The story of how the Lakers lost their way, lost their chance at a place in history, is ultimately a story of how two of the great winners in the NBA lost their ability to control the team.
It’s why Phil Jackson was swept out of the playoffs for the first time instead of adding to his collection of 11 coaching championship rings. It’s why Kobe Bryant, the Most Valuable Player of the past two NBA Finals, couldn’t lead his team back to the championship round. It’s why the unusually early playoff exit and start of retirement couldn’t come fast enough for Jackson, who admitted it felt “really good to be ending this season, to be honest with you.”
“This team just had an ability to get in a funk and not be able to heal and surge, to find that common thread to come back and turn things around,” Jackson said Wednesday in his final address to the media as coach of the Lakers. “And I never really had a team like that, that couldn’t make adjustments and learn from mistakes.”
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For a variety of reasons, Jackson no longer elicited championship-caliber performances from his players. He has always taken a big-picture approach to defending championships, choosing to de-emphasize the regular season while maintaining the playoffs as the primary focus. He doesn’t mind slipups, but these Lakers went through extended skids. On the eve of the playoffs, Jackson conceded that his “lame duck” status could make it harder for his players to respond to him. Something had to explain the way they didn’t reflect his trademark poise … why he even lost it himself in a desperate attempt to salvage Game 3 against Dallas.
Now that it was over, after a humiliating 4-0 series loss to the Mavericks in the second round, the Lakers could afford to be more candid when assessing the fatigue that set in from playing 67 postseason games over the course of making three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, in addition to summer stints of international ball for Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. It sapped the team of its stamina. That was one common theme to emerge from two days of media availablity for Jackson, general manager Mitch Kupchak and the players following their exit interviews.
To a man, the players insisted they could get back to the Finals next year with the roster intact, while Jackson said they need an infusion of speed and Kupchak kept his options open. Players also spoke in favor of assistant Brian Shaw’s succeeding Jackson as coach, although that’s something that could be beyond the powers of anyone who came inside the stuffy, crowded room in the Lakers’ practice facility and spoke into the microphones and recorders. Executive vice president Jim Buss, the son of team owner Jerry Buss, will be the point man on the coaching search, and with Jackson revealing he hasn’t spoken to Buss all season, the coach apparently won’t have any influence on the matter. Kupchak will, but it’s worth noting that the last time the Lakers hired a coach other than Jackson, Rudy Tomjanovich in 2004, it was Jim Buss’ call.
Jerry Buss always prefers up-tempo teams, and Jackson said next season’s team needs to be faster to get easy baskets, but the roster as constituted isn’t set for that. None of the top three players — Bryant, Gasol and Bynum — would benefit from running. The Lakers are in no rush to hire a coach, not when it could be many months before there are actually games to play due to the pending lockout.