Why Phil Jackson may win his 10 championship this year

“I am saying it today and today only,” reads the tweet from Shaquille O’Neal. “I want kobe bryant to get number four, spread da word.”

Sorry this is late; I unexpectedly fell very ill and am only now sitting up again. However, it’s not like there has been a severe shortage of things to read on the 2009 NBA Finals, is there?

One of the best articles I’ve read is this piece on RealGM.com. Among other things, Hoffman details how the Lakers should be able to defend Dwight Howard with single coverage, defend the Magic’s screen and rolls with just two players, and keep the Magic honest on offense. I like that he dedicated that kind of time to defensive analysis, because I feel like this series will go to the team that is the most successful at stopping the other from doing what it wants to do.

Probably the worst article so far about the 2009 NBA Finals is Jason Whitlock ‘s article laughingly called “NBA Truths” claiming that if Rashard Lewis drives the lane, the Magic will sweep the Lakers. Whitelock also wrote that Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy are better commentators than Doug Collins because Collins won’t whine about officiating, that Phil Jackson wins just because he has had Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant (really? people are still beating that old drum?), and that America won’t watch teams with tatoos in the Finals.

As you all know, I don’t like to make predictions, but I will predict that Jason Whitlock’s “edgy and thought provoking style” will either cause a lot of Foxsports readers to go elsewhere for actual NBA truths, or else Whitlock will. May I recommend Brandon Hoffman?

— A QUICK PERSPECTIVE —

June 18, 2004 – In an afternoon meeting, Jerry Buss informed Phil Jackson that he would not be returning as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Calling Jackson “the greatest coach ever” Shaquille O’Neal demanded a trade, and 27 days later was in Miami, playing for then Heat coach Stan Van Gundy, a coach O’Neal would go on to call, “the Master of Panic.” What could have been a dynasty in L.A. soon became a disaster. Without Phil Jackson and Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe’s team failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 1994.

Interestingly, just 4 days prior to Jackson’s return to Hollywood, the Washington Post reported that the Cleveland Caveliers were trying to get Phil as well. I imagine LeBron James and Phil would have been successful at enticing young Carlos Boozer to hang around as well, but who knows what basketball history would have looked like had Jackson chosen differently.

What was Kobe’s reaction to Phil’s return? “When the Lakers began the search for a new head coach, I put my complete trust in Dr. Buss and (general manager) Mitch Kupchak to select the person they thought was best for the Lakers’ organization,” Bryant said. “In Phil Jackson, they chose a proven winner. That is something I support.”

And another endorsement for Phil Jackson came as well, and from an unlikely source. “I want to congratulate Phil on returning to coach the Lakers,” Shaquille O’Neal said in a statement released through the Heat. “He is one of the premier coaches. I wish him the very best.”

Outside of Shaq and Kobe’s comments though, it was hard to find anyone else who thought this was a good idea. Isn’t Phil Jackson supposed to the be coach that steps into ready-made championship teams and puts them over the edge?

The late Red Aurbach once said of Phil Jackson, “He’s never tried building a team and teaching the fundamentals. When he’s gone in there, they’ve been ready-made for him. It’s just a matter of putting his system in there.”

Here was Phil’s chance to prove the crotchety old Aurbach wrong, but Phil sure didn’t give himself much of a chance to do it.

Phil Jackson signed a 3 year contract. Did Jackson really think he could, in just 3 years, take the 2005 – 2006 Lakers and build a championship team out of the likes of: Smush Parker, Kobe Bryant, Deavon George, Brian Cook and Kwame Brown?! I figured either Jackson really had it bad for Jeanie Buss, or he was a lot more confident of his abilities that I was.

If Phil Jackson thought he could get back to the NBA Finals in 3 years though, he was awfully coy about it. “I would be most amazed if at the end of the third year we had an opportunity to do that,” he said.

The much maligned (in those days) Mitch Kupchak responded with, “He said the same thing the first time we hired him. I hope the same thing unfolds.”

Major props to Mitch: at the end of that 3 year contract, the Lakers were once again playing in the NBA Finals.

The only thing more unlikely than that was the fact that they were playing none other than the Boston Celtics, whose ascendancy from 33 wins and 49 losses in 2005 could not have been predicted either. The difference though, ironically, was Red Aurbach’s old team was ready-made with sure-fire future hall of famers, and Phil Jackson’s team was grown through teaching young (and often flaky) players the fundamentals. In fact I recently read somewhere that last year’s Lakers and this years Lakers both are the two teams with the most amount of players under 23 years old to ever make the Finals.

Before Phil Jackson, Pau Gasol had 4 years of playoff experience, and was swept out of the playoffs all 4 years. Trevor Ariza had traded locker rooms 7 times in 4 years before Phil Jackson. Shannon Brown is playing for his SEVENTH professional team since he was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2006, including 3 different D-League teams. Not even the Denver Nuggets gave  Coby Karl a chance to make it in the NBA, but Phil made a go at developing coach Karl’s son. Other players blossomed only under Jackson, such as Roni Turiaff, and what has Smush Parker done since leaving Jackson’s Lakers?

Yes, Red, Phil Jackson CAN build a team teaching them fundamentals along the way.

And as for the knot headed columnists like Whitlock who claim Jackson only won because he’s had Jordan and Bryant, coaches Doug Collins and Del Harris seemed to find plenty of ways to lose with essentially the same rosters Jackson inherited… how ’bout swallowing some humble pie and giving the guy his due.

