Why Phil?

 —  May 9, 2005

Everybody wants him, although the Lakers appear the frontrunner. He’s got nine rings and the respect of some of the great players of the game. He’s got an aura.

But what is it that got Phil Jackson all this? What does he give his teams on the court that has brought him this success? More importantly, what can we expect him to bring the Lakers (or maybe the Knicks) if he gets signed?

While much of the attention focuses on the triangle offense, what he brings first and foremost is defense. The year before Jackson arrived in Los Angeles, the 1998-99 season, the Lakers were 24th in the league in defensive efficiency, giving up 101.1 points per 100 possessions. In Jackson’s first year that fell to 95.6, the best rate in the league. They continued to have a top-flight defense throughout Jackson’s tenure (although the championship 2000-01 season is not good as a whole, in part due to injuries, for the last 10 games of the season and the playoffs the Lakers were the best team in the league again).

At the same time, the take-what-the-defense-gives-you triangle offense was put in place in Los Angeles. In the 98-99 season, the Lakers averaged 104.6 points per 100 possessions, the next season in the triangle they averaged 104.6. Defense won that first title (with a helpful fourth-quarter collapse by Portland). The triangle offense takes time to learn properly, offensive architect Tex Winter always said — in 2000-01 the Lakers averaged 106.3 points per 100 (second in the league) and in 01-02 it was 107.1 (again second, this time to Dallas).

Jackson’s defensive turnaround was not just in Los Angeles trend. The year before Jackson took over the Bulls franchise they were 19th in the league in defensive efficiency, the next year they were sixth and won Jackson his first ring as a coach.

Last season, the Lakers were 29th in the league in defensive efficiency with a horrifying 108 (points per 100). If Jackson could have the same impact as last time on the Laker defense, they would give up 102.5 points per 100, which would be 13th in the league — not great but a huge improvement. There would also be some optimism for the offense because guys like Odom, Bulter, Mihm and whoever else remains on the roster will have run the triangle for a while and already be on the learning curve. Remember, in early season interviews Tex Winter said he thought the current Laker roster was better suited to run the triangle than the old one (but the old one had more talent).

Phil Jackson’s arrival in Los Angeles, if it happens, will not mean instant title contention — but it should mean instant defensive improvement, and with that some hope for the playoffs and the future.