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Weekly Countdown: NBA's leading coach still finds work to be done

The winningest modern-day coach could be on his way to an 11th championship, which would put Jackson two titles ahead of Red Auerbach and leave him with a half-dozen more than anyone else who has coached in the NBA.

Will he coach the Lakers beyond this season? I didn't ask Jackson this question during our conversation in Los Angeles last weekend. He raised the issue himself, without quite answering it. Jackson, 64, is in the final season of a two-year extension paying him $12 million annually, a record salary for an NBA coach. He acknowledges that money will influence his decision, which is not to say that money alone will hold sway.

"When this extension came along, there was no doubt about taking it at that point," he said of his current deal. "I've had a couple of situations in my own life that have changed -- my separation from a wife that raised a family for 25 years, and that was a financially devastating situation. I had a couple of financial situations that came about that changed my life in the last 10 years, as everybody has. Everybody has taken a loss [in the stock markets]."

At the same time, Jackson said he feels a need to continue working, to reclaim vitality in his approach to work. "Working is still something I think I would do if I were a firefighter and I had a retirement," he said. "I'd still probably go out and have another job because I think you have to work. I really believe that now, and watching Tex Winter and Johnny Bach and Bill Bertka -- guys I've worked with who have been senior members of my coaching staff -- they've continued in basketball. I don't know if I'll continue in basketball or not. I probably will, there's a good chance.

"But there's still work to be done: Pete Newell," he said, referring to another coach who continued his career in basketball long after the normal age of retirement. "All of these people who were senior people I looked up to in this business."

On managing talent. It's a small price to pay in exchange for so much success, but one lingering insinuation that is routinely attached to Jackson's run of 10 championships in 18 full years of NBA coaching is that his titles have essentially been dividends of his involvement with the league's dominant performer, whether it was Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal or now KobeBryant.

"You're always going to have someone who questions why or how he got to this point [and claims] that he had the best players," Trail Blazers coach NateMcMillan said. "But it doesn't just happen. You've got to manage those egos, and that is probably as hard as anything in this league, whether they are superstars or role players. That is big time, and those types of players are so dominating that just anybody couldn't coach them. They are bigger than the team and the game. And Phil has been able to be as big as them. When you say Kobe and you say Phil, it's like ..."

They are equals.

"Yes."

In this era of young, entitled players who enter the NBA with one year or less of college experience -- let's call it the Kobe Bryant era -- most franchises have struggled to find a coach who can relate to these unfinished talents. But here's the interesting dynamic: There are currently six NBA coaches who are 60 or older, and they are Gregg Popovich, Rick Adelman, Jackson, Jerry Sloan, Don Nelson and Larry Brown. The only one among them who appears to be having trouble relating to his players is Nelson, who has a young, struggling roster at Golden State. You might think that older men would have trouble dealing with players generated by this AAU era, but the fact is that these long-standing names remain among the most effective coaches in the league while commanding respect and maintaining authority over their teams.

Jackson's most ironic legacy has been his understated approach. Coaches who tend to lose their temper -- Stan Van Gundy, for example -- constantly face claims that they may be turning off players and losing the locker room. In effect, they are being compared with Jackson, who rather quietly has established the high standard of NBA conduct by maintaining a subdued tone with his players. The lessons drawn from Jackson's success have further reduced the prospects for a high-strung, rant-and-rave college coach to vault up to the NBA.

Jackson's approach is based on a respect for the players, as well as an understanding that they can be influenced to pursue team goals.

"You can't fool these guys," Jackson said. "In basketball, for sure, they've been pursued since they were 12, 11, 13 years of age usually. They've seen all kinds of 'yes' people, back-slappers. So they're pretty savvy ... even though they're athletes, and athletes by and large still have some naïveté, because they are taken advantage of without a doubt by certain agents or plans or schemes.

"But I think they are savvy to character, and I think that's what wins the day with them. It wins the day as far as the leadership that they have, and I think our team leadership is really good.

"Red Holzman used to say, 'There's always the middle path,' " he said of his former coach when Jackson was a player for the Knicks. "He was the first Buddhist I knew. It was always about that -- don't do anything in excess, do it in moderation. And don't get too high over a win, don't get too low over a loss."

On why he came back. As Bryant's partnership with Shaq was breaking up, Jackson stepped away from the Lakers for a season and watched them miss the 2004-05 playoffs under coaches Rudy Tomjanovich (who went 24-19) and his interim replacement, Frank Hamblen (10-29). Jackson returned the following season to take on the entirely new challenge of rebuilding with a young team. One reason he accepted the job -- apart from his $10 million salary -- was to claim a larger role over personnel.

"When I came back they said, 'You can help make all of those decisions,' " Jackson said. "Given that accord, I said fine, I can do this. The biggest thing was signing off on [the decision to spend a No. 10 pick for center] Andrew Bynum, a 17-year-old kid with very little experience as a player coming out of high school, when you're looking at the future of four years of coaching him or whatever.

