You’ve read it in a thousand other places (including right here, yesterday), but Phil Jackson is coming back to coach the Lakers for one last year in the 2010-11 season. I know many are waiting on the big name players to commit and sign on the dotted line, but in my mind there was no bigger decision looming than what Mr. Eleven Coaching Titles was going to do next season. And now that he’s made up his mind, it’s time to explore what this really means to the Lakers and to the rest of the league.
Obviously from the Lakers standpoint, this is just tremendous news. We know that Kobe and Fisher (and to a lesser extent, but still important way, Odom and Gasol) are the leaders of this team. But Phil Jackson is the leader. He’s the man that pushes all the right buttons. The one that empowers others to take leadership roles and guides the rest of the players towards those voices. The one that plants the seeds of success in practices, the film room, and timeouts. The man is simply the best and having him sitting in that high chair on the sidelines is a sight that inspires calm from his team and demands respect from the opposition.
But superlatives aside, Phil Jackson is what this particular team needs – even if it’s only for one more year. Understand that what the Lakers look to accomplish next season – a third consecutive championship – is damned hard. It’s only been achieved three times since the mighty Bill Russell led Celtics of the 50’s and 60’s had their last hurrah and each time it was accomplished by a Jackson led team. Phil is the only coach in the modern era to really know what it takes to complete this task and he’s the only one that I’d trust to actually pull it off (no disrespect intended to Brian Shaw or any other head coach in the league).
And really, what Phil will provide to this team is continuity and motivation to achieve. The continuity part is self explanatory. Jackson’s schemes – the Triangle on offense and the dogged man to man style on defesne – will remain in tact. His communication style and established relationships with the current players will provide a stability that will surely be needed considering the task at hand. There will be no disruptions in how practices/meetings are run; no differences in the points of emphasis that are communicated to the players. The messages and the style in which they’re delivered will remain the status quo and for a group that needs to stay on the path towards repeating for a 2nd consecutive season, this will be invaluable.
And from a motivation standpoint, there be none bigger than winning one last ring for the coach making his final stand. Going into this next season, every player will know that this will be the coach’s last season. Every player’s focus will be on getting Phil that last championship that he can ride into the sunset with. The want to send out the league’s greatest winner on one last winning note will be strong and will (hopefully) motivate every player on the roster to give their best effort in order to achieve this for the coach that they all lobbied to return. There is no better way to show appreciation towards one of the best coaches ever than by giving him the swan song that he deserves. So, besides the standard motivation that will come from trying to win a championship, I do expect this group of Lakers to give Phil their all.
But now that Phil has committed, who will be the players that he’s directing? In his initial statement to the press, he stated that it’s now time to build a roster that can properly compete. And the Lakers still do have holes to fill. They’ve yet to make a free agent signing but they have been linked to several players already. So, in an effort to gauge what this team will look like come the start of next seasaon, I thought I’d look at a few of the names out there and explore their fit on this particular team:
*Derek Fisher: We’ll start with easiest name. In my mind, Fisher is a must to return. His leadership, knowledge of the Lakers’ systems, and dogged comptetiveness makes his signing the first priority for this team. I do think his minutes will be reduced next season as the Lakers find a suitable player (either internally or on the open market) that will run the offense with discipline and work hard on defense (something that Farmar couldn’t always do). But, in order for the Lakers to have the type of veteran presence and institutional knowledge that they’ll need on their journey, Fisher is a must to return. Hopefully a deal to bring back the Lakers’ captain happens soon. So that the Lakers can turn their full attention to…
*Mike Miller: I’ve stated that acquiring Miller is a pipe dream. But he’s been the name that has been strongly thrown out as a Lakers’ target and that can’t be ignored. As Reed mentioned to me in an email, “Miller is the prototypical non-superstar wing player for this offense” as his shooting, ball handling, and basketball IQ are all above average. Defensively, he’s an above average rebounder (led the league in defensive rebound rate as a SG among players that played 10+ min/g and had a rate in line with Lebron if classified as a SF) and at least tries at the defensive end. As a SF, his PER against is 15.7 (which isn’t bad, but is 16.9 as a SG) and he has the length to bother shooters and would surely benefit from playing with other elite defensive players that the Lakers could surround him with. In the end, there are much more positives associated with Miller the player than negatives and he would be an outstanding get for the Lakers. However, the cost of acquiring his services that are being floated by some media outlets – $30mil/5yrs is high in both total dollars and years commitment. In the end, I could rationalize a deal like that, but it could potentially be a tough deal for the Lakers to take on both because of the luxury tax implicactions and his status as a 10 year veteran in this league. Believe me, I’m hopeful the Lakers can land Miller but I’m not holding my breath nor am I getting to committed to the idea of it actually happening.
