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Coaching Staff Preview

Over the past week, we've done previews for each position on the court for the Los Angeles Lakers.  We've broken down who the players are, and what you can expect from each of them.  But what about the coaching staff?  It's easy to overlook the contribution they make to the team's success, because they don't directly influence the results on the court.  But there are a ton of examples of coaches and assistant coaches who have made an immediate impact on a team, both positive and negative.  Just a few examples in recent years:

  • John Kuester's job as "offensive coordinator" for the Cleveland Cavaliers last season, turning a very bad offensive team into a pretty good offensive team.  Kuester, moreso than head coach Mike Brown, is credited with the Cavaliers' impressive regular season improvement last year, and it was his doing that turned Cleveland's offense into more than "Everybody watch Lebron do something".
  • Tom Thibodeau's job as "defensive coordinator" for the Boston Celtics the past two seasons.  Doc Rivers is credited with getting all the Celtic players to buy into the team spirit, but it is Thibodeau's defensive mind that has created their great defense
  • On the opposite side of the spectrum, Terry Porter murdered the Suns chances last year, by trying to force a running team without defensive talent into a half court model that focused on trying to have good defense.  It was a classic example of a coach trying to fit his players into a system, instead of creating a system to fit his players.

It should come as a surprise to no one that the Lakers have a tremendous coaching staff, starting with Phil Jackson, only the greatest coach of all time.  Last year provided a tremendous milestone for PJ, as he was famously able to pass Red Auerbach on the all time record list by leading the Lakers to a title, his 10th championship as a head coach.

Phil has often been on the wrong side of criticism which has been levied at him despite a tremendous amount of success.  For many, many years, people have said that Phil Jackson isn't the greatest coach of all time, simply the luckiest.  After all, the man was lucky enough to coach Michael Jordan, and then lucky enough to coach Shaq and Kobe.  Never mind the fact that Micheal Jordan's Bulls never won more than 50 games before Jackson came along, and never won less than 55 after he came.  Never mind that the Lakers went from a middling Western conference team bounced in the 2nd round of the playoffs the year before Jackson to a 67 win title winning juggernaut in Jackson's first year in L.A.  He's never gotten the credit he deserves for his team's winning ways, as people constantly point out the high level of talent he's been working with.

All of which made Jackson's latest championship all the sweeter.  Not only did Jackson get sole possession of the record for all time titles, he did it in such a way that basically de-bunked all the criticism which has been levied at him in the past.  He's never built a winner?  The Lakers' progression over the past few seasons, as quite a few young players developed into solid role players or borderline stars, is undeniable.  He's only won because of his talent?  Kobe is an all-world talent, but we saw what happened to him when PJ left town. There's nothing left.  Any criticism that anybody ever had of Jackson was answered for good last year.  There is quite simply no case left to make for Jackson not to be the best coach of all time.

So what makes Jackson the best?  Here's a look at some of the factors that makes Phil a coaching legend.

He has a great system ... but he only uses it when it suits his players.

Phil Jackson teams run the triangle offense.  They always have.  The Bulls did it in Chicago.  The Lakers did in the early part of this decade, and they run it again now ... sort of.  One of the best things the Triangle offense can do is limit the need for a pure point guard.  The Lakers haven't had a pure point guard in over a decade, but that hasn't stopped them from winning 4 championships and making two other trips to the NBA Finals.  In the triangle, anybody can initiate the offense, taking advantage of the "point forward" type skill sets possessed by Lamar Odom and Luke Walton.  The Triangle is a reaction offense, requiring players to make decisions based on how the defense responds to certain situations, taking advantage of Pau's (and Shaq's) strong passing skills in the post.

But the Lakers don't run the Triangle all the time.  In fact, they don't run it very often at all.  The Triangle is only used by this current Laker team as a last resort if their first offensive strategy, early offense by way of fast breaks and post sprinting, fails to yield results.  The reason for this is because the Lakers have big men who are more athletic than their counterparts.  So, once the Lakers have obtained the ball, Pau or Bynum (or both) will sprint down court and establish great post position.  Once that position is established, the ball should go down low for a quick post move, or to be kicked out for an open jump-shot.  If nothing is there, only then does the team start running the Triangle.  We can see the evidence of this evolution of Phil Jackson's offense in the pace.  His old Bulls teams were always near the bottom of the league in terms of pace, but his current Lakers squads have been near the top.  So he's utilizing the players he has in the most efficient way.