"But all of these opportunities we talked about -- [acquiring] Pau Gasol the first year, we talked about Ron Artest the first year I came back, and all of these players that we have now. We talked about getting Derek Fisher back on our roster, because we knew that there were opportunities that might happen. And all of these opportunities have come to fruition, which is amazing when you think about it, that if you scheme or you dream, they come to reality."

When Bryant asked to be traded in 2007 because he was frustrated by the Lakers' failure to build a contending team around him, Jackson said he took up Bryant's side of the argument, which, in turn, helped result in the blockbuster acquisition of Gasol in February 2008 that immediately recast the Lakers as NBA finalists and eventual champions.

"The issue of Kobe Bryant, when there were rumors and insinuations that he wanted to be traded -- we sat for hours and worked out this situation, which brought this into what it is today," Jackson said. "It was painful. Even though Kobe and I had to end up on the other side of the coin in this deal, in which management and player and coach all kind of seemed to be on opposite sides, sometimes the coach has to have one side to support the player. I think that was really the strength that brought this [new championship era] into fruition."

Who is the greatest NBA coach? The argument of whether this honor belongs to Jackson or Auerbach is a non-starter. In fact, each presided over his own sharply defined era. Auerbach dominated in an age when players had little or no say over where they played and for how much money; the secret of Auerbach's transcendental success was that he treated his players with respect -- not as indentured servants but rather as free men. He did not lord his power over them.

Now that players are able to leverage the threat of free agency to negotiate enormous guaranteed salaries and scheme to have coaches fired if they so please, Jackson's long-standing reply as coach has been to offer his players freedom of choice. The triangle offense is not based on running the play as dictated by the coach. Instead it puts players in position to make their own decisions, with Jackson counseling them to ultimately do what is best for the team. He doesn't pretend that he can force them to do anything they don't choose to do for themselves. And so Michael and Shaq and Kobe each become his partner in a shared mission to win championships.

"That's an empowering place for the player to be in, once you finally understand as a player of his that he really is trusting you with this multitude of decisions out there on the court -- and now just go do it," Fisher said. "It's a great approach because we never feel like this is a job or we're obligated to do what we do for this team. Even though it is our job, and we get paid very well for it, he puts together an environment where we are allowed to make the choice to be successful, and it has worked."

If it is fair to note that Jackson has profited from his relationships with the league's best players, then it also is fair to ask whether Jordan, O'Neal and Bryant would be so respected if they had never played for Jackson. None of those players had won a championship before he came into their lives. Think of how Bryant was perceived following the 34-win season of 2004-05 -- as a pariah, a selfish scorer who couldn't relate to teammates while running Shaq out of town. Four short years later, Bryant is now viewed as a peer of Jordan's, a team leader within reach of equaling or surpassing Jordan's six championships. Whether or not you care for Bryant personally, you have to admit that his upside-down transformation has been almost miraculous.

On staying fresh. The mystique of Jackson, sitting on his high sideline chair to soothe his bad back, two long decades since his debut with the Bulls, is that he remains intrinsically young. He doesn't give off the vibe of a tired old man. He remains intuitive and fresh by working to keep the job simple.

"My concern is with my team," he said. "I watch the tapes of my games, and I let my assistant coaches watch the game tape of other teams. And then I try to understand the strengths and weaknesses, and how we can hide the weaknesses and embellish the strengths of our team. And I stay in tune with my players to that.

"I had to let go of the fact that I couldn't watch everything. At one time I did it in Chicago. I still was trying to work 12 hours a day to watch game tape and watch our own tape. And it gets overwhelming. You do that in the playoffs regardless, but in the regular season, you have to say, 'This is what we can do, and this is what we have to do well.' "

He knows when and how to focus the players' attention. Last Sunday morning, I waited at the Lakers' practice facility as Jackson walked them through their longest pregame shootaround of the year. That night they were playing the Mavericks, the current No. 2 seed in the West who, in October, embarrassed the Lakers with a 94-80 win in Los Angeles. More recently, the Lakers had been playing porous defense in the absence of Artest, but that night they held Dallas to 37.8 percent shooting in a 131-96 rout.

I asked Jackson how he has been able to keep renewing the joy in his work after all of these years. "Going through the first two years of coaching, coming back with this team taught me a lot about that aspect of it," he said of 2005-07, when his young Lakers went 87-77 with a pair of first-round losses in the playoffs. "How to nurture a team through a very difficult time and still come out and be competitive and get to the playoffs and all of that stuff, and know that this is not a championship-caliber team and that I can't demand the same competency from this group of guys that I did from the others."

The trick is to separate the money from the mission of creating a team that pursues goals that are larger than any one man can accomplish by himself. Which, again, is not to pretend that the money doesn't exist. Rather, its influence has a parallel existence all its own.