*Anthony Morrow: This is another player that has reportedly been contacted by the Lakers. Like Miller, Morrow’s shooting and versatile game would be a welcomed addition to the Lakers. What hurts Morrow’s chances of joining the Lakers is his status as a restricted free agent. The Warriors have a chance to match any deal that Morrow signs and would have a week to make up their mind about whether or not to do so. So, while Morrow would be a good fit, there are a few hurdles to overcome if you hope to see him wearing a Lakers jersey next season. For those that have put their eggs in the Morrow basket, you may want to adjust your hopes.
*Steve Blake: Blake is the name that’s been on the Lakers radar for months and is the fall back name for those that want to fill a need, but do so with a player that doesn’t have a lot of cachet. Blake would be a great fit, splitting time with Fisher at PG and would provide that steady hand that the Lakers need from whatever PG is on the floor for them. However, Blakes services will be in demand amongst many teams whose needs match the Lakers. Orlando and Miami are two teams that come to mind immediately that could use a guard like Blake to help them in their pursuit of contending next season. So, while Blake has seemed like a fall back plan and a guy that would surely be available I say not so fast. Nothing is assured with this guy, but he is a player that I’d like to have as I think he’d be a real help to his roster with his ability to shoot, lead the second (and sometimes first) unit, and provide that veteran presence that the Lakers have been lacking in their reserve back court.
*Raja Bell: Bell is a player that the Lakers seemed hot after in the days leading up to free agency, but whose name has now dipped below the ones above his in this piece. Bell’s “3 and D” game would be a welcome fit in the Lakers lineup, but going above a minimum salary offer is unlikely. And if it’s a minimum offer from the Lakers or one from the Heat (Bell is from Floriday and played his college ball there), I’d have to think Miami would have the upper hand.
*Tracy McGrady: Ahh, the sexiest name of them all. If there’s one player that many fans would love to see on the Lakers, it seems like it’s T-Mac. Let’s just say I’m not as enthused. Yes the upside and potential for a huge impact is there with McGrady. Supporters see the all around offensive game, the size, and the pedigree and want him to run with LO on the second unit and envision dominant stretches from the LA bench. Detractors see a player that is habitually injured, as streak shooter, a suspect “role” player, and someone that has never been known to play defense. What the Lakers could actually expect from T-Mac is the biggest unknown from the group of players that’s been listted to this point. And frankly, I’d rather have any of them before McGrady (with it being a close call between T-Mac and Bell).
*UPDATED, Dorell Wright: Wright is a sleeper candidate to be picked up by the Lakers this off-season. He’s likely to be a cheap alternative to some of the other names mentioned (specifically Miller and Blake) and has an intriguing skill set that would blend nicely with the Lakers. And while his name is not frequently mentioned as a target of the Lakers by folks in the media, Wright is a favorite amongst some fans due to his skill set and potential. Wright is a multi-dimensional player that has improved his shooting (39% from 3pt range, 88% FT’s) and ball handling during his time in the league. He’s also a very good athlete that possesses good size and excellent length and could be used as a defensive stopper on both the wing and on PG’s (a recurring problem for the Lakers over the years). At best, Wright is a slicker shooting version of Ariza (and recent draft pick Ebanks) with a better natural shot and ball handling skills. At worst, he’s an immature player that hasn’t shown to rise to the moment and could end up being let go by a team that is looking for reasonably priced young talent like he supposedly is. If Wright could be had for a minimum contract, he’d definitely be worth the gamble as a prospect with upside and could potentially be groomed to play multiple positions on offense while guarding diverse players on defense. He’d also give the Lakers an infusion of youth (24 years old) while still being a veteran player (6 seasons of experience). If the Lakers strike out with Miller and/or Blake, I would not mind if the Lakers took a flyer on Wright to be a multi-purpose back up that could be groomed by veteran players like Kobe, Fisher, Odom, and Artest to play a role in seasons to come.
*Big Men: There really aren’t that many bigs to choose from and it’s looking more likely that the Lakers may keep one of their own free agents here. Powell and Mbenga have a familiarity that could be a welcome sight after many of the other teams make their pitches to the available bigs. That said, Kurt Thomas, Anthony Tolliver, Craig Smith, and Joe Smith are all names that seem like good fits and are all still available. It really just depends on what the Lakers want from a reserve big. Last season, Mbenga and Powell barely played and surely would have liked more court time (though, being the professionals that they are, they never made waves or openly stated they were unhappy). So, would Tolliver be happy in that role? Would Craig Smith? I have my doubts. If the Lakers are going to pick up a big from the outside, it’s looking more likely that it will be a veteran player that’s a bit long in the tooth, but one that is a “pro’s-pro” and would be ready to play when his number is called and wouldn’t say a peep when his number wasn’t. Honestly, if Kurt Thomas filled that role for the Lakers next season, things could be a lot worse.
In the end, there will be a new journey next season and their are good odds that one (or more) of the above names will join the Lakers in their pursuit of a ring in Phil’s final stand. If I had to make a guess, I’d say that Miller is the primary target and Blake is the most likely addition. But, that’s just my guess. What’s yours?