Criticize Jackson if you want for not calling enough time outs, but the evidence is this guy can STILL flat out coach.

And this year, while people are making a deal about Kobe getting a ring without Shaq, it may be more significant if Phil gets one without Tex Winter, his mentor and architect of the triangle offense.

— THE 2009 NBA FINALS —

Kobe Bryant is playing for his second “Redeem Team” in a row, and isn’t about to allow himself to be known as the best player with a championship ring to never win an NBA Finals MVP award if there is anything he can do about it.

But what about his team?

“We’re upset about losing in the finals,” said Pau Gasol. “We should have given it a better shot than we did. It didn’t happen, and now we’re here again and we can give it a much better shot and really get it done.”

How does the old saying go? “Actions speak louder than words.”

Portland isn’t the only team with the Lakers number. The Orlando Magic swept the Lakers in the regular season, 2 games to none, and have defeated the Lakers 3 out of their last 4 matchups.

Defense wins championships and Orlando has the best defensive rating in the NBA for the regular season (101.9).

Orlando is 35-7 when they lead their opponents in rebounding.

Orlando is 42-4 when they score more than 100 points, and the Lakers are getting plenty of criticism for their lack of consistency on defense.

And while the Lakers may have home court, Orlando is a good road team. In fact, only the Lakers have a better road record this year than the Orlando Magic, so both teams are able to win on the other’s home floor.

But in the playoffs, coaching has a much greater role in a team’s failure or success than the regular season. The analysis and adjustments from game to game are far more intense in a 7 game series than on a road trip in the regular season.

We were all Witnesses to how the Orlando Magic dispatched the Cav’s one man show. That is probably the first place Jackson will tweak his Lakers. In their regular season matchups, Gasol got 11 shots per game against the Magic. Kobe got 28.5.

The next thing Phil will prepare his Lakers for is to be serious about rebounding. Not only was that a major factor in their defeat last Finals to the Celtics, but, as Lakers guard, Derek Fisher has said, “Our ability to rebound the basketball could really be the difference in this series.

In the regular season the Lakers outrebounded their opponents by +2.47 rebounds per game, the Magic outrebounded their opponents by +1.12 rebounds per game. And inthe playoffs, the Lakers lead the Magic in rebounds per game: 42.44 to 38.42.

A lot gets said about the number of fouls the Lakers have to expend on Dwight Howard, but more importantly, the Lakers have a lot of bigs to rebound the ball and led the NBA in rebounding during the regular season — much of it without Andrew Bynum. The Lakers can be very capable on the boards and I suspect that the team with the most rebounds per game will also be the winner of each game.

Orlando likes to shoot 3s, and that means long rebounds to initiate the Lakers’ fast break… leading to easy points for the Lakers and foul trouble for the Magic.

The team that controls the boards will likely control the series, and the Lakers have an edge when it comes to rebounding.

And although the Lakers defense is often suspect, they did just hold the highest scoring offense in the playoffs, the Denver Nuggets, under 100 points for 3 of the last 4 games. The deeper the Lakers go into the playoffs, the less defensive ADD they seem to have.

If the Lakers control the boards, then they are likely hustling on defense as well, and I can’t see the Lakers losing a game where they hold the potent Orlando office under 92 points.

Although Pau plays a lot of time at center, he is extremely mobile and usually beats opposing centers with his foot speed and foot work. And thanks to all that pick and roll defense in Spain and now in the playoffs, I’ve observed that Pau is a capable perimeter defender as well, and I don’t think he’ll mind chasing Rashard Lewis or Hedo Turkaglu to the arc to prevent open 3s.

Orlando is best 3 point shooting team in the playoffs, but how successful will they be if the Lakers are effective at taking that from them?

Hedo can’t out quick Ariza.

And I’m not sure I get all the praise lavished on Mickael Pietrus. He may be overrated. I don’t think he affected LeBron James at all, and it’s one thing to knock down wide open corner 3s, and another thing all together to get that same shot off quickly enough before Ariza or Shannon Brown flashes out there.

If the Lakers lose again in the Finals, it will simply be because of their inconsistent effort rebounding and defending.

As for the Lakers offense, the Lakers win when they move the ball, and were 2nd in the NBA in assists during the regular season. The Magic was 2nd to last in the NBA in assists. Moreover, the Magic had a much harder time with the Celtics’ triple threats than with the Cavaliers single dominating player. If the Lakers struggle to score, keep an eye on their ball movement: it will likely be the culprit. Without it, shots get harder for the Lakers.

The Orlando Magic is built to challenge the Lakers where they are at their weakest, but the Lakers have significant advantages over the Magic if they play smart and hard and up to their potential.

Interestingly, both teams have a tendency to give up leads, so don’t leave the game early.

And for those of us watching by television, I really am NOT looking forward to seeing Jeff Van Gundy call the game for his brother. That really should not have happened. — Edit: After game 1, I take this back. Jeff Van Gundy was hilarious and offered insights about Stan that others could not have.

In conclusion (because I have to go to dinner, not because I don’t have more to write), Derek Fisher recent said about coach Phil Jackson, “I definitely think he’s as excited and as enthusiastic about a Finals as I’ve seen in a long time. It was old hat for him when he showed up and we won three.”

Phil Jackson… excited? Enthusiastic? Than Fish has seen in a long time?! Anyone want to bet against THAT Phil Jackson?

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