The Three Phil Jackson Questions

 —  April 27, 2005

Update: Without getting into details, I spoke with a friend who has good contacts within the Laker organization and the word is the Lakers organization is very confident Phil will be the next coach. I made that call after reading the reliable Eric Pincus from Hoopsworld say in several message boards today that he is of the impression that a Jackson deal is close. Nothing is certain until papers are signed and Kobe and Phil talk, but this may be closer to reality than a dream.

The only way there could be more rumors swirling through the media about Phil Jackson is if he had something to do with Britney’s pregnancy.

He met with Jerry Buss, but not with Kobe Bryant. The Knicks think they have a shot, Cleveland hopes they have a shot. Some Laker fans think Phil is the team’s only shot and the respectable Eric Pincus said he could even be on board by Friday.

Before Jackson signs on the dotted line with the Lakers, three big hurdles have to be cleared, and I’m not sure all of them can be. None of this is new, but with all the hype I thought it should be restated. Here they are, in the order from least to biggest problem.

1) Phil wants to be paid about $10 million a year. This may be already decided — that’s a huge check for Buss to write, but if that well-publicized number were abhorrent to Buss I seriously doubt the conversation would have gotten this far.

There’s another way for Buss to look at this: Last year he was scheduled to pay Rudy T. about $6 million for the season, in Jackson’s last season with the Lakers he made about $6 million. NBA financial analysts say that every win earns a team about an additional $250,000 in revenue. By that math, if Jackson (and some new players) can bring the Lakers 16 more wins — turning the Lakers back into a 50-win team — the additional revenue would offset the increase in coaching salary. Not that getting to 50 wins would be doable, even for Jackson, but if you think he can do it the money is less of an issue.

2) Relationships need to be mended. When people talk about the fallout from “the book,” the assumption is we’re talking about Kobe. And that certainly needs to be dealt with. Has the last season been humbling enough for Kobe to work with Jackson again with an open mind? Is Jackson willing to put his past problems with Kobe aside and start fresh? The two men would need to have a clear-the-air talk, which may or may not be enough.

But it’s not just Kobe. I didn’t read Jackson’s book (and those that did may be able to speak better to this), but the impression is Mitch Kupchak does not come off well. Can he and Jackson work together again? Is Buss, who told Jackson the team needed to go in another direction, ready and willing to bring Phil back into the fold? There are a lot of relationships that need mending.

3) Does Jackson want to coach again? It’s one thing to be wanted, it’s another to want it yourself.

Jackson may enjoy the courting process right now, but does he have the fire back, the willingness to put in the hours needed prepare for the second night of a back-to-back in Toronto in February? Before the courting process started, friends of Jackson’s said it was 50/50 he would come back at all. Maybe the excitement of the playoffs starting and all the interest shown him has changed that percentage, but if his heart is not completely in it he needs to take a step back. Coaching in the NBA is an unbelievable grind, and if he is not physically and mentally up to it he is not going to do any team any good by taking the job just for the check.

That’s three big hurdles to get over. If they are cleared, Jackson might be back on the Laker bench next year and the team would be better for it. But we’re a long way from dreaming of next year’s playoffs now.