"Recently a reporter made mention of that," Jackson said of his salary. "I said I may not come back next year; I mean, they may not want to pay a coach to do what I'm doing, and with the NBA and other sports all feeling the pinch from this economy and television and things that all are shrinking, they may have to shrink the coach's salary. And I understand that, and that's why this is a process. But one reporter asked, 'Would you take a pay cut?' And I said back to him, 'Would you?'

"That kind of came off wrong -- it was one of my journalist friends, you know -- not really realizing that newspapers have been hit almost harder than anything else in our society right now. They have taken pay cuts. And we all are going to take a pay cut in the NBA as it goes on."

As with all aspects of Jackson's career, the conversation funnels its way back to the Jordan era, when the money poured in and the growth of the NBA seemed without end.

"The funny thing is that Tex Winter's wife, Nancy Winter, who is a very funny character, used to say, 'Be careful with the goose that laid the golden egg,' which she called Michael Jordan," Jackson said. "You know that the goose may be over at some point in time. We still have a tremendous market and a tremendous appeal. But I do think everything has been shrunken down."

On to the rest of the Countdown ...

With the Gilbert Arenas suspension, what do you think of Delonte West getting off relatively lightly for driving around on a motorcycle armed to the teeth like Rambo? I know Arenas' actions after the gun issue just made things worse for him, and West's mental-health issues earned him sympathy, but don't you think the anti-gun NBA isn't acting in an even-handed manner with these two guys?-- Steve Cohl, British Columbia, Canada

The league has been waiting for a legal resolution of West's motorcycle incident. Next month, he will be tried on eight misdemeanor charges in Maryland after being arrested in September while carrying two loaded handguns and a loaded shotgun in a guitar case. If West is found guilty, he will surely be suspended.

Arenas was suspended indefinitely on Wednesday because he literally brought his controversy into the arena by pretending to shoot teammates during a pregame huddle. Had Arenas behaved wisely and not drawn attention to his predicament -- instead of making light of it -- he might not have faced a suspension until the legal investigation was complete. West has given no interviews since his arrest, has not tweeted about it and has not pretended to shoot his teammates.

Do you think the Arenas suspension sets a new precedent for gun-related incidents? For example, how can the University of Tennessee allow the four players, including Tyler Smith, who were arrested for illegal gun possession (including a gun with an altered serial number) to take the court again this season? I will be interested to see if the media pay Arenas-style scrutiny to the Tennessee basketball program's response to its own gun incident.-- Michael, Fort Worth, Texas

Every league or organization is going to apply its own standards to these incidents. The punishment issued by Stern may be different from that of the University of Tennessee, the SEC or the NCAA. Stern is running a business, and he is going to do what he believes is in the best interest of that business. We can talk about morals and fairness, and while those issues surely will play a role in any decision on Arenas and Javaris Crittenton, the main consideration is always going to come down to whatever Stern believes is best for the business. That's why Arenas was suspended now rather than later; his behavior had made him bad for the business.

Yes, the Lakers are 28-7, but this is partially because of their favorable schedule. Their greatest weaknesses so far seem to be their defense against quick point guards and their bench. Why not start Shannon Brown, who is bigger, quicker and more athletic than Derek Fisher -- a move that will improve their defense against quicker guards and strengthen their bench with veteran leadership? This will reduce Fisher's minutes so he can be fresh for the playoffs and also help develop Brown into Fisher's eventual replacement. What's your take?-- Jackson, Korea

Maybe circumstances will change as the year progresses, but I have a feeling Brown would get lost in that starting lineup among so many strong personalities. He is helpful to them in a limited role, but it isn't fair to expect him to take on big minutes for a championship contender. Fisher is being limited to 26.8 minutes per game, which should keep him fresh enough for the playoffs.

The Lakers are No. 2 in field-goal defense (43.4 percent) without having maxed out at that end of the floor. They've played a lot of home games, which will make their schedule more difficult over the months ahead, but for them to be playing this level of defense with Gasol and Artest in and out of the lineup is a frightening sign for the rest of the league. The Lakers don't need to change their lineup; all they need is a restoration of health for Gasol. The extended run of games on the road should galvanize and toughen them. They clearly are the team to beat.

Isn't the best option for the Knicks Carmelo Anthony in 2011? I don't think they have a shot at any of the big guns this year, but Anthony seems like a perfect fit. The Nuggets will be an older team. Melo is an East Coast guy. And most importantly, I think he has a big enough chip on his shoulder to try to take the challenge of resurrecting the Knicks. This will give him the opportunity to establish himself as one of the five best players in the league, and give the Knicks their best scorer since Bernard King.-- J.T., Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

That's a good question. The Knicks are viewing free agency as a two-year project, with cap space to spend both this summer and 2011 when Anthony can exercise his option to become a free agent. If the Knicks fail to land a big name this summer, look for them to pursue solid moves to improve the team while leaving enough space to acquire Anthony or another star the following year. This is not going to be an all-or-nothing summer for them.

