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Ian Thomsen
April 10, 2006
Eyes off the Prize His Lakers won't win the championship, but Phil Jackson has reaped other rewards during his best season as a coach
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April 10, 2006

The Nba

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Eyes off the Prize
His Lakers won't win the championship, but Phil Jackson has reaped other rewards during his best season as a coach

Phil Jackson has always encouraged his players to evolve by embracing new challenges, but no Laker has been challenged more this season than the coach himself. After earning nine NBA titles, averaging 59 victories and achieving a league-record .725 winning percentage over 14 seasons, Jackson came out of retirement last June to experience something new and, surprisingly, refreshing. Through Sunday, Los Angeles was seventh in the West with a 40-35 record. "I've never had a team that I felt couldn't win a championship," says Jackson. "There could be a coach [who] could've taken this same team and maybe done better than I have, but I think the growth of the group is what I'm after, not winning."

Jackson's friends say that his year away from basketball, during which he traveled to Australia and New Zealand, gave him a new perspective on coaching which has helped reshape his often strained relationship with Kobe Bryant. He's allowed his star guard to fire at will: The league's top scorer at week's end with 34.8 points per game, Bryant was averaging an NBA-high 27.1 shots. "It's something I would have fought against if I was trying to win a championship," Jackson says. To critics who believe that Kobe's dominance is stunting the growth of his teammates, Jackson counters that the younger Lakers are learning from how well Bryant prepares and how hard he works to improve. "And now that everybody is closing in on Kobe in all parts of the game and there's nothing easy for him, [his teammates] have to step up and fill that next rung or role," says Jackson. "It's accelerated [our improvement]."

Only Bryant and backup forwards Devean George, Brian Cook and Luke Walton remain from Jackson's previous tenure in Los Angeles. The difference now, say the veterans, is that he holds longer practices and offers more individual instruction--evidence that their coach has evolved as a teacher. "He's a lot more hands-on now," says Bryant. "This is the best coaching job he's done."

With eight players who have two years of experience or less, Jackson also manages games much more tightly; he notes that he's probably already broken his personal record for calling timeouts--many of them coming in the third quarter, in which the Lakers have been frequently outscored. "I've bailed them out--I've been more protective of them," he says. "There are times when I've told them that if you keep having these third quarters, you may look up and [see that] I'm not there. Don't expect me to call timeout, because I may be in the locker room."

On pace for a 10-win improvement over last season, Jackson has answered the sniping of Red Auerbach and others who have accused him of riding the coattails of Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal. While Jackson admits that he's enjoyed nurturing this group, he refuses to address the future beyond 2007-08, the final season of his three-year, $30 million contract. The crucial factor in his decision will be which star free agent the Lakers can lure in the summer of 2008, when they will be way under the salary cap. To preserve that cap space, L.A. must be frugal for at least two more seasons. "We're not going to be able to shed this team and move on to another group of guys next year," says Jackson, who is banking on the continued development of Andrew Bynum and Kwame Brown by '08.

As difficult as this season has been for Jackson, for perspective he need only look to his former team, the Knicks, who courted him before hiring Larry Brown last summer. While Jackson's attempts at fostering long-term growth are succeeding in L.A., Brown's have exploded in his face. "I agree, but his veterans aren't as malleable as mine," says Jackson, referring to Bryant and forward Lamar Odom. "The [ New York veterans] aren't as willing to be part of making changes to get better."

He may not be in a position to win ring No. 10 anytime soon, but there's consolation in the alternative: He's not in New York.

Scout's Take
On Bulls center Tyson Chandler, who at week's end led the league in boards per 48 minutes (16.5), while averaging 1.40 blocks:

"He's established his niche as a less offensive-minded version of Marcus Camby. Not only is he an excellent rebounder, but also when he's in the game, their perimeter people are able to pressure the ball, knowing that he's protecting the basket behind them like a goalie. Earlier in his career he didn't seem to fit with the tough, physical style that [coach] Scott Skiles was looking for. But Chandler has developed that style because he knows that Skiles won't play him otherwise. Now the Bulls know that if they can add a scoring big man alongside Chandler this summer, they're going to take off."

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