- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson said in a radio interview Tuesday that he will make a firm decision about returning to the bench next season by "early July" and that he will also explore the possibility of letting Lakers assistant coach Kurt Rambis coach more road games in Jackson's place.
In the interview with ESPN Radio in Los Angeles (710 AM), Jackson insisted that health concerns would be the only reason that prevented him from completing the final season of his current coaching contract.
He also revealed that the concept of Rambis coaching the team regularly on the road -- theoretically sparing Jackson, who turns 64 in September, from the rigors of travel -- has already been discussed internally.
The Lakers completed a test run of the concept in April when Jackson, having had both of his hips replaced in recent years, skipped a one-game trip to Portland on the second night of back-to-back games shortly after the team had finished a grueling seven-game trip. With Rambis in charge, L.A. suffered a 106-98 loss to the Blazers.
"Yeah, we've toyed around with that idea actually," Jackson told ESPN Radio hosts John Ireland and Mychal Thompson. "I guess it's not that revolutionary. We talked a little bit about it, and you know I was actually kind of given the green light to actually try this out and when the time came."
"I think the idea has some merit to it," Jackson went on. "[But] I don't want to lose control of the team. And I think that's the one thing that you find out your team needs. I don't mean control, like control, but like being in the trenches with them, i.e., when things get tough or something happens, you're there with them. This isn't the first time I've heard this idea and it's certainly not going to be the last. And I'm going to discuss it a little with [Lakers general manager] Mitch [Kupchak], that same idea."
Reached later Tuesday by ESPN.com, Kupchak said it was too soon to publicly discuss the idea.
Jackson didn't give an indication in the interview how hard he would actually push for such an arrangement, given the pitfalls he identified, but he did say that he was confident that his veteran-laden roster could "make the transition OK," having just won a championship. But another worry, Jackson volunteered, is that negative "perceptions from the outside may be difficult at first."
Jackson has one season remaining on a two-year contract extension that pays him an estimated $12 million annually. NBA coaching sources said one main reason Rambis was motivated to reject an offer to coach the Sacramento Kings earlier this month is the likelihood that he will receive strong consideration to take over for Jackson when the NBA's first coach with 10 championship rings retires for good.
Rambis' fellow Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw is also considered a likely down-the-road candidate, but it's also widely believed that Kobe Bryant will lobby for his Team USA coach -- Duke's Mike Krzyzewski -- to finally leave the college game for the pros whenever the Lakers have an opening.
The prevailing view among team insiders is that Jackson will coach only one more season at most. He acknowledged in Tuesday's interview that it was "sobering this year for me to go through the playoffs without [longtime assistant] Tex Winter there" and that he is giving more thought to his own health since Winter suffered a stroke in April.
Since originally joining the Lakers for the 1999-2000 season, Jackson has endured an angioplasty and gout in addition to his two hip surgeries. Even Lakers GM Kupchak acknowledged after L.A.'s title-clinching Game 5 victory over Orlando that Jackson could decide to leave the coaching business after breaking his nine-ring tie with Boston Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach.
"It seems to make sense, doesn't it?" Kupchak told reporters in Orlando. "I don't think he'll do it, but it seems to make sense."
Jackson indicated Tuesday that next week, after Thursday's draft, will "be dedicated" to finalizing his plans for next season. Todd Musburger, Jackson's agent, told ESPN.com's J.A. Adande after L.A.'s Game 5 victory: "We've had a number of discussions about what he'd do, win or lose. He didn't want to leave under either scenario."
Marc Stein covers the NBA for ESPN.com.
11hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann