Column: Kobe Bryant doesn't doubt the Zen Master
Nobody knows what might have happened had the Los Angeles Lakers been a bit more patient and allowed Kobe Bryant and his teammates some time to adjust to Mike Brown's new Princeton offense, no matter how ill-suited it seemed for their talents.
Not that it really matters, as long as Phil Jackson is ready and willing to bring his courtside throne out of retirement.
Kobe Bryant made that clear when asked whether the Lakers could switch gears and win quickly if Jackson returned with the triangle offense that made him arguably the greatest coach in NBA history.
"Are you doubting the Zen Master?" Bryant said.
No, and no one else should, either. Eleven NBA titles outstrips any misgivings about bringing the 67-year-old Jackson back, no matter how ignominious his ending with the Lakers was last time he was on the bench with them.
It still bothers Bryant that Jackson retired after the Lakers suffered an embarrassing meltdown in being swept out of the playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks two seasons ago.
"He's too great of a coach to go out that way," Bryant said. "That's kind of my personal sentiment."
Around Staples Center, Bryant's personal sentiment goes a long way. Despite his protestations to the contrary, he clearly wasn't happy with Brown or his offense, as evidenced by the angry stare he gave the coach as the Lakers lost to the Utah Jazz last week.
Time is running out for Bryant to get the sixth ring that will forever cement his place next to Michael Jordan when talk turns to the best players ever. He knows his best chance to get that ring and maybe even more is with the coach who was with him for the first five.
Jerry Buss believes that, too, which is why he and team management wasted no time in dumping Brown, despite having to eat about $10 million in severance pay. It's a small price to pay when the Lakers are flush with new TV money and in desperate need of a contending team if Time Warner Cable is to be successful in getting DirecTV and others to pay up and carry the new channel built around the franchise.
Indeed, Brown was given the hook so quickly it's fair to speculate that perhaps there was some corporate pressure coming from the company that paid some $3 billion for a 20-year deal to broadcast the Lakers. The firing came hours before the Lakers were going to play the hapless Golden State Warriors, giving them an easy win to get the post-Brown era off to a good start.
That both the Lakers and their star player want that era to be led by Jackson became clear immediately after Brown was fired. Laker fans didn't take much longer to get on the bandwagon, bringing signs supporting Jackson to Friday night's blowout of the Warriors, and chanting "We Want Phil" in the second half.
"I can understand why," interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff said. "The guy's got the rings."
Jackson appears to want to be back with the Lakers just as much. Multiple reports on Saturday were that he was contacting coaches to be his assistants, and that only contract details stood in the way of his rehiring.
As for Brown, well, that's what happens sometimes when you work on the big stage. Brown's biggest problem may have been that Bryant never warmed up to him, but his strange decision to implement an offense suited more for a team of journeymen than superstars undoubtedly helped speed up his demise.
A Princeton offense in a Showtime town? Not with Jack Nicholson and the rest of Hollywood's elite sitting courtside, you don't. Not when there are huge television deals, huge contracts, and huge luxury tax payments on the horizon.
This was a team built to win now, a team with aging stars in Bryant and Steve Nash that couldn't afford to wait to gel. Yes, Dwight Howard is still playing at about 50 percent of his ability as he works himself back into shape after back surgery, but the sum of this team was still far less than its parts.
Bryant went on Facebook to claim he had a good relationship with Brown and to wish him his best. But his biggest statement may have come on the court against the Warriors, where he dominated as if to declare the Brown era was over and a new one was beginning.
The Lakers can only hope this coaching change turns out as well as another early season firing did for the team 31 years ago. Paul Westhead was the coach then, but Magic Johnson was unhappy with his offensive system and asked to be traded early in the season, and Westhead was fired with the Lakers just 7-4 on the year.
His replacement was an assistant named Pat Riley, who took the team to the NBA title that year and ended up coaching three more championships in LA.
A content Kobe playing for the coach he admires most isn't going to make that happen by himself. He can still take over individual games, but for the season-long grind he'll need Nash to return from injury, Howard to keep improving, and Pau Gasol to play as hard as Bryant likes him to.
The Lakers will also need to figure out a way to play defense, something they refused to do much of under Brown, who built his reputation as a defensive coach.
It won't be an easy task, even if they get Jackson. There are no guarantees, especially when the road to any title goes through LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
But if Bryant doesn't doubt the Zen Master, Laker fans shouldn't either.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg