On so many levels, the Los Angeles Lakers' approach to the next few seasons appears straightforward and even sensible: Cut payroll, limit most players to short-term contracts and try to free up scads of money for 2007 or 2008, when a fresh crop of high-profile free agents comes to market.
It's a plan. It has at least an intermediate goal set within it. It may yield a longer-term payoff.
Just wondering: What in the seventh concentric circle of Hades is Phil Jackson doing in the middle of it?
Is this really what Jackson rode in from the Montana plains to wrangle? It's almost an incomprehensible thought. Did the coach with nine NBA titles on his shelf really yank himself out of a post-retirement reverie to work with Smush Parker, Laron Profit and Chris Mihm?
It's no offense to those guys -- or to Brian Cook, or Von Wafer, or Sasha Vujacic, or any of the other names that fill out the Lakers' mish-mashed roster. But this is the Phil Jackson of the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen variety. This is the Jackson of Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal vintage.
Did this man really come back to coaching in order to work a futures market?
I'm among those who have always disagreed with the notion that Jackson was a lucky guy in the right place when it came to his coaching "legend." Jackson's talent is real, and his ability to manipulate and assuage egos are among the greatest gifts accorded any NBA coach in memory. He needed all of it to make things go with Jordan for as long as they did, and he clearly needed more of it than even he ultimately had to spin along the Kobe-Shaq axis for all those years.
Still, Jackson's history is plain: He won titles with Jordan, Pippen, Bryant and O'Neal, plus a specially selected cast of supporting characters (Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper, Rick Fox, Robert Horry), almost all of whom were paid whatever the market dictated when the need arose to sign them.
The short answer is, no one has the slightest idea. Jackson is essentially returning to try to win with a team that includes Bryant, Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown and the team's most recent addition, 32-year-old point guard Aaron McKie, just waived by Philly in a luxury-tax amnesty move.
McKie averaged 2.2 points and 1.5 assists last season, but he at least fits the Jackson mold when it comes to a distributor in the triangle offense: He's 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds. Phil likes 'em bigger rather than smaller when it comes to running his schemes.
And that's about it. You just heard the game plan for 2005-06. The Lakers might be able to make personnel moves before the season begins, but if it involves taking on salary or contracts, forget it. Jim Buss, the heir to team owner Jerry Buss, already is on record as saying the club is aiming for the free-agent summer of 2007, when players like Amare Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki and Yao Ming ostensibly will be pondering their options.
Of course, by the summer of 2007, Phil Jackson will be two years into the three-year contract he signed to return to L.A. Will the Lakers really spend those two years with Devean George and Andrew Bynum?
In some respects, Jackson is already contradicting the notion that he'd only come back to get another championship ring, because he sure isn't pursuing one currently in L.A. This situation is more akin to his early days in the game, when Jackson learned the ropes of coaching by working with CBA rosters almost exclusively populated by comers and guys looking for another chance to shine.
You can't ignore the talent of Kobe Bryant, of course, and the Lakers' current roster is hardly bereft; it's just stacked in some places and bare in others. L.A. pulled its own luxury-tax move by shedding Brian Grant and a potential $30 million in extra payments over the next few years, but doing so has left Jackson with few options at power forward or center. It's hardly fatal -- the Bulls' championship teams never had a dominating center. But Chicago was never as thin as what Jackson and his staff are looking at now.
In a meeting with Lakers beat writers this week, Jim Buss said that once the financial decks are clear and the Lakers get to chase a big name in 2007, Phil Jackson might well want to stay on and coach beyond the expiration of his current contract. It makes sense in the macro, NBA realm of things: That might be the precise moment at which the next few seasons of grinding, shaping and coaching pay off.
In the meantime, the Lakers of 2005 continue to consider options as they fill out their training camp roster for the team Jackson will coach in the here and now. The current names being bandied about: Earl Watson and Jannero Pargo. It's a long way from the Montana plains.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist for The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org