The children of Phil Jackson, two sons and two daughters, accompanied their father to his postgame news conference Tuesday night. Never one to miss a chance to make a social comment, Jackson said, "I always see the ballplayers bring their kids out so I thought, you know, I could bring my kids out."
However, Jackson had to know he was also bringing speculation into the room. Did he invite his children because this session would amount to a farewell of sorts for a coach who has been rumored for weeks to be fed up and then some coaching the Lakers?
Jackson danced around the question, but not for long. "Right now I would say that it's a pretty slim chance that I'll be back coaching next year," he said. "It's a pretty slim chance. I've had a lot of persuasion given to me by these kids. They were hoping I could win the 10th [NBA championship] and then retire, but maybe losing this one, this opportunity is enough for me to say that it's time to give it up."
Jackson danced a little more, said he wasn't quite ready to make such a decision right now. There is some talk that he could return if Shaq and Kobe came back after putting their differences aside, and that he could return if the club improved its roster.
It all sounds nice, but Jackson is done as coach of the Lakers. Before the postgame session was over, he was referring to next year's Lakers as "they." There are players who said that part of the reason the team looked so disorganized and lifeless through five games of being manhandled by the Pistons is that they had tuned Jackson out, that they already presumed he was a lame duck coach.
Either way, it's over. After five seasons, four trips to the Finals, three championships and more drama than a soap opera marathon, it's the end for these Lakers.
Phil apparently will be the first to go, but it's fair to wonder how quickly either Kobe or Shaq will follow.
Yes, Kobe could turn down all the free agent offers he is sure to get and return to the Lakers (who can pay him more) to play with Shaq for a coach of great stature such as, say, Pat Riley. But haven't we seen enough of Shaq & Kobe to know the two of them won't work anymore. They didn't just finish runners-up to the Pistons; they lost in a way that suggests they didn't play with any fight. Maybe the time for Kobe & Shaq as a tandem has come and gone. While the presumption has been that either would be nuts to try to win without the other, maybe that's the best thing for each.
This is the kind of franchise-defining issue that Jerry West mastered all those years he ran the Lakers. Now it's Mitch Kupchak's turn to figure it out. Kupchak, the former Bullet, says he has no intention of trading Kobe, but it's time to wonder why not. Why not consider dealing him to Orlando (if Kobe will agree to a sign and trade) for Tracy McGrady?
If Kobe agreed, I'd make that move in a heartbeat (McGrady isn't yet a free agent so he wouldn't have any say, and he'd love to play with Shaq anyway). I'd explore getting Allen Iverson, plus a little something to sweeten the deal, from Philly.
Clearly, Kobe and Phil cannot co-exist. Kobe said all the right things in the aftermath of Game 5. He said: "I loved playing for Phil. I learned so much from playing for Phil and playing with Shaquille, too. I think we've got a lot of great things accomplished despite our differences. We've played extremely well together. We've had an incredible run. So, I would not be opposed to playing with them forever.
"It's just not up to me. It's not my decision."
Of course it's his decision.
If he wants to stay, Jerry Buss will give him whatever he wants, including input on the selection of the new head coach, and Kobe will stay, especially since the owner, if he had to choose right now, would keep Kobe over Shaq, and everybody in L.A., including those two, knows it. And if that scenario plays out, Shaq will have to decide if he wants to spend the rest of his career with a guy he is at odds with frequently.
Asked about this summer of discontent, Shaq said late Tuesday night, "This summer is going to be a different summer for a lot of people.
"Everyone is going to take care of their own business and everyone is going to do what's best for them, including me. . . . It's going to be a funny summer. . . . I'm not sure really where the organization wants to go from here. It's all a business."
And because it's a business it's difficult to imagine the club bringing back Gary Payton, though it's probably just fine with him.
Payton failed to reach double-digits in each of his last eight playoff games. He averaged five points a game during that span. Granted, whoever coaches the Lakers next year won't be running the triangle offense, which is such a bad fit for Payton. But the Glove's problems don't start and end with the triangle. He may have something left, but not a whole lot.
And that brings us to Karl Malone, who had one of the most unsatisfying seasons of his career, because of the death of his mom, because he missed so many games during the regular season, because he re-injured his knee and couldn't play effectively in the NBA Finals, which is what he came to do for so much less money. I talked to Malone a half-dozen times at length during the T-Wolves and Pistons series and I don't think he knew his plans for next season, though if I was a betting man I'd check the box beside the word "retirement."
Perhaps because three of my favorite NBA players are Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Malone, all three ringless, I refuse to believe that their careers are somehow less than that of, say, Pistons rookie benchwarmer Darko Milicic, who soon will have a championship ring of his own.
It was rather surprising to hear Jackson say Kupchak would have to start rebuilding the Lakers in July, which makes you wonder if Jackson really expects a dismantling rather than a retooling. Clearly, the Lakers have to find a coach Kobe and/or Shaq can trust. They have to get more athletic players. They have to keep at least one of their two stars. And they have to figure out what to do to get along if both should stay. And if they can do all of those things, we probably won't have the Los Angeles Lakers to kick around much next season.