After losing to the Dallas Mavericks on Friday, and after repeated struggles this season, it is apparent the Lakers have a problem. No, Kobe Bryant is not it problem. Nor is Pau Gasol. Derek Fisher. Ron Artest. Lamar Odom. No, none of the players are a problem individually, although certainly a number of players haven't brought-it to every game.
No, Phil Jackson is the problem. Well, not so much Phil per se, but his message. It is getting lost on the players.
After a certain number of years the message of successful coaches starts getting lost upon the team. Look at the great teams, those with long runs of excellence, you'll see that much like aging players a coaches message also begins to age. This does NOT mean that a coach is less effective - just that their message becomes less effective towards that particular collective group of players.
Much like Red Auerbach towards the end of the '60s Celtic runs, Pat Riley during Laker Showtime days (not so much Jackson in Chicago because GM Jerry Krause's ego was too big, he started believing his GM skills were superior to Michael Jordan's talent, so that great Bulls team had the curtain pulled down for them).
Great coaches, the greatest of the greats, have an innate sense that their time has come, that is why Jackson has been pretty adamant about this being the end of his Laker run. Win or lose. He sees the writing on the wall.
In addition, the triple-post offensive system the Lakers have been running under Phil lost a powerful voice when Tex Winter left the team a few years back. Winter was the architect and creator of the triangle, now you see little of the offense unless Fisher brings up the ball and initiates it and then only fleetingly, or on the backup squad who seem to stay truer to it a lot more than the starters.
Bryant literally becomes a player-coach much of the time, much like Magic Johnson was at times, waving and pointing on offense as he's dribbling. Actually Bryant has evolved into a floor-leader much like Michael Jordan evolved into after his years spent under Jackson. However, unlike Jordan, Kobe has taken his command of the offense much further than Jordan ever did, or ever had to.
A veteran team that has made three consecutive runs to the NBA Finals should run like clockwork on offense, but they've moved so far away from that it looks more like the lack of cohesiveness you see at a rec game. The offense is broken. Freelancing becomes the norm and Laker post-players go long stretches of games without quality touches.
But problems haven't only shown themselves in the offense. Laker defense, which is normally a strong point for the team, has become a liability. Slow rotations and confusion on defense have led to bickering amongst players and coaches, something that has become routine event during timeouts. When Andrew Bynum suggests the team has "trust issues" it speaks as much about the players as it does the coaching staff.
Jackson has shown to be a master manipulator of talent. A coach that molds great teams into champions. 11 championships won, he is unquestionably the most successful coach in NBA history. His Indian-influenced philosophies and habit of letting players work themselves out of on-court problems are unique feature we may never see again in these days of hyper-management by coaches.
Jackson deserves to be recognized as not only one of the greatest in basketball history but in sports history. However, the messy situation he is leaving behind with the Lakers might move team management away from his style altogether, possibly keeping them from promoting his longtime protege and Laker 'coach in waiting' Brian Shaw.
Sure, winning cures all and if the Lakers do pull off something unprecedented by becoming the first team in NBA history to rally back from an 0-3 deficit people will forget all the problems. A Laker loss though will ensure it will be happy trails to Jackson and possibly much of his coaching staff.
Jackson's legacy is secure. Ideally though, Jackson wants to win this title as a perfect career-capper. An even dozen rings, broken up into 4 threepeats. Jackson has spoken of 12 being a 'holy' number, and for someone like Jackson that is a significant event. May Laker failure then fuel his return to the game, possibly as rumored to the team he played with, the New York Knicks and a chance to mold a couple of young superstars, Amar'e Stoudamire and Carmelo Anthony into champions, much like he did with Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal with the Lakers, as he did previously with Jordan and Scottie Pippen?
Phil seems to do things in three. However, in order to continue his three's he will need to win this championship. As the inevitable begins to dawn and the Lakers find themselves eliminated from the playoffs this may serve as more motivation than Jackson might have otherwise had to return and redeem himself.
As for the Lakers, win or lose, as Jackson rides into the sunset we may very well not see his hand-picked successor carry on his legacy as expected. Proven horses need proven jockey's, and the Lakers are a proven, veteran team who have only a couple of years left with of Bryant ability to perform at a high-level. Therefore, a veteran, proven coach may be necessary to right the ship.
Jerry Sloan, where are you?