- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Phil Jackson officially embarked on what he is calling his "last stand" as an NBA head coach Friday, addressing media for the first time since announcing in July he would be returning to the Lakers this year to make his 11th season in Los Angeles, and 20th overall, his last one.
But, just like Jackson was back sporting his old bearded look, he was also up to his old ways of leaving the door slightly ajar when it comes to his future on the sidelines.
"I've kind of looked at every season as the last season, especially here for the last three years," Jackson said. "It's not all that different. If feels kind of much the same."
When asked pointedly if he was 100 percent sure this would be his final season, Jackson replied, "I can't tell. Every year I like to think of going into a season and thinking, 'This is it,' and doing it the right way and putting everything I have into it, so this is just like a normal thing."
Jackson, who said he received "pretty good reports" from doctors about his health and appeared rested and eager to start the Lakers quest for a third consecutive championship, said that his decision to return for a final year was actually an easy one.
"I just had to get away from L.A. and from the madness of winning a championship and go and retreat and think about it," Jackson said. "It took me a couple days, but it wasn't difficult once I came to the conclusion that this is just the way it should end, this is just the way it should go and it was time to come back."
He added with a wry smile: "I kind of put it out in the press release that this is the 'last stand,' so I hope it's not like Custer's."
Whether or not this is Jackson's swan song or not, the team that made the most noise during the offseason, Miami, is already on the coach's mind.
"I think it's quite a surprise to all of us in the NBA that this was what happened," Jackson said about the Heat, who added LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Dwyane Wade. "I think a lot of people have taken shots at Miami because of that, but I think it's all fair game. Players can go out and recruit. General managers and coaches can't. They did a great job of recruiting these players. These players obviously wanted to collude together and do this. It's going to make for a very exciting season, I think, and it's going to be something that players and people are going to look forward to seeing on the floor."
The Lakers get to see the Heat in Los Angeles on Christmas Day.
While Jackson is targeting a fourth straight trip to the Finals, he acknowledged that injuries to Andrew Bynum, Kobe Bryant and Luke Walton, plus the infusion of three new free agents and two new rookies, could cause the team to start off slow.
"This training camp is kind of a bust," Jackson said. "You just have to try to do the best you can in this training camp. We'll try to incorporate these new players, embrace them, educate them in what we do [but] we don't anticipate in the first two weeks that we're going to gain any ground, so to speak."
Jackson said Bynum, overcoming knee surgery, could miss all of training camp, plus the first several games of the regular season.
Bryant is rehabbing an offseason knee procedure of his own but should be available by the time of the Lakers first preseason game against Minnesota on Oct. 4.
"Just recently Kobe said he's starting to move and feel the right way and I anticipate he's going to play some minutes, even over in Europe," Jackson said.
Walton spent the offseason trying to strengthen a sore lower back that limited him to just 29 games in the regular season and 16 games in the playoffs last year.
"He's been working really hard on his physical condition during the summer," Jackson said. "He hasn't played basketball, per se, but he's doing a lot of physical work. Hopefully he'll be able to get up there and withstand it and we'll be able to move forward with that second unit. In the process, we'll kind of watch him during training camp and make sure he doesn't go through two-a-days or things like that."
Lakers rookie small forward Devin Ebanks has a partially-guaranteed contract for the time being but would most certainly be signed through the season should Walton's back show signs of trouble during training camp.
"I can't say I feel confident," Jackson said of Walton's health. "I'm hopeful."
L.A. hosts its annual media day Saturday and leaves the country Sept. 30 to partake in the NBA's Europe Live preseason promotion. The game against the Timberwolves will be played at London's O2 Arena. The team then travels to Barcelona to play an additional preseason game against a Spanish team in Pau Gasol's hometown.
"We're going to go to Europe and we're to be a showcase team for the NBA in Europe, which is fine, it's our turn to go and we'll make the best out of it," said Jackson, who is notorious for balking at long plane rides, missing the Hall of Fame ceremonies for former players Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen the last two summers in part because of that.
Training camp will be particularly important for Ebanks and fellow rookie Derrick Caracter, as well as free-agent acquisitions to fortify the bench in Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff as they become accustomed to the Lakers' system.
"We felt like last year our bench hit a soft spot sometime in the middle of the season. We had some things that didn't jell quite the way we wanted it to go," Jackson said. "We felt like this year maybe we had to have a little better support.
"With Luke being injured last year and only playing in a certain amount of games, 20-something games, it felt like it really hurt the bench chemistry. We hopefully backed up that position in case Luke has any injuries that prevent him from participating with Matt Barnes."
Jackson, who turned 65 a week ago Thursday, also returned with him his patented wit. He quipped that Lamar Odom is already "de-conditioning as we go" after helping USA Basketball to a gold medal at the FIBA World Championships in Turkey and called Gasol the "ambassador for the world" after the Lakers All-Star forward spent the summer away from basketball traveling to India, China, Ethiopia and Spain. "He should start the Palestine-Israeli peace talks."
Asides from growing out his beard, Jackson said he spent much of his summer collaborating on a book with NBA senior photographer Andrew D. Bernstein that is set to be released in November. In the book, "Journey To The Ring," Bernstein chronicled the Lakers' 2009-10 championship season with photographs that Jackson provided the captions for.
"It really brought me back and helped me embrace the season," Jackson said.
He also attended the wedding of one of his children in Montana and was back in L.A. for the birth of a new grandchild.
Jackson admitted to re-signing for a salary figure less than the approximate $12.5 million (plus $2 million bonus) he earned last season, but the pay cut did not appear to take any wind out of his sails.
"I was quite comfortable with [Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss'] proposition; it wasn't hard for me to do it," Jackson said. "No one likes to lose salary, especially after they win a championship, but it's part of what is going on in the game and part of what's in the process of getting back and solvent. This team needs to cut some things and some players have taken less in the process as we go along in this organization, so it made sense."
Even though he has a record 11 championship rings as a head coach and is seeking an unprecedented fourth three-peat to end his career, the goal is no less daunting.
"It's an impossible task," Jackson said. "You just go about it and don't think about how difficult [it is] and play each game and don't worry about anything but that."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. http://twitter.com/mcten.
7hChris Broussard and Brian Windhorst