Ask Laker fans and Bulls fans about their latest dynasties and each group will give you a specific answer. Lakers fans will talk about Kobe. Bulls fans will relish in the memories of MJ. Ask for the connection between the 2 and both groups will have the same answer, “The greatest coach of all-time, Phil Jackson.”
This is definitely a title that many have given the man known as “The Zen Master” and we try and figure out if he is truly worthy of it.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the NBA in 1996, players, coaches, GM’s, and media members chose the top 10 coaches in NBA history. Mr. Phil Jackson was on the list. And there was good reason for him to be on this list. At the time he had 4 NBA championships and the highest winning percentage in league history (.704). Since then, he got even better. He added 7 more championships to his coaching resume and his winning percentage stayed at the all-time high through 20 seasons with 2 different franchises.
That is a resume that matches up with any other coach in NBA history. As for the argument against Phil Jackson, it’s quite a simple one.
Phil Jackson has been the coach of not only the 2 greatest players to step on a court, Jordan and Kobe, but also the greatest 1-2 punches in league history with MJ-Pippen and Kobe-Shaq. This season we have seen how 1 player (Lebron James) can carry a mediocre team (Cavs) to championship contention without the coach getting much credit. This generation’s best player is on his way to his 5th NBA Finals with 3 different coaches that have yet to make the playoffs without him. So why is credit given to coach who not only had a Lebron but also had a Shaq or a Pippen?
Truthfully there is the opinion Phil Jackson’s best coaching strategy is to not coach; to have a better roster and let MJ or Kobe take over. The idea that only 1 time in Jackson’s coaching career has he faced a better team in the NBA Finals is true. His loss against Boston in the 08’ Finals showed that he could not overcome a team with better talent, something a great coach is expected to do. And he was completely out-coached in his other Finals loss (2004) by Larry Brown as Chauncey Billups and the Pistons steamrolled Jackson’s heavily favored Lakers. In Jackson’s other 11 NBA Finals appearances, Jordan’s Bulls and the Kobe led Lakers were the better team and the Zen Master simply sat back and let his players get him his rings.
Of course with just about every great coach in NBA history you can make the claim that they had the best player and the best team. Pat Riley’s Showtime Lakers had Magic. Chuck Daly’s Pistons had Isaiah Thomas and the Bad Boys. Gregg Popovich has had Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker. Even Red Auerbach’s 8 straight championships with the Celtics in the 60’s have to be credited to 11x champion Bill Russell.
But where we can truly see Phil Jackson’s greatness and value as a coach is seeing how his teams did when he left. The season after Phil left the Bulls they had just a .260 winning percentage, but many attribute that to Chicago being without Jordan after his 2nd retirement from basketball. So instead we look at the year Jackson took off in 04-05 after coaching the Lakers to a Western Conference championship the year before. In the 04-05 season LA missed the playoffs with a 34-48 record. But once again, people blame the loss of superstar Shaquille O’Neal rather than the loss of Jackson. So we are left looking at the Lakers season after Phil retired in 2011. And although Laker fans believe that it has been all downhill since Jackson left, the 2011-12 Lakers made it just as far in the playoffs with Mike Brown as head coach as they did when the Zen Master was holding the clipboard.
What it boils down to in the end is the old sports adage “Players win games, Coaches lose them”. And although people in Chicago and Los Angeles may consider it blasphemy, Phil Jackson was not the coach who won those championships. He was simply the coach who didn’t lose them. And although we can argue whether Jackson would have won championships without them, we certainly can’t argue his success with them.