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Jackson's Laissez-Faire Policy May Yet Doom Lakers to Failure

April 21, 2001|J.A. ADANDE

If this odyssey of a Laker season somehow concludes in a championship, it will go down as the ultimate validation of Phil Jackson's coaching methods.

If it doesn't, if the Lakers come up short, then Jackson will be introduced to a completely new concept: failure.

Jackson's approach of letting the players themselves sort through their ego clashes, attention deficits and effort inconsistencies appeared to pay off when the Lakers put together an eight-game winning streak to close the season--playing their best at just the right time. They were even able to snatch the Pacific Division title.

But by allowing the team to careen through the season, Jackson conceded the best record and No. 1 seeding in the Western Conference playoffs to the San Antonio Spurs.

That means the Lakers must face Portland--the most dangerous seventh-seeded team since the current format was adopted in 1984--in the first round. Down the road, it could mean the Lakers would have to play the Spurs without home-court advantage.

Neither scenario is conducive to defending a championship. In fact, it's a path laden with danger.

Time to be afraid? "Fear of failure is something that is there, but I don't like to use fear as just a basic thing," he said. "There's always that internal personal fear of failure that drives people."

The thing is, Jackson hasn't experienced it as a head coach. Not really.

He won a championship after arriving in Los Angeles a season ago and won titles in six of his nine seasons as head coach of the Chicago Bulls.

The Bulls lost Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference finals at Detroit, to the defending NBA champion Pistons in the first year after Jackson took over for Doug Collins. No shame there.

The next season, the Bulls commenced their first three-peat.

After Michael Jordan retired on the eve of training camp in 1993, Jackson managed to guide the remaining Bulls to a 55-win season and pushed the New York Knicks to seven games in the conference semifinals, his best coaching job to date.

The Bulls lost to the Orlando Magic in the 1995 Eastern Conference finals, but that was when Jordan had only a 17-game warmup. When he came back full time, in top form the following season, nothing could stop the Bulls from another three-peat.

You can make the argument that it was simply a matter of having the best player in the history of the sport on his side, but there's something to be said for creating the right environment and system for the talent to flourish. That's what Jackson has done again and again. He hasn't failed.

"I have always thanked my lucky stars for that," he said. "But there is that time when you think that you may not measure up, you can't get your team ready."

Apparently that time was this season. He wondered aloud if he was the right coach for this team.

Here is Jackson's definition of good coaching: "When you see they listen to you and they change their habits to please what you're [after], that's when you register the fact that your coaching is making a dent."

By that standard, Jackson wasn't very effective for most of the season. Shaquille O'Neal didn't show up in shape. Kobe Bryant didn't stay within the offense. The Lakers didn't play defense to meet either Jackson's demands or the level of the 1999-2000 season. They didn't run the offense, and Bryant and O'Neal squabbled over the direction of the team like two kids fighting over the window seat in an airplane.

Jackson tried tripling the amounts of his slap-on-the-wrist fines, docking guys for everything from tardiness to leaving a man open on defense. He benched players for defensive lapses.

"I think this year he had to coach a little bit more," Horace Grant said.

But he never called for the big powwow, never gathered everyone and said, "This is how it's going to be."

"[Jackson] doesn't expect it always to be on him to motivate us or to get us going," Derek Fisher said. "We found out as a team with our late success that we can generate the positive energy and motivation that we need as a group, with or without a coach kind of poking or prodding."

That strategy didn't do anything to soothe nerves in and around the organization. But, at least temporarily, it appears to have paid off.

"The way I look at it, we had no choice but to come together," Bryant said. "We're a championship team. You go through some adversity, it's going to break you or make you."

Jackson thinks that by overcoming all of the turmoil this season, the Lakers should be able to overcome any challenge the playoffs may present--including opening a series on the road.

"I feel like they built up a reserve of ability to withstand duress," Jackson said.

Now they can draw on their experience from within.

He has always been willing to lose games because he feels he can teach more after a loss than after a victory.

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