What if Phil Jackson coached the Heat?
If he decides not to walk away from basketball, coaching in Miami is an intriguing idea
It's Christmas Day 2011. The Los Angeles Lakers are coming off a three-peat, and the Miami Heat, in the second year of the Big Three experiment, are back at the Staples Center trying to take down the defending champions.
Late in the game, with the score tied, Phil Jackson calls a timeout and gathers his team together. While Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum walk to one end of the court, Jackson stands on the other end surrounded by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Unthinkable? A dagger in the hearts of Lakers fans? Perhaps. Of course this is all speculation, but Jackson labeled this season "the last stand" when he agreed to come back and coach the Lakers. And I wonder, does that mean this is Jackson's "last stand" as a head coach in the NBA or simply his "last stand" as the head coach of the Lakers?
He smiled Monday when I asked him, hypothetically, whether he would be intrigued by the possibility of teaching a talented, new group of players on the brink of a championship how to play as a team.
"Playing as a team is really the intriguing thing," Jackson said, ignoring the part about a new group of players. "We obviously use a system called the triangle, but it's just [about] playing together as a team and conveying that to a group of guys."
Jackson coached 11 seasons in Chicago (if you include his two seasons as an assistant) and won six titles during two three-peat runs. This is Jackson's 11th season coaching in Los Angeles, and if the Lakers win the championship, he will have won six titles during two three-peat runs.
But even as his time in Los Angeles winds down, it doesn't take much to imagine the prospect of a third chapter looming on the horizon.
There is no team better suited for the end of Jackson's coaching career than the Miami Heat. (After all, isn't Miami where most folks go to retire?) They have three of the best players in the league, and those players are in the early stages of learning how to "play together" and discovering what they can become.
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The core of the Lakers' three-peat team from 2000 to 2002 (Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Derek Fisher, Robert Horry and Rick Fox) was swept out of the playoffs by the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs and lost in five to the Jazz in the three years before Jackson took over and led the Lakers to the best record and the first of three straight championships.
"He has a way of holding people accountable without holding a gun to their head," Fisher said. "He really makes you feel that pressure to bring the best out of yourself, and few coaches have a way of doing that without forcing their will upon you."
Jackson not only has coached some of the best players in league history, he's also taken talented players and molded them into champions. As great as Jordan and Pippen were, how many titles do you think they'd have won with Doug Collins as their coach? As amazing as Bryant and O'Neal were, how many championships do you think they'd have won with Del Harris as their coach?
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Pat Riley, the Heat's president, always will be the hot name brought up in Miami coaching conversations, but Riley has said he doesn't want to coach anymore. Could he coax another year or two, another ring or two, out of Jackson?
The two are friendlier than people think.
In her recent book "Laker Girl," Jeanie Buss writes: "Phil and Pat are friendly rivals with mutual respect for each other. They even trade notes on occasion. There is no bitterness there even though their teams had many fierce battles when Phil was coaching the Bulls and Pat was leading the Knicks."
"I always appreciated Pat's gamesmanship," Jackson tells Buss. "He always brought out the best in me. People in L.A. don't know that."
If Miami falls short of winning a championship this season, maybe it's not out of the realm of possibility that Riley will once again try to bring out the best in Jackson by asking him to bring out the best in the Heat.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.