe sat out of most practices this past year. Good move in order to keep their best player healthy and save wear-and-tear on his joints and arthritic knees. One would have thought then that the coaching staff would make up for that with extended film sessions so that the team could be in sync and understand how to play together.
Additionally, there are ways to walk through plays or diagram them or substitute an assistant coach for another player in order to explain and break things down. I am not sure, but it is doubtful the Laker coaching staff did that this past season.
The same type of breakdowns would show themselves repeatedly throughout the year, were never properly addressed. The inside-out game which worked so well for them in the past was not stressed.
Passes into the post were not stressed. There was no offensive rhythm at many times. Basic principles of Winter's triangle were abandoned, such as pick-and-rolls and utilizing cuts and flashes.
This team had it's weaknesses. Fisher was showing his age at point guard, Artest lost his shooting touch, Pau Gasol just looked lost, the backups were sporadic at best. No doubt, fatigue and complacency had set in after three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals.
But one thing cannot be denied, underlying and compounding all was the fact this team simply wasn't getting properly coached. There was nothing there. The tenets of the triangle long since had floated away, what was left was a shell of their former system.
Jackson was more into the mind-game aspect of coaching, not the X's and O's. His longtime assistants were just going through the motions and architect of the triple post offense Winter was gone. The status quo could not continue, which unfortunately for Shaw meant that it was necessary for the organization to look outside for a whole new coaching direction.
Laker fans now look forward and hope Mike Brown is a coach that will actually do just that...coach. Looking back at this past season we now can see Jackson was more like the Wizard of Oz, sitting down and pulling levers, but not being capable of controlling the situation when things started to unravel and get out of hand.