(Illustration by Sean McCabe…)
The Lakers are entering the postseason for the 56th time in their history. Will it be their last with Phil Jackson?
Among the many story lines as the playoffs begin — Can Kobe Bryant win a fifth championship ring? Can the Lakers win their 16th title to move within one of the Boston Celtics — is whether Jackson will come back next season.
The Lakers' coach has dropped hints that he might be done, particularly if he can't get messages through to players or if the Lakers don't come close to repeating as champions. He knows the importance of the near future.
"Whatever brought me together with this team is kind of great fortune on my part and a great opportunity for me to coach great players," he said. "Here's Kobe getting an opportunity to get his fifth championship ring. This is a penultimate moment. And [ Derek] Fisher too. There's only a handful of players that can say that."
On top of the usual pressure to win a championship, Jackson, 64, is in the final year of a contract paying him $12 million this season.
Whether he returns will be up to him, though he won't decide until after the season.
He has won more championships, 10, than any other coach in NBA history. If the Lakers get to the NBA Finals, it will be the 13th time he has taken a team that far, tying him with NHL coaching legend Scotty Bowman for most trips to the finals in a major pro sport played in the U.S.
This time of the year eats at Jackson, despite his non-demonstrative demeanor on the bench and low-key approach at practices.
"My companions in life have told me often that I'm different over this six to eight weeks," Jackson said. "My sleep is disrupted. There's more anxiety over the game. It's hard. There's no downtime.
"Every play demands an energy response from players. This is what our preaching to these players is right now. Every play is a very inspirational moment."
Jackson typically lets his teams hunt and peck their way through the regular season, believing that the depth of learning will be stronger if players figure out solutions on their own.
That tends to change once the games really count.
"He's not going to take time to let you figure it out," forward Lamar Odom said.
Or, as Fisher said, "You can tell that he's aware of what time of the season it is."
Few people understand what Jackson endures as coach of the Lakers. It's one thing to be in charge of the Memphis Grizzlies or Indiana Pacers, where a successful playoff run is defined as simply getting there in the first place, but it's an entirely different entity to balance the weight of a fan base and an owner that expects a title run every season.
"You've got to mentally always stay on top of your game, particularly when you're in a situation like him where there's an exorbitant amount of expectation," said Minnesota Timberwolves Coach Kurt Rambis, who won four championships as a forward for the Lakers and another two as an assistant under Jackson. "Everybody expects to be back in the NBA Finals. Nothing short of that is acceptable. There's some pressure but there's also some sort of excitement about that too, something that ‘adrenalizes' you in that type of edge-cutting, competitive environment.
"There's some aspect of NBA ball that he doesn't like — travel being one — but he just loves the sport, he loves the competition, he loves the organizing of the team, the growth of the team, the maturity of the team, the development of the team throughout the season. It's something that kind of makes his engine go."
Will he be back? Nobody knows at this point, not even Jackson.
Times staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.