There's no way to rattle the Zen Master ... or his team

Much has been made of Jackson's alternative philosophies on coaching, but one thing is absolutely clear.  He knows how to communicate a level of calm to his team.  That's why he never panics.  That's why he never calls timeouts, even when fans are screaming for them.  Jackson knows that it is better to let his team sort things out on their own, even if it means sacrificing a game here and there.  And, for all that every single one of us fans have questioned his decisions over the years, it always seems to work out in his favor in the end.  A Phil Jackson coached team can easily take a loss in stride, and while we may not always appreciate that, it has proven to be a valuable commodity in allowing the team to perform well in crunch time situations.

He has the ability to manage egos

Jackson has been responsible for making two of the most dynamic individual talents in the history of the game, MJ and Kobe, buy into a team system.  He managed to keep two HUGE egos, Shaq and Kobe, in check at least enough to win three championships and stay successful for 5 seasons.  He was able to turn Dennis Rodman from crazy into crazy effective.  He convinced Lamar Odom, a $14 million player, to come off the bench.  Phil Jackson has a long, long list of players who respect him and will listen to him, and that list is packed with some of the biggest names this game has ever seen.  To a certain extent, that respect is borne out of the success that he has had, but it had to start somewhere, and it cannot be discounted.

But Phil Jackson is not the only coach on the Lakers' staff.  And this staff is undergoing a bit of transition from last season, due to the hiring of Kurt Rambis as head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves.  So here are some thoughts about the rest of the Lakers coaching staff, and their responsibilities.

First off, the most important aspect of Rambis' departure will be how it affects the Lakers defense.  You remember those examples from the beginning of this post?  Well, Rambis was the Lakers' de facto defensive coordinator last year.  All the improvement the Lakers made on defense, especially as it pertains to their new and mildly revolutionary Strong Side Zone defense, was a credit to the teachings and machinations of Kurt Rambis.  With his departure, it will be interesting to see if the Lakers continue to utilize the SSZ this season.  When Rambis left, no additional coach was brought on to be his replacement.  The Lakers will not have a "defensive coordinator" this year.  Instead, each of the other 3 assistants will be responsible for the defensive game plan, depending on which coach is in charge of advance scouting for the team the Lakers will play that night.

There are a couple of important tidbits to take from that information.  First., teaching defense is not the priority for Phil Jackson that it was last year.  PJ doesn't normally like to coach defense, because he feels that, to a certain extent, players should just know how to defend.  Last year, however, Phil knew that this was a weak defensive team, especially in the way they thought about defense.  That's why the SSZ was created, to compensate for the poor defensive instincts of some of our players.  This season, for whatever reason, there seems to be less concern, so Jackson doesn't feel the need to designate one coach to specifically focus on it.  Whether this is because he feels confident in his team's instincts now, or because the addition of Ron Artest alleviates some of these problems, or simply because the SSZ is already in place and does not need reinforcement, remains to be seen. 

Second, look for the Lakers to do more to counter a team's specific offensive strengths this season.  Since each assistant will be in charge of the defense for the teams that they plan for, there won't be a consistent overall defensive game plan.  Instead, each night the game plan will by taylor-made for the team that the Lakers are going up against.

The Lakers have three assistant coaches:  Frank Hamblen, Jim Cleamons, and Brian Shaw.  It's most likely that the head coaching ship has sailed for Hamblen and Cleamons.  They are unlikely to be head coaches (again) in this league, but both are distinguished assistants who do their jobs well.  Brian Shaw is a different matter.  Shaw is a rising star that will be a head coach some day, either with the Lakers or elsewhere.  With Rambis in Minnesota, Shaw is the only internal candidate who will merit consideration once Phil Jackson finally retires.  The job is certainly not guaranteed to be his, as there are more established head coaches who might be interested in taking a high profile job in L.A (Byron Scott is the name most often suggested), but Shaw is being groomed to be the head man someday.

Speaking of Phil Jackson's retirement, no one really has any idea when that will be.  Phil has been saying he'll only coach a couple more years for the last 5, so there's really no telling when he'll actually give it up.  It's possible this will be his last year, especially if the Lakers win another title, as he will have completely separated himself from any other coach in history.  But for some reason, I doubt it.  I think PJ will attach his career to Kobe's and vice versa.  When the time comes for one to hang it up, the other will do so as well (assuming PJ doesn't do it soon).

In the end, with Phil Jackson manning the ship, coaching is another attribute you can list as a strength for the 2009-2010 Lakers.  He may not be the strongest X's and O's guy in the world, but no one in the NBA is better at preparing his team for grind of the regular season with appropriate amounts of confidence and calm.

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