Phil: ‘I have trouble making commitments.’
Considering how badly his night went, it’s worth remembering why
Phil Jackson woke up to find himself the most sought-after free
agent in the NBA.
One report Tuesday morning quoted two anonymous sources saying
the Chicago Bulls were going through back channels to find out
whether Jackson was interested in leaving Los Angeles and returning
to the town where he won six NBA championships. A second report had
the New Jersey Nets doing the same.
Never mind that the people pushing the latest rumors have been
waiting a week for the Brinks truck dispatched by Cleveland
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert to pull up to the curb outside
No matter what you hear, nothing is likely to happen until July
1, at least not officially, because that’s when the NBA’s
free-agent signing period begins. The only way Jackson seriously
considers leaving LA is if LeBron James is already under contract
and waiting at his new destination. And that’s if the 64-year-old
coach with the most championships in league history doesn’t make
good on a vague threat to retire first.
Jackson predictably laughed off the latest rumors during a brief
session with reporters before Game 4 against the Suns in Phoenix.
He said he had “no desire at all” to retrace his footsteps in
And that the extent of his interest in New Jersey was to throw
down a vodka with the Nets’ new billionaire owner, Mikhail
Prokhorov, that rare Russian who claims to never have even tasted
The line that got the best laugh of the night came when Jackson
was pressed to commit to the Lakers or no team next season.
“I have trouble making commitments,” he said, which some in
the room took as a mischievous reference to his long-running
relationship with Lakers executive Jeannie Buss, who also happens
to be owner Jerry Buss’ daughter.
No matter, the repartee wasn’t nearly that funny after the Suns
pulled away for a 115-106 win that evened the series at 2-2. Just
as in Game 3, Phoenix played a 2-3 zone defense that effectively
forced the Lakers to score from the perimeter, something they
rarely do well.
Yet Jackson breezily pointed out that Los Angeles still had the
edge in field goals made and instead put the loss down to the
disparity in free throws – the Suns made 22 of 32; the Lakers 7 of
13 – saying, “They beat us at the foul line both nights, and
that’s the difference in the margin of the game.”
His actions during the game, however, spoke louder than what he
said afterward. Jackson was uncharacteristically agitated for
stretches of the second half, even getting in Andrew Bynum’s face
during a third-quarter timeout on the heels of a poor defensive
And Lakers star Kobe Bryant was withering about those same
defensive lapses. The first time he was asked about his teammates’
failure to get him the ball in scoring positions, he cut off the
The next time he was asked a version of the same question, he
“That’s not what wins championships. Everybody wants to talk
about the offensive side of the ball. That has nothing to do with
it,” Bryant said. “We’ve got to defend.”
About the only thing Jackson said on the topic was, “I thought
we were standing around watching.”
Based on the admittedly slim evidence available Tuesday night,
you might wonder why the Lakers are paying Jackson $12 million a
year, let alone why suitors are lining up in a handful of other NBA
towns to up the ante if they happen to win the LeBron
Here’s why: Bryant, just like Michael Jordan, the other
transcendent star that Jackson coached, long ago bought into the
idea that he wasn’t going to win championships by himself. So much
so that his harping about defensive lapses after the game could
have been written by Jackson himself – except that he seemed much
more upset by the problem than his coach did.
Jackson understands he can’t make Bryant – or Jordan or James –
a better player. No coach is going to do that. But Jackson also
knows the only way to make the players around him better is for
Bryant to be as invested in their progress as he is, especially on
Most coaches boast they treat every player the same, but Jackson
doesn’t even pretend. Jackson knows a fragile ego when he sees one.
Bynum finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, an improvement
from his two-point, two-rebound effort in Game 3. Like the rest of
the Lakers’ contributions, though, it was not nearly enough to
salvage another brilliant, 38-point, 10-assist effort from
“I was heartened by his play tonight,” Jackson said about
What Jackson really meant is that he expected a lot more from
Bynum, and just about everybody else up and down the roster, when
the series shifts back to Los Angeles. How much he gets could go a
long way in determining whether – let alone where he winds up
watching games from next season.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated
Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org