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Friday, September 26, 2008
Jackson looking to bring out increased toughness from within

By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com

Phil Jackson
Rested and ready for a new season, Phil Jackson offered his views on how to improve his Lakers.

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- This was Phil Jackson talking about the Los Angeles Lakers, not your ordinary speaker or subject by any means, and yet even after 1,300 words it was hard to escape the bottom line that this team's season will be about the same old NBA themes of minutes and money. Oh, and one other "m" word of particular concern to the Lakers: mettle.

They were humbled by the Boston Celtics in the Finals, sent slinking off into the summer like scolded puppies, but any increased toughness will have to come from within. The only significant changes to the way this roster looked in the second half of the season will be the returns from injury of Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza. That will alter the starting lineup, with Bynum at center, Pau Gasol at power forward and Lamar Odom shifting to small forward -- and possibly sixth man.

"I don't hesitate to say that if this team doesn't work out the way I want it to, Trevor may be a starting player in that first five," Jackson said about halfway through his 26-minute media session at the Lakers' practice facility on Friday. "I may just start him and convince Lamar to come off the bench, if I feel it's better for the team and we don't feel as comfortable on the floor as I'd like us to feel."

Just raising the possibility brings up all kinds of issues. Odom is in the last year of a contract that will pay him $14.6 million this season. A drop in status wouldn't be the strongest signal that the Lakers put a premium value on him. And on the surface it wouldn't be the best way to showcase him for a possible trade.

But playing Odom with the second unit would allow him to have the ball more and be a greater focal point of the offense than if he were on the court with Kobe Bryant.

Oh, and Jackson doesn't want Bryant on the court quite as much this season. Bryant turned 30 this summer, and after he played 38.9 minutes per game last season (the first time in four seasons he averaged fewer than 40 minutes) Jackson wants the number to drop just a little bit more.

"That's a goal he and I will have to work out," Jackson said. "I think 38's too much."

Bryant stopped to chat with four reporters on his way out of the practice facility, and he sounded fine with Jackson's plan and even his coach's characterization of him and Derek Fisher as the "senior citizens" on this Lakers team.

"I was a senior citizen on the Olympic team," Bryant said.

He also elaborated on his decision not to have surgery on his dislocated right pinkie finger, saying that the 12-week recovery time would have meant missing too much basketball. He said his finger "feels stronger than it has before" and that the scar tissue buildup has actually helped the finger stay in place instead of sliding out like it did initially. He can palm a basketball again. And it would take an extreme, freakish play in which his finger got caught in a jersey and pulled for it to become dislocated again -- essentially enough force to cause a new injury, not merely aggravate the current one.

You know what didn't come up to either Bryant or Jackson? Bryant's future with the team. That was Lakers -- and league -- topic No. 1 last season, but it isn't looming over this franchise now even though Bryant can opt out of his contract next season. He's clearly in a better place right now, still basking in the golden Olympic glow, returning to a home team that's back among the NBA's elite.

He talked about his off-court Olympic experiences, like visiting Pau Gasol's room at the Olympic village and watching Michael Phelps live ("he eats up the water"). And, curiously, he asked, "You guys seen L.O.?"

That would be Odom, who apparently hasn't been around as often lately after being practically invisible in the NBA Finals box scores. Jackson's biggest task will be to make Odom feel like an essential part of the family, even with a possible demotion and trade rumors looming.

Jackson is also asking Bynum to play an unglamorous role even though Bynum is up for a contract extension.

"What I ask Andrew to do in this offense is to rebound offensively and set picks, and to be a pivotal point in our offense," Jackson said. "I'm not asking him to be a one-on-one scorer or asking him to get a lot of points, but he's a guy that's going to shore up the defense, which I think is the most important aspect, and rebound, which I think is the second-most important aspect."

At least Bynum doesn't have to worry about playing time, with the likes of DJ Mbenga and Chris Mihm behind him on the depth chart.

Small forward is the most crowded spot, with Odom's shift putting him in the mix with Ariza, Vladimir Radmanovic and Luke Walton.

Jackson likes his team's depth, even if it means difficult choices for him when it comes to doling out playing time. He probably had the best preparation possible over the summer, when he spent time with his four grandchildren -- none older than 2 -- vying for his attention at his Montana home. He avoided watching any media mentions of the humbling NBA Finals experience until he got back to Los Angeles and Jeanie Buss forced him to watch the ESPYS, where the Celtics won the "best team" award.

"She made me watch that when I got back from Montana just to spite me, just to make me have to see those guys up there saying, 'Our second victory in L.A.,'" Jackson said. "There's still a little bit of angst and anger there about that."

But he couldn't deny the obvious.

"We know that we weren't a muscular and physical team. We were able to get to where we did by finesse and speed and the abilities that we had.

"You don't get to where you are by being a soft team. But Boston was tougher than we were in the last game. They deserved it."

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.