Phil Jackson's legend was built on, in debatable proportions, his coaching and his career decisions. The man might be the best motivator in all the world, but he also knew enough to take over teams with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant in their primes. To avoid diluting that legacy, Jackson adds another talent: the ability to get out when the getting's good. Even before the Lakers were swept out of the playoffs last year, he announced it would be his last season. So while LA was being outrun, outclassed, and outhustled by OKC, the new dominant power in the West, Phil was sitting in his lakehouse in Montana, smoking Peyote and reading Castaneda. That's a power move.
But to hear Phil Jackson tell it today, he left because of some pretty serious philosophical differences with Jim Buss, the Lakers' personnel guru. In his first lengthy interview since packing up for Big Sky Country, Jackson tells Real Sports that he and Buss had very different ideas on how to best utilize Andrew Bynum:
"Jim saw Andrew as a kid and thought Bynum was going to be a great pick for our team. But in the process he's wanted to have Andrew to have a bigger and bigger role, and I think he's hired his coach to have Andrew have a bigger and bigger role. And that kind of disjointed the symmetry of what the Lakers were really about.
"Andrew is an All-Star Center, he did a wonderful job. But what happened was it took Pau out of his game and it took the team away from some of their game. They changed the style dramatically."
Perhaps that wouldn't have been a problem if the Lakers had moved Gasol, as they totally thought they had in a Chris Paul three-way. Or if Orlando would recognize a lost cause and move Dwight Howard for Bynum. (As in love with Bynum as Jim Buss seems to be, even he would be hard-pressed to argue Dwight isn't an upgrade.) Regardless of moves made and not made, this isn't Phil Jackson's team anymore, and it was slipping away from him for a few years, in part due to Jim Buss's emphasis on a new way to evaluate.
"He's got some ideas about how the game should progress, how talent should be picked up."
Interviewer: "Are they the right ideas?"
"They're his. He's a guy that believes a lot in statistics and in numbers and in stuff like that. I'm a guy that believes in what the product is and I see and can touch, and feel, and watch run up and down the court."
That's minor stuff in the end, the old guy complaining about the newfangled statistics. Jackson, despite his holistic approach to a basketball team, is seeing and identifying and benefiting from the same stuff that shows up on Jim Buss's spreadsheets, even if he can't quantify it or put a metric to it.
There's one number Phil Jackson does get, though, and it's age. Kobe Bryant is 33. That's old-old, not just the "four extra years of NBA wear on his knees" old that we've been playing up the past few seasons. (Derek Fisher was drafted the same year as Kobe.) He's the same age as guys like Mike Bibby, Vince Carter, Rip Hamilton, Baron Davis, Shawn Marion—guys we consider washed up. It's not just a matter of a strange German knee procedure, and slashing beast mode Kobe will be back. That window's closed, and with it, the Lakers'. Unless you think Bynum can be the best player on another mini-dynasty.
Phil Jackson doesn't, and that's why he left, reputation intact. Phil's getting old too—there may not be time for another young phenom to come along, and for Phil to ride him to a few rings over a decade. (Carmelo Anthony decidedly does not count.) Maybe this is it for big Phil, who's made a career on choosing the right opportunities. Or maybe not—in the HBO interview, Jackson has kind words for Pat Riley and a franchise he's running down south.