Ventre: Coaching champion Lakers no easy task

By Michael Ventre
|  Sunday, Apr 25, 2010  |  Updated 4:15 AM EDT
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Coaching Champion Lakers No Easy Task

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As usual, it’s all about how you look at things. Take a look at Phil Jackson and the Los Angeles Lakers.

The glass-is-half-full/half-empty analogy has been with us almost as long as there have been glasses and liquid. It rocks on today, even in its decrepit state. As usual, it’s all about how you look at things. Take a look at Phil Jackson and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Glass-empty people will cite the Lakers’ state of ennui in 2009-10 and their failure to capture the best record in the NBA as evidence that Jackson has lost his touch and is content to get this year over with so he can take his 10 rings, his millions and the boss’s daughter and dodder off toward the big Montana sky.

Glass-full folks, however, have a completely different interpretation (you knew they would): The 2009-10 Lakers’ season represents one of Jackson’s best coaching performances of his long and storied career.

It took me a while to come around to the latter point of view. After all, it’s difficult to give a coach credit for a job well done when his team is being flambéed at Charlotte, or seared at home by San Antonio. The defending champions sometimes looked as passive as graduates of “Dog Whisperer.”

But again, it all comes down to how you look at it.

One of the most challenging tasks for a head coach at the helm of a team that has just won a championship is to keep his players interested. I know they make a lot of money and that should be enough to keep them interested, but that’s an old whine with no basis in reality anymore. They’re human, it’s an 82-game season, the playoffs run from April through June, and before they have a chance to really savor the summer, it’s time to get ready for training camp again.

Mentally, a task that the average goofball with his feet on an ottoman would give his right bauble for the chance to do actually becomes a chore. It is the coach’s responsibility to shepherd his charges through that field of fatigue, and it requires a particular skill set that Jackson seems to have mastered over the years.

Then there is Kobe Bryant. Generally speaking, having Kobe on your team is a distinct advantage. He has a magical knack for keeping the Lakers in games when all seems lost, and also for winning them at the end. Just about any coach, with the possible exception of Cleveland’s Mike Brown, would gladly trade his star player in order to have Bryant.

But this year, Kobe has been beset with injuries. He has played much of the season with a broken right index finger, and has also nursed a swollen right knee and a sprained left ankle. During a game in January against San Antonio, he suffered back spasms so severe he said, “I literally couldn’t walk” and had to skip the fourth quarter.

Granted, a Kobe in intensive care is probably better than no Kobe at all. But it constituted another test for Jackson in terms of minutes for his franchise player and in customizing his offense and defense so the Lakers could still be led by Kobe yet not be so Kobe-dependent.

Ron Artest was an excellent addition to the roster, but it was like handing Jackson a Rubik’s cube with wackier colors. Would Artest do for the Lakers what Darrelle Revis does for the New York Jets? Or would he become a Hollywood reality show nightmare?

While Artest hasn’t been consistent in Velcro-ing himself to scorers the way he did in recent games against Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant, he has done it enough to earn his keep and to justify the offseason jettisoning of last year’s hustle hound, Trevor Ariza. Also, aside from the occasional Jackson Pollack on his head, he has been no trouble at all. No major meltdowns. No fights. No disruptions.

Artest deserves credit for some of that. The Lakers also get kudos for providing him with an atmosphere that he would be insane to pollute with antics.

But Jackson’s patience, his stature in the game and his experience in dealing with players over the years who may be one crouton short of a salad (see Dennis Rodman) were major factors in easing the Artest transition into a championship assemblage.

Jackson also had to cope with a relatively anemic bench, which was unexpected, because pundits were raving about the Lakers’ depth at the beginning of the year. Yet this season’s problems on the pine were more attributable to chemistry. For instance, when Andrew Bynum missed the last month of the regular season with a strained left Achilles’ tendon, Lamar Odom became a starter, and the bench no longer had a leader. Add that scenario to the 22-game injury absence of Luke Walton (pinched nerve in back) and the slow simmer of dissatisfied Sasha Vujacic and you had Jackson the repairman with a lot on his plate.

Pau Gasol is a superb player, but Jackson didn’t just need him to score and rebound. He needed attitude and anger on defense, and to get it the coach often fired off barbs that were playful enough not to insult the proud Spaniard but were effective in getting his message across about soft play.

At the end of the season, while the Lakers didn’t come close to the 72 victories by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team that he also coached, and in fact finished four games behind the Cavs’ league-best 61 victories this year, Jackson got the most out of a talented and experienced but enigmatic group of guys.

The final analysis of his coaching performance will of course depend on whether the Lakers succeed in repeating as champions. There are still many opportunities for his team to underachieve and disappoint.

But as of right now, the glass couldn’t be more half-full for Jackson.

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