Jackson’s decision weighs on Lakers’ 3-peat hopes
The two-time NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers’ most important free agent this summer is a 64-year-old former forward with two bad knees, two artificial hips and two more championships than any coach in NBA history.
When Phil Jackson reveals his plans for the future next week, presumably some time after the Lakers’ parade down Figueroa Street on Monday, the 16-time champions can get to work on the smaller details of their upcoming run at a threepeat.
Amid the confetti and cacophony of their 83-79 victory over the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the NBA finals on Thursday night, many Lakers took a moment to consider their charmed lives. They all seem to realize they’re lucky to come together around Kobe Bryant, whose sublime talent is at the center of their back-to-back titles.
“It’s just like I’m living in a different dimension,” said Pau Gasol, who labored in mediocrity in Memphis until a 2008 trade to Los Angeles led him to three straight NBA finals and two titles. “If I could get a genie and ask for a wish, this would be my wish, as far as my basketball life and career. ... It’s pretty unbelievable, the contrast from some situations. That’s why you’ve got to be so appreciative of life and the present.”
The Lakers’ 16th championship was sweeter for its difficulty. Bryant called it the toughest playoff stretch of his career, with the Celtics stretching Los Angeles to the limit in a ferocious, defense-dominated series.
And even before he had changed out of his uniform after laboring through a 6-for-24 shooting performance in the finale, Bryant made it clear he wants Jackson to stay for at least another year.
“I’ve been openly blunt about how much I want him back,” Bryant said.
While he knows some roster turnover is inevitable, Bryant also believes the Lakers have a core capable of contending for another title, even if some combination of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson and other free agents gets together to form that long-anticipated, Justice League-style superteam.
Los Angeles has its own collection of heroes who realize they’ve got a good thing going at home.
“This is a great team dynamic we have here,” Bryant said. “We believe in each other, and we trust each other, and Phil is a big part of that.”
After winning his 11th championship in 13 finals appearances during just 19 seasons on an NBA bench with Chicago and the Lakers, Jackson claimed Thursday night he had “no clue” whether he would return next year, saying he hadn’t invested the time and energy necessary to determine whether he’s up for another season.
Yet Jackson has vacillated and equivocated for nine months when asked about his plans for next season. The Lakers are thought to want Jackson to take a cut from the $12 million to $14 million he made this season, depending on various bonuses.
Jackson, who has claimed his pay isn’t an issue, said he’ll announce his future before Thursday’s draft. The cautious assumption in Lakerland is that Jackson won’t turn down the chance to hobble toward a fourth threepeat, since that pursuit would be a natural endpoint to his unmatched career.
But not even the Lakers brass — except maybe his girlfriend, Lakers executive Jeanie Buss — apparently knows for sure just yet.
“It does improve my chances,” Jackson said with a grin when asked about winning another title.
Jackson also knows his championship team will have most of its big pieces back next season. Bryant and Gasol are under contract through 2014 after signing extensions over the last few months, while Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom still have three more years on their deals. Ron Artest also has contract options through 2014 after signing a five-year deal as the only new addition to the Lakers this season.
Starting point guard Derek Fisher is the Lakers’ most prominent free agent. While the 35-year-old struggled at times during the regular season, the five-time NBA champion repeatedly delivered big baskets in the postseason.
He also inspired the Lakers with an animated speech when they headed into the fourth quarter facing a four-point deficit in Game 7.
“He’s our emotional leader and our verbal leader,” Bryant said. “He said, ’Guys, we’ve got 12 minutes to dig down, get back into this game. Everything that we’ve worked hard for, we’ve got 12 minutes to put it back together.’ ... That’s D-Fish. That’s just who he is. There’s not enough words of praise that I can use to describe him.”
Fisher would make an outstanding backup point guard and reserve sparkplug for the Lakers, but they don’t currently have a better choice as a starter. That’s the downside of the Lakers’ long-term contracts: There’s not a tremendous amount of flexibility to add another key component, even in a trade.
Jordan Farmar, Fisher’s inconsistent backup, will be a restricted free agent, while improving guard Shannon Brown could opt out of a $2.1 million contract for next season in search of a pay raise.
The Lakers will spend the first weeks of their break from a 105-game season getting rest and rehabilitation — and surgery for Bynum, who played the last two months with a partially torn ligament in his right knee. Bryant has played with a broken finger, a sore back and an injured knee that was drained of fluid earlier in the playoffs, but isn’t anywhere close to full strength.
“It felt good enough to get through the playoffs,” Bryant said. “I’m obviously going to have to look at the knee and figure some things out. I can’t play a whole entire season the way it is now. Same thing with the finger. You know, without the tape, I can’t grip a basketball.”