Brandon Roy on whether he is playing the best basketball of his life. The All-Star guard owns a franchise-record of 15 straight games scoring 23 points or more. "I guess so," Roy said early this week during a trip to Los Angeles after leading the heavily injured Blazers to seven wins in nine games. "My second year [2007-08], I had a really good month in December, but right now, due to the circumstances, I think it is probably the best I have played. I can see myself growing so much through this experience. And for me, it's not about making every shot; it's the experiences ... and trying to lead by example. Just trying to keep our fingers crossed that nobody else gets hurt."

As he sat at his locker before the game, Roy was spooning out a fine powder into a water bottle. "This is some of my energy stuff," he said. He looked into the bottle to find it empty of powder. "See? I'm out," he said, raising the bottle as he laughed. "I'm out, man."

The depleted Blazers lost that night at the Clippers, as well as the following night at home to Memphis.

An Eastern Conference scout on the diminishing importance of the draft. "In the early '90s, the draft was starting to go down in value because, even then, so many guys were coming out early and watering it down. I remember saying to my GM at the end of the '90s that we need a guy who goes out and does nothing but scouts NBA personnel. We spend all of this money scouting all of these college guys who can't play dead, but we don't spend money on one scout to go out and study free agents or players we might trade for? Now, you see, most teams have gone that route. Believe me, I used to believe you build your foundation through the draft, but the draft isn't good enough anymore and it's such a slow process waiting for these players to learn how to play -- unless you're terrible and you wind up getting a good player at No. 1 or 2."

Clippers assistant John Lucas on his friendly rivalry with head coach Mike Dunleavy. In 1987-88, Lucas was approaching the end of his career with Milwaukee, where Dunleavy was beginning his coaching career as an assistant for the Bucks. Every game day, they would have a shooting contest. "He beat me every time," Lucas said. "Can you imagine getting beat 82 nights in a row? We would shoot from spots, 10 shots from each spot. I would hit nine shots, he'd hit 10. I'd be right there to win, and then at the end I would just choke. Eighty-two times."

At the end of the season, they agreed to play a tennis match. Lucas was a former All-America in tennis at Maryland, and he would play World Team Tennis professionally. "I treated that match as if it was the U.S. Open," Lucas said. "Mike will tell you, 'I played the best tennis I've played in my life.' And he didn't come close to winning a game. I was treating it as if I was playing Jimmy Connors."

Were you talking to Dunleavy?

"The whole time," Lucas said. "With my serve, I could make it go here, I could make it go there, and so I had him doing the Michael Jackson -- moon-walking. I got 82 games of frustration out in one day."

It's hard work to stay young. At 36, Kidd has helped lead the Mavericks to a 24-11 start, No. 2 in the West. "The one thing I'll never forget, talking to [John] Stockton when we played them one year, was I asked him what he did," Kidd said. "He said you get into this routine and you continue to do it and the body will follow. That's the biggest thing I'm doing right now."

Last summer, Kidd hired two coaches -- one for shooting, the other for conditioning -- and worked out in San Diego with his 11-year-old son, T.J. "You want to push yourself, you want to see what the body can take, and that's what those guys did," Kidd said. "They wanted to see where I was. I think they gave me confidence that I maybe wasn't as quick, but I still understood where I had to go to be successful. The biggest thing is I can see what's happening before it does happen. I'd rather lose a step to know what's happening rather than having that step to be able to go faster and being out of control."

He wouldn't put up with playing for a losing franchise in pursuit of a high lottery pick. "No," he said, "it would be a waste."

You would demand a trade out of town?

"Exactly," he said. "Because I feel like I can still play at a high level. And I'm not ready to sit in that chair yet."

From Brandon Jennings' mother. Jennings spent this past New Year's Eve in his new home of Milwaukee with his mother, younger brother and cousin. No doubt they relived their experiences of the previous year, when his younger half-brother, Terrence Phillips, and their mother, Alice Knox, spent the season with Jennings in Rome.

"New Year's Eve [in Rome], we had a great time," Knox said. "At 10:30 that night, Terrence and Brandon decided to go to the gym to play one-on-one. It was just us in the gym and I'm just having fun laughing at the both of them because Terrence is trying to hang with Brandon. And I can remember us coming out at 11:30, we'd bought fireworks from the store and we're lighting the fireworks and there was music on the car radio and we were out there in the parking lot dancing. And then I remember coming home and we had a window in the apartment overlooking Rome, it was just so beautiful, and we were watching all of the fireworks. We had so much fun together."

And last week, one year later, they were reunited in Milwaukee, knowing that their time in Rome had led to something even better.

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