LOS ANGELES -- For all the talk of Phil Jackson going to Chicago or New Jersey or Cleveland or wherever else LeBron James might end up, the truth is he's three wins from returning as the Los Angeles Lakers' coach next season.
He never will fully admit as much because he doesn't have to and shouldn't in a contract year in which he will be the biggest free agent to hit the market next month outside of James. There probably will be at least a half-dozen teams that will go after Jackson hard, believing luring him also will guarantee James, who is trying to follow in the footsteps of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
It all makes for interesting off-day conjecture and offseason storylines, but don't believe it.
If the Lakers win, Jackson will be back.
There is no way he will walk away from this team and a chance to complete a fourth three-peat, and has admitted as much several times this season.
"Yeah, if we win, it's almost imperative to give it another shot," Jackson said. "We [would] have a chance to do something special and unique again."
If this were a decade ago and Jackson, 64, weren't in the twilight of his career, maybe I'd put more stock in him packing up, going to the highest bidder in the offseason and turning around the fortunes of another franchise, but that's not the case.
After Bryant signed his three-year extension in April, which meant the quintet of Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest were locked up for at least the next three years, I asked Jackson whether he would coach this group through its run before riding off into the sunset. He looked at me as if I were crazy and said, "No."
"I'm not going to buy into anything for three or four years," Jackson said. "I don't think that's in the cards at all. But I can look at a season, one year at a time right now, and feel comfortable with the commitment I can generate to get through another year and push the team hard enough to get them through a year. When you talk about those long-term things, there's got to be a change here in the near future where there needs to be a successive coach who is able to deal with these players, help them on with their game."
Do you really think a coach who isn't willing to commit to coaching for more than the next year or two is going to pack up and start coaching somewhere else? Furthermore, if you're a team looking to hire a coach to turn around your team and attract a free agent like James, how secure would you be in your decision when Jackson says he's only comfortable signing a one-year contract?
Bryant seems quietly confident Jackson will be back as his coach next season and is cautiously optimistic he might even be able to get him to coach him through his contract extension despite Jackson's claims that coaching that long isn't in the cards for him.
After he signed his extension, Bryant talked with Jackson and told him there was one person left who hadn't signed a contract extension and that he was waiting for him to do so in the offseason.
"He's a big part of me as a player," Bryant said after signing his extension. "I enjoy playing for him, and I made it very clear to him today that I would love to see him be back."
If Jackson ran a simple offense used throughout the league, one that could be picked up during the course of a single training camp, perhaps the idea of him leaving a championship team in Los Angeles and turning around the fortunes of New Jersey or Cleveland would be more plausible, but that's obviously not the case. Nobody outside of his former assistant Kurt Rambis in Minnesota runs the triangle, and it isn't an offense suited for every player. As Rambis, Jim Cleamons (Dallas) and Tim Floyd (Chicago) have shown, it's an offense that doesn't work as effectively when neither Jordan nor Bryant is on the floor. Jackson also had Tex Winter by his side in Los Angeles and Chicago to break down the triangle for newcomers when he was first named the head coach at both stops.
Does he really want to start teaching it to a new group of players without the innovator of the offense by his side?
Despite Jackson's recently saying he has "always had problems committing" when asked to end all this conjecture and simply commit to returning to the Lakers next season, he actually has been one of the most committed and loyal coaches in sports. He has coached only two franchises since 1987 and was basically forced out of both before returning to the Lakers in 2005.
One of the biggest reasons Jackson came back as the coach of the Lakers five years ago after having a falling-out with Lakers owner Jerry Buss was his girlfriend and Buss' daughter, Jeanie Buss, who is the team's vice president. While she claims she won't be pulling any personal strings to get Jackson to return, it would be naïve to think she isn't going to play a huge role in bridging whatever gap currently exists between her father and her boyfriend.
While Jerry Buss isn't the biggest fan of Jackson personally, he didn't become a wealthy businessman and one of the most successful owners in sports by making decisions he knew would harm his franchise and his investment. While Jerry Buss and Jackson might not go on family vacations together, Buss remembers how his team performed when Jackson wasn't the coach.
The Lakers with Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Derek Fisher, Robert Horry and Rick Fox were swept out of the playoffs two straight years before Jackson was hired and led them to three straight titles. The one season he left the team, it missed the playoffs for only the fifth time in franchise history. The Lakers have made the postseason, including the past three NBA Finals, every year since he's returned.
So much has been made of Buss wanting to cut Jackson's salary from $12 million this season to possibly $5 million next season. While the exact figure of the pay cut isn't known, Jackson knows that if he returns next season, he will be making less than he has this season. He likely still will be the highest-paid coach in the NBA, but the days of him making almost double the salary of the next coach on the list have been numbered as long as the Lakers' payroll has kept increasing.
"Dr. Buss said that he put some things on the line by re-signing Lamar [Odom], so it's financial," Jackson said. "This team has never lost money since he took over the team, so that's a big part of it. I pushed him to sign Lamar, and we all said we have to have this guy back, even if it's going to put this team in jeopardy financially. At a time when it's tough in this league, he took the step."
If Jackson took a pay cut, he wouldn't be doing anything more than what he asked Odom and Trevor Ariza to do last offseason, when both were asked to take offers less than what they wanted to return to the Lakers.
"Obviously, it's going to take sacrifice on many parts," Jackson said last year. "Dr. Buss is not going to be able to do without having to make sacrifices at some level. We have to make sacrifices in other places in our organization to make room for their salaries. [Ariza and Odom] probably have to sacrifice something in the process if they want to come back. Nobody can eat their cake and have it both, in their situation. But it's possible to do it."
To his credit, Jackson hasn't acted like a hypocrite when addressing his possible pay cut, saying whatever he makes next season will still be "ridiculous."
"Pay cuts come in all different forms," Jackson said, joking he might cash out his 401(k). "There are some ways around that. I think we could find a way to make that work."
While Jackson won't make any commitments on his future during the season, he promises to make a decision shortly after the season and doesn't anticipate the drama extending past a few days.
"I'll do a whole physical checkup at the end of the year and then I'll make a decision," Jackson said. "It's pretty easy. It'll go pretty quick. It'll be a two-day thing, and then I'll be back and we'll see what happens."
If the Lakers win this year, we all know what will happen, even if Jackson doesn't want to admit it quite yet.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter at ESPNLosAngeles.com