Despite being passed over for the Lakers’ head coaching vacancy in November, legendary coach Phil Jackson remains optimistic about his former team.
This week, Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum interviewed the 13-time champion (11 titles as a coach, two as a player) about a few basketball-related topics.
The following is Jackson’s insight on the current Lakers’ issues, Dwight Howard, his own future in the NBA, and whether or not the Lakers will make the playoffs this season:
When asked what Jackson sees in the Lakers right now, considering the personnel changes and injuries, Jackson lamented:
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 just doesn’t get any touches.
They’ve basically eliminated his assets.
Jackson was then asked about Howard’s screen and rolls:
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.
Can Howard’s presence inside be similar to Shaq’s, in the aspect of drawing the double team and finding open teammates?
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.
When asked about the issues regarding Howard and Pau Gasol playing together:
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.
Have the Lakers been improving? And will they still make the playoffs?
Yes, I think they are finding a way to play. And that’s nice to see. Steve Nash has had to sacrifice because Kobe is dominating the ball, but Kobe is showing he can be both playmaker and scorer.
Now it’s about defense. And I think that’s coming around.
They make the playoffs; I think they’ve shown they’re going to be in it with every team.
Does Jackson ever feel compelled to visit Staples Center for a game?
I haven’t yet. I’ll probably go when Shaq’s number is retired [on April 2nd].
When asked about Jackson’s run in Los Angeles:
I did have a good run. There were always people who didn’t like the triangle, thought it was too methodical, too unlike Showtime.
But I was always astonished about how well I was treated. When I came back [in 2005] and took the job, people actually thanked me. They didn’t say, “Good luck.” They said “Thank you.” I never forgot that.
Will Jackson ever coach in the NBA again?
I’m not coaching. I told Mitch [Kupchak, Lakers General Manager] that back in October. So when we sat down in November [to talk about taking over after Mike Brown was fired], he brought that up and I said,
“Well, this isn’t about moving or going somewhere else and learning new players. It’s different. So I’m ready to think about coming back, but I still have to think about it.”
But I do hold out the idea that there’s still influence in the game I could have. Red Auerbach, Pete Newell, Wayne Embry, guys like that have had … a number of people have had considerable influence and haven’t been coaches per se.
What about a management job?
Vice president of basketball operations/director of player personnel is more like it.
Jackson was also asked whether he watches games and if he takes notes on them:
I sometimes take notes. I have some people who have come to me and ask, “Would you watch my team, see if you can pick anything up?”
Four or five teams, plus the Lakers. [He wouldn’t identify the other teams.] So while I’m not officially in the consulting business, it might come in handy sometime.
Since he’s been away from the game for two years, has the league changed at all?
Not really. It’s a mimic league. It has been for a long time. Coaches see something and say, “Oh, that’s hard to defend. Maybe we’ll run that.” Screen-roll. Three-point shooters in the corner. Bigs that can roll and pop.
San Antonio has a system, a way of doing things, and maybe a couple others. But most everybody runs that screen-roll.
How does the game look from the outside looking in?
Basketball is a simple game. 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.
Anyway, [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.
How would he describe that system?
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.
Finally, what does Jackson miss most about coaching?
What you might expect. Being around the other coaches, being around the guys. It’s what I talked about in my book [Eleven Rings]. Coaching is about, “How do I get these people to play at their peak level?” Yeah, the X’s and O’s mean something, but you can get people to do that.
And a lot of those guys have been hired. The Lawrence Franks and the Frank Vogels. Mike Brown was one of those guys. That’s not a knock. Those guys know how to coach the game.
But coaching is much more than that. It is a spiritual quest. And if it’s not that, you don’t have a challenge, you don’t have a mission. Forming a brotherhood and trying to move it forward, that’s the part that I miss.
Sure sounds a lot like something the current Lakers’ head coach, Mike D’Antoni, lacks.
That all-important “spiritual quest.”