Basketball may be a player's game, but coaching can make a huge difference. The 2005-06 Lakers were a case in point, as Phil Jackson's return helped push L.A. to a 45-win season and, nearly, a first-round upset of Phoenix in the playoffs.
Jackson improved L.A. by 11 games despite having less talent on hand (thanks to the daffy Caron Butler-Kwame Brown trade), with most of his impact coming at the defensive end. For all the talk about the hallowed triangle offense, it didn't change things much -- L.A. was seventh in offensive efficiency in 2004-05, and eighth with Jackson a year later.
But the Zen Master's defensive impact was huge. L.A. was a poor defensive team a year earlier, especially in the final two months, when the team essentially quit on interim coach Frank Hamblen. Overall the Lakers ranked 29th in defensive efficiency and forced fewer turnovers than any team in the league.
Under Jackson, then, the improvement to the middle of the pack -- 15th overall -- was enormous. The Lakers greatly increased their forced turnovers, thanks mainly to the fast hands of point guard Smush Parker, and pulled themselves up to the league average in most of the other defensive categories. As a result, what had been an awful defense is now an acceptable one.
From there, Kobe Bryant took care of the rest. The shooting guard had his best season as a pro, leading the league in scoring with a whopping 35.4 points per game, finishing a close third in the NBA in player efficiency rating and finishing fourth in the MVP voting. Bryant's explosion more than made up for the loss of Butler, as well as the Lakers' other limitations. Even though only three other players had any scoring ability in the half court (Lamar Odom, Chris Mihm and Brian Cook), Bryant was so good that L.A. finished well above the league average in offensive efficiency.