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On Phil Jackson's comments about Miami's coaching future

11/24/2010

During Tuesday afternoon's edition of "The Waddle and Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000 in Chicago, Phil Jackson rather casually lobbed a volley towards South Beach, where (perhaps you heard?) the Heat are beat up and off to a sluggish 8-6 start. Should Miami continue struggling, it appears Jackson questions whether Miami coach Erik Spoelstra can hold on to his gig. If you missed Jackson's comments:

"The scenario that sits kind of behind the scene, is that eventually these guys that were recruited -- [Chris] Bosh and [LeBron] James -- by [team president] Pat Riley and Micky Arison, the owner, are going to come in and say, 'We feel you [Riley] can do a better job coaching the team. We came here on the hopes that this would work,' and whatever, I don't know," he said. "That's kind of my take on it, is that eventually if things don't straighten out here soon, it could be the Van Gundy thing all over again."

The "Van Gundy thing," of course, references Miami's championship season of '05-'06, when 21 games into the season Stan Van Gundy stepped (or was shoved) aside, deciding (or being made to) spend more time with his family while Riley took over on the sidelines. SVG has always claimed he left of his own volition, which may be true, but nobody believes him.

Before Tuesday's game against the Bulls, Jackson softened his comments a little, noting patience is required before fully evaluating the Heat, and seemed to expand the time horizon before hands in the back might shove Spoelstra out the door. "I think eventually, if things don't turn around, I think eventually the weight's going to fall there where [without] the success they were hoping for, there will be a real drive for the players to have some kind of change," Jackson said. "It's easier to change coaches than to would be to change teams, after they made all those player adjustments.

"There's a chance for that, I would say. It would take a lot more losses like the ones we've seen."

Wednesday, Spoelstra wisely laughed off Jackson's radio interview, but Van Gundy said Jackson's comments revealed an ignorance of his situation in Miami. He found them "inappropriate," and noted "[Jackson didn't] know what the situation was and he doesn't know what the situation is [in Miami] now."

It's exceedingly rare to hear a coach so nakedly comment on another coach's job security. What Jackson said isn't all that noteworthy (he's hardly the first to float the Riley-to-the-sidelines theory), just that he said it at all. Of course, Jackson has the job security and gravitas to say and do just about anything he wants, and assuming he doesn't mind a certain degree of unpopularity in the coaching fraternity (everything indicates he doesn't) that includes talking about his colleagues.

I don't blame any of the coaches involved (Spoelstra, Van Gundy, Riley) for being ticked. Jackson clearly obliterated one of the unwritten rules between coaches. While it's possible to overstate the importance of what he said, it's still, in my mind, inappropriate.

What strikes me, though, were some casual conversations I had in the media room yesterday, when one common evaluation of Jackson's comments to Waddle and Silvy was that he was once again playing another Zen Master style mind game. He smells blood in the water, and is trying to add more sharks. It was my snap judgment, too, but after a little more thought, I changed my mind. To do something this calculated so early in the season actually gives Miami more credit as a threat than Jackson would want. They're so dangerous he feels it necessary to try and scuttle their progress 14 games into the season? I don't buy it.

Instead, he was asked a question, has a theory, and floated it out there. I'm not convinced he'd given it all that much thought before. Does Jackson care about all the chatter coming after? No, but that's different than believing his comments were a calculated shot at Miami. Jackson's pregame comments Tuesday, where he didn't apologize but did seem to clarify, reinforce my belief. Which gets to one of the most interesting things about the guy.

The "Zen Master" thing is hardly a myth, but at this point in Jackson's career is also self-perpetuating. Everyone assumes Jackson has some sort of uber-cerebral master plan behind every comment or answer. What is his endgame? Who is his target? What's the mind game? Sometimes- often, even- Jackson is absolutely pointed and calculated. He really does deliver messages or try and shape debate in his comments to the media. He also knows even when he's not, we'll assume he is and do the work for him.

The same freedom allowing him to say whatever he wants, no matter how calculated, allows him to go off the cuff without an agenda, too.

Phil Jackson the concept is often as powerful as Phil Jackson the person and basketball coach.