MIKE SILVA: Last week, NBA analyst Steve Kerr told Chris Russo of “Mad Dog Radio” that Phil Jackson’s strength was more motivational than “X’s” and “O’s.” Throughout his coaching tenure he would find ways to get into his players, opponents, and referees heads like no other coach in professional sports. That is why Phil Jackson, in my opinion, is the greatest coach in NBA history. Perhaps the history of North American sports.
Often the difference between a champion and an also ran is razor thin at the professional level. Jackson’s legacy of 11 titles is often prefaced by the fact he inherited Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago, and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’ Neal in Los Angeles. Having arguably four of the top 50 players in the history of basketball makes it far easier to win multiple championships. Managing those egos, however, is not quite as easy. Never mind managing it to achieve long term success.
Before Jackson came to Chicago how many titles did the Bulls win? The team that won three titles from 91-94 was the same squad that couldn’t beat the Pistons under Doug Collins. Jackson was able to get Jordan to buy into the concept of team, and teach him how his immense talent to take over a game could still fit the flow of the other four players on the court. He was able to keep Scottie Pippen happy, despite the fact he could have been the first option elsewhere. When Jordan left for a year the Bulls won 55 games, and nearly upset the Knicks in the semi-finals. One could argue that Hue Hollins was the difference between the Bulls winning a fourth straight championship in 1994. Getting that group of Pippen, Kukoc, and Grant to overachieve might be his best coaching job to date. Don’t forget he managed the eccentric ego of Dennis Rodman during the second Chicago three peat, and actually squeezed the last productive years out of him. Rodman was at a career crossroads when he was acquired by the Bulls. He was never better at any point in his career.
Perhaps an even greater accomplishment was getting Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’ Neal to work together. Is there any other coach that could keep these two from tearing that team apart? Bryant never seemed to have the same sense of self awareness towards his teammates that Jordan developed. Jackson won two different ways in Los Angeles: Once with O’ Neal as the focal point, and Bryant playing Pippen. The second time with Bryant as the main focus, Pau Gasol as his wingman, and talented players like Lamar Odom, Ron Artest, and Andrew Bynum sacrificing their games for the team. It seemed he knew when O’ Neal’s shelf life was up, and that it was time to turn the team over to Bryant.
You can’t win in the NBA unless you get buy in from your star players. Doing this with one ego is hard enough, but Jackson had to accomplish this with some of the biggest in the history of the sport. He also brought in difficult personalities like Rodman and Artest, and was able to make it about the team and not themselves. I can’t think of another coach that could have handled those individuals at that point in their career.
Any gym rat can diagram fancy plays. There is a coach like that on every NBA staff. Very few can manage personalities, and keep their team motivated consistently. This is especially true in the modern big money NBA. Jackson not only did this with two organizations, but was able to sustain it for nearly two decades. This is even more impressive than Red Auerbach, who did it during a different period in NBA history where both the game, and life, was simpler.
AKIE BERMISS: When it comes to Phil Jackson, the answers are never easy. Was it the coaching? Or was it the talent? This is the question that will hover over his career forever. Still, there is something about Jackson’s coaching style that leads to wins.
In every team he has coached has been practically loaded with superstars. Some were already acknowledged as such, others would soon come into the title. And despite this, every team he coach was usually a jumble of huge egos and horrible on-court dynamics. The 1989 Bulls were nothing to sniff at, but they certainly weren’t dominating the league. This was still the era of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Isaiah Thomas after all. Michael Jordan was a known entity, but he wasn’t really on the best-player-of-all-time lists. It was after Jackson assumed the head coach position and changed the Bulls’ offensive stance that they started to gain steam. He put Jordan out front and gave him a ton of lee-way, he had Scottie Pippