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Thursday, December 24, 2009
Jackson experiments with Lakers' lineup

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPN Los Angeles

The soul patch, thanks to his girlfriend and Lakers vice president Jeanie Buss, has long since been shorn.

Which means the image you might have of Phil Jackson stroking that little tuft of hair on his chin as he dreams up new rotations or combinations or ways of getting just a little bit more out of the NBA's most talented team doesn't quite work.

Image or no image, though, whatever time he has saved by streamlining his grooming routine seems to have been added onto the already considerable amount of time he spends tinkering under the hood of the Lakers (23-4).

Experiments, first in his own head, then in a room with his assistant coaches, with different ways of putting together one of the league's deepest teams.

Tinkering, just for the sake of tinkering.

Surprising, just for the sake of surprising.

Creating -- by design, his players and assistant coaches say -- a constant sense of readiness and expectation of the unexpected.

"I'm used to it by now," Lakers center Andrew Bynum said. "I have no idea why [he does it], but it works, right? We win."

Across the locker room, backup point guard Jordan Farmar was laughing at what is obviously an issue that each player who plays for Jackson discovers and has to adjust to very quickly.

"It's like, just when you think you know what's coming, he switches it up on you," said Farmar, who has probably experienced more fluctuation in his role this season than any other Laker.

"I try not to think about it much. I just try to be ready when my name is called. Sometimes I think I'm about to go in, I look at the board and my name is not on there. Sometimes I see my name on the board and he erases it off.

"Sometimes I think it's about matchups. Sometimes I think it's just because."

But what may at times seem inscrutable, or even whimsical, has a purpose.

"Perfect" is generally the enemy of "good," but it can be a friend to a team that is already great.

A team playing great doesn't just coast at that level over the course of an NBA season once it has an established identity and extraordinary rhythm.

There is no cruise control in the NBA.

And so from October through the All-Star break in mid-February, Jackson tinkers. A lot.

"I don't ever really like to get too dependable," he says wryly. "I like to have a certain minute time for the eight or nine guys [in the rotation], then the other guys I want them to be prepared at any moment. So occasionally I just want them to know that they might be going in just to do that. Just so they're ready to do that."

When you're the best team in the league, it helps to set your own challenges. To see if good can become great and great can become almost perfect.

To tinker, or in a more casual way of putting it, to throw a bunch of ideas onto the court and see which ones stick.

In the first nine games of the season Jackson played at least 11 of the 13 players on the Lakers' roster. Only five times in 27 games has he used fewer than 10 players.

And remember: The Lakers have had at least one player who was unable to play due to injury -- first Pau Gasol, then Luke Walton -- in every game this season.

"He always likes to keep you on your toes, focused on what's going on and how important every single game is during the year," Gasol said.

Assistant coach Frank Hamblen said he thinks Jackson's constant tinkering helps to keep players motivated.

"You never want to get comfortable in this league," Hamblen said. "He spends a lot of time thinking and working on the chemistry of the team.

"Sometimes he talks to [players about changes], sometimes he just springs it on them to see how they react.

"It's kind of like gamesmanship within the team. That's definitely what he's doing."

The focus of many of Jackson's experiments over the past couple of seasons has been on the Lakers' bench, the underperforming unit that frequently loses leads and forces the starters back into a game when they should be icing their knees.

Last season, he moved Lamar Odom to the second unit to provide leadership and help facilitate the offense.

"I think he's just trying to find units that show cohesiveness and work well together," assistant coach Brian Shaw said. "Our second unit this year has kind of been a mystery. It's still a work in progress."

This season, one of Jackson's more successful experiments has involved putting point guards Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar on the court at the same time.

Farmar, who is not a natural fit for the triangle offense but too good of a player to keep out of the rotation, is now able to focus on his strong suits of playmaking, defense and pushing the tempo instead of the more traditional pass-cut-and-spot-up role a point guard in the triangle offense plays.

"We want to really develop a bench," Hamblen said. "I know in Chicago it was always important for him to have guys like the [Jud] Buechlers, the [Steve] Kerrs who could come in and not only hold the fort but increase the lead.

"That's what we want from our guys here. I know he spends a lot of time thinking about that."

Thinking, but not rubbing the soul patch, unfortunately.

Ramona Shelburne is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.