from NY Times
June 17, 2004
Jackson's Off-Season May Last for a While
By CHRIS BROUSSARD
AUBURN HILLS, Mich., June 16 - A smiling Phil Jackson appeared to be at peace, four of his five children by his side, the burden of managing, massaging and manipulating a lineup full of egos finally lifted from his coat-hanger shoulders.
After a season that he expected to end in celebration instead ended in a drubbing by the Detroit Pistons, Jackson admitted that his term as Los Angeles Lakers coach was probably over.
"Right now, I would say that it's a pretty slim chance that I'll be back coaching next year," Jackson said late Tuesday night after Detroit's 100-87 clinching victory.
Jackson, whose five-year, $30 million contract expired at the end of the finals, would not be absolute because nothing is absolute with the Lakers. Kobe Bryant intends to opt out of his contract, eight other players can become free agents - including Karl Malone and Gary Payton - and Shaquille O'Neal has hinted that he might ask for a trade.
While re-signing the 25-year-old Bryant is believed to be the club's top priority, much of what will occur with the Lakers revolves around Jackson. Jackson, who is tied with Red Auerbach for the career record of nine championships, said his children wanted him to step down.
"I've had a lot of persuasion given to me by these kids," Jackson said. "They were hoping I could win the 10th and retire, but maybe losing this one, this opportunity is enough for me to say that it's time to give it up. But right now, I'm not going to make that decision."
But Jackson's agent, Todd Musburger, said he still had a fire to compete. "I think he has a whole lot of games to coach," Musburger said.
If Jackson and the Lakers are indeed through, he will probably take a season off, then join another franchise. Tex Winter, Jackson's longtime assistant coach, said he could see Jackson someday coaching the Knicks, the team he was with for 11 seasons as a player. But many officials around the league have their doubts that Isiah Thomas, the Knicks' president, would hire Jackson.
Back in Los Angeles, there has been speculation since February, when the club broke off negotiations for a contract extension with Jackson, that Bryant would remain with the Lakers only if Jackson does not return as the coach. While there is a chance Jackson would turn down a Lakers offer, Bryant's supposed desire to play for someone else is the major reason Jackson is not expected to return.
But after Game 5, Bryant sounded as if he could continue to play for Jackson, saying that he loved playing for him and that he would not be opposed to playing for Jackson and with O'Neal "forever."
Bryant says he is looking forward to being courted by other clubs for the first time in his eight-year career, but the Lakers can offer him far more money than any other team.
But Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers' general manager, said he would not trade Bryant.
O'Neal wants Jackson back and has said he will be extremely angry if the organization or an individual player (e.g. Bryant) forces the coach out. If O'Neal, who cannot opt out of his contract until next season, believes Jackson has been slighted, he may ask for a trade, even though he could not force the Lakers' hand.
"This summer is going to be a different summer for a lot of people," O'Neal said. "Everyone is going to take care of their own business and everyone is going to do what's best for them, including me."
The 40-year-old Malone, who missed 39 regular-season games and Game 5 of the finals with an injured right knee, might retire. Then again, with his desire to win a championship unfulfilled, he might not. Malone said he would return only if doctors tell him his knee will be "100 percent, not 99" by training camp. His decision is likely to have an impact on those of Bryant and O'Neal, both of whom viewed him as a "big brother" this season.
"I would do it all over again with these guys in this locker room," Malone said. "All the things that happened this year - besides not winning it - I would go right back into battle with these guys."
The future of Payton, the most disgruntled Laker, is also tied to Jackson. His poor play and constant complaining significantly lowered his value on the free-agent market. He is scheduled to make $5.6 million next season, but if he opts out, he will probably not be offered more than $1.6 million by another team.
Yet another year under Jackson's triangle offense would be unbearable for Payton. If Jackson does not return, Payton will probably remain and be enthusiastic about a different offensive system.
Besides the top four, Derek Fisher, Slava Medvedenko, Bryon Russell, Horace Grant, Luke Walton and Jamal Sampson will, or could, also become free agents.
Most of the decisions are expected to be made quickly, the one concerning Jackson probably being the first and having a domino effect.