Phil Jackson, the NBA head coach with a Yogi Berra-type nose for championships, finally separated from the pack the other night by tallying his unprecedented 11th NBA championship as a coach, two more than Red Auerbach. With this, his seventh title defense, it's time to remove the asterisk that is usually implied when we mention his freakish numbers, and view him as reflected in the record books, probably the best coach ever.
Realizing that a debate over number one, in anything, is subjective, Jackson always seems to be dismissed for being handed the best players of the time, despite his dominance, as if having superstars guaranteed anything in professional sports.
There is no question that Phil routinely inherited great players, that's what he does. He manages super-egos, which are volatile enough to send coaches off shaking their heads. A person who says anybody can win with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen obviously forgot Doug Collins, who made quick exits from the playoffs as the Bulls' coach in '87 and '88, before Jackson was brought in from the Continental Basketball Association, where he won a title in 1984, by the way.
Unlike most coaches, Jackson made an immediate impact on the league. After only one season, he transformed the Bulls from a very talented team, to an unstoppable force, and contrary to popular belief, Jackson didn't just roll the ball out in practice while he meditated in a corner. The “Zen Master,” as he is called, infused his assistant Tex Winters' “triangle” offense, which was run to perfection. It would become his signature blueprint for championships and change the course of the league.
Nobody can say for sure how things would have gone with Collins still at the helm, but it couldn't have gone much better. Jackson's six rings from 1990 to 1998, where he squeezed Jordan and Pippen for every drop, is stuff of legend. When he took the next year off, however, his accomplishment was overshadowed by Jordan's dominance and he was viewed as a straw man who set the team on autopilot to catch a nap.
Then, after a one year absence, Phil Jackson relieved Del Harris, who had his hands full with the Lakers' mega-talented duo of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. It was no secret that the two stars didn't fit together in the locker room and it seemed to be a mistake even bringing them in. Still, true to form, Phil brought the triangle and his Zen practice to the West Coast and won three titles in his first three years, giving him a total of six straight championships as a head coach.
At that point, his legacy should have been cemented. Instead, he was met with criticism for only coaching talented teams, as if it was an ideal situation to have your team on the cover of every garbage tabloid in existence and have to referee a childish feud between two larger-than-life celebrities, with equal polarity, every time you come to work.
Even when the feud between O'Neal and Bryant came to a crescendo in the media, with him in the middle of it and Kobe facing rape charges, he won 135 games from '02-'04, including 19 in the playoffs and an appearance in the finals. It's a remarkable achievement for any other coach in the league, but for Jackson it's considered very subpar. Even with a championship ring on every finger but one, the Zen Master still had everything to prove.
The next year it got pretty ugly between him and Bryant, and he left. Shaq was traded, and without Jackson, the Lakers were 14 games under .500. His impact was predictable at that point, and it was even clearer when he took over again after just one season and turned things around immediately with a playoff berth.
Not only did he lose half of the star power he usually enjoyed, Jackson had to swallow his gigantic ego and make nice with Kobe, which is not easy, considering the epic proportions to which it was blown. In routine fashion though, Phil and Kobe just finished rattling off two straight championships, and if he doesn't get his respect by now, he never will.
In 20 years, he's won six times with two Hall-of-Famers, the same players Doug Collins couldn't win with, and grabbed three rings with two stars that Del Harris failed with. Now he has taken a team to the promised land without the dominating tandem he's been used to. Yes, he has Kobe Bryant, but since when does one superstar guarantee a win? True, he has Pau Gasol, but if you are going to be taken seriously at all, you better have a second scorer.
Basically, if you want to win, go out and get a couple of studs, and call Phil Jackson. No one does it better. Many coaches are great at the college level, but they can't flourish in an NBA environment. He is the opposite. So, whether or not he is number one on your list, Phil Jackson should always be in the conversation, with no qualifier and no exceptions.