A subplot to the NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Detroit Pistons, which begin Sunday in Los Angeles, is whether Lakers Coach Phil Jackson wins his record 10th NBA championship. It is certain to inspire a debate over whether Jackson should be anointed the greatest coach in league history, especially among those with unwavering appreciation for Red Auerbach's nine titles with the Boston Celtics.
Equally, if not more intriguing, will be whether Jackson returns to the Lakers next season.
After winning six titles with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, Jackson has Los Angeles in line to claim its fourth Larry O'Brien Trophy in five years. Even so, his contract is expiring at the end of the season and there is no guarantee Lakers ownership wants him back or that he wants to return.
Jackson, who as a player was a member of the New York Knicks championship teams in 1969-70 and 1972-73, has a career coaching record of 832-316 (.725 winning percentage). His postseason career record is 174-65 (.728 winning percentage).
Emotions have ebbed and flowed on both sides, with Jackson saying yesterday that things remain as unsettled as the day the Lakers broke off contract extension talks mid-season.
"I don't know what the future holds," Jackson said in a conference call. "I'm not worried about it or anticipating that anything could happen. I'm not presupposing retiring and I'm not refuting the fact I may retire. The promise that we've made to each other -- [owner] Jerry Buss, myself and the Lakers -- is that we will wait until the end of the season to discuss what's in line. A lot of what goes into this series will go into the decision at that time."
He did not say if that meant a win-or-go-home scenario and added that what happens in free agency could also factor into his future with the team. Though Jackson did not get specific, what happens with Lakers guard Kobe Bryant in free agency could determine his tenure with the Lakers.
Bryant, who has verbally sparred with Jackson for months, can opt out of his contract -- he has said that is his intent -- after the playoffs and become the most sought after free agent on the market. Buss said he wants Bryant to remain with the Lakers at all costs. He has not said the same for Jackson, who just happens to date the owner's daughter, Jeanie.
There has been speculation that either Bryant or Jackson must go. However, another championship could make the situation tolerable for one more go-round.
"It's going to be a lot about how things transpire in the series and how things transpire in July," Jackson said, referring to the beginning of the free agency period.
Bryant's pending sexual assault trial in Colorado this summer adds more uncertainty. Should Bryant opt out of his contract, courtship by other teams could be tempered because of a possible conviction and prison sentence. Bryant could also opt out and re-sign with Los Angeles for more money, which he said would be his first option. However, the Lakers also could be in a tough spot if they re-sign Bryant, let Jackson go, and then Bryant is convicted. They would not have to honor the contract with Bryant, but they would have to find a new coach.
Though things in Los Angeles are more extreme, in large part because of the issues with Bryant, this is not the first time Jackson has been in such an awkward situation.
After leading the Chicago Bulls to their sixth straight championship in 1998, Jackson was part of a wholesale cleansing of the coaching staff and roster. Jackson, Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen -- each had problems with General Manager Jerry Krause -- either left because of expiring contracts or by forcing trades, ripping apart one of the great NBA dynasties. The Bulls have yet to recover.
The same thing could happen to the Lakers because future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton, who signed for two seasons each last summer, could retire or opt out of their contracts. Center Shaquille O'Neal could be the only key member of this nucleus left next season.