Those were not the Santa Ana winds you just felt, but instead the collective exhale of Lakers fans across Southern California and beyond. Phil Jackson, the Lakers announced this afternoon, has decided to return for the 2010-11 season.
This is good news, to say the least.
"Count me in," Jackson said in a statement. "After a couple weeks of deliberation, it is time to get back to the challenge of putting together a team that can defend its title in the 2010-11 season. It'll be the last stand for me, and I hope a grand one."
Grand, indeed, if everything works out. The Lakers are chasing their second three-peat in roughly a decade, and for Jackson it would be his fourth, which is almost too ludicrous to contemplate. But the implications for the team go deeper than simply getting one more year with the most successful coach in the history of the NBA (a pretty good prize in isolation). The announcement has impact in a multitude of ways:
(1) Continuity: Since 1987, seven coaches have won titles in the NBA: Jackson (11), Gregg Popovich (4), Pat Riley (3), Rudy Tomjanovich (2), Chuck Daly (2), Doc Rivers (1) and Larry Brown (1). Far as I can tell, only once in that span did a title team change coaches, and of course it involved PJ. Tim Floyd won 13 games following Jackson's departure from Chicago in '98. In fairness, Floyd was given everything Jackson had, except the good players (although Kornel David is widely considered the Michael Jordan of guys named Kornel).
Even taking a team more-or-less intact into their title defense, as the Lakers will, they'd have waded deep into difficult waters without Jackson.
In any sport, to win a title and change coaches is reasonably rare. For the new guy to win the following year is that much more unusual. Looking at the past 30-ish years, George Seifert did it in San Francisco after taking over for Bill Walsh. Scotty Bowman took over for Bob Johnson in Pittsburgh and won the Penguins a second straight Stanley Cup. Other success stories (Joe Girardi for Joe Torre, Barry Switzer for Jimmy Johnson) had to wait a season before driving their flag into the top of the mountain.
With Byron Scott now in Cleveland, the Lakers almost certainly would have entered next season with Brian Shaw as their head coach, and while I believe Shaw will one day be very good in that role, there's clearly a learning curve for assistants who slide over a seat on the bench, and it would have placed the Lakers at a disadvantage relative to previous title runs. Now they get continuity for this coming season -- presumably the same coaching staff will be back for '10-11 -- and create a more orderly path of succession for Shaw should they decide that's the direction they'd like to go (I assume it will be).
(2) Free Agency: As we've noted, the Lakers have holes to fill this summer, particularly now that Shannon Brown has formally opted out. (He lives in a world where Rudy Gay apparently can get max money. Can you blame Brown for thinking someone will toss him some coin?) Unfortunately, they have only a midlevel and championship cache to offer potential free agents. It's almost guaranteed most of the players they'll target will receive offers for more money from other teams, meaning the Lakers will rely heavily on the appeal of playing for a ring to lure players to L.A.
Stands to reason having Jackson and his extensive jewelry collection around makes the sales pitch far easier.
And for anyone worried the Derek Fisher negotiations are off to a bad start, your holiday weekend has improved. His odds of returning were probably about 99.98 before, but now they've bumped up to 99.99. The skittish can now comfortably let the odds work for them.
(3) Motivation: As we all saw this past campaign, it can be tough for a team defending a title to stay on edge for an entire season. Cranking things mentally to the levels required to win in the NBA is no easy task. In '08-09, the sting of Game 6 the season before was all the Lakers needed. This past season, the incentive to stay focused over the long, hard slog was harder to find. The integration of Ron Artest into the team's offensive and defensive fabric gave the Lakers something on which to focus energy, and certainly Artest's hunger for a ring helped provide some juice for his teammates, but still fans, media and players alike spent most of the season talking about complacency.
It stands to reason finding "that thing" for a third straight season would have been even harder.
Not anymore. Congratulations "Win one more for Phil!" You're the official slogan for the 2010-11 season!
Having Jackson back doesn't guarantee the Lakers a third straight Larry O'Brien, but their chances received a significant boost this afternoon. I'll be interested to see what the Jackson Farewell Tour looks like. He'll likely hate every minute of it.
Unless, of course, it ends with a 12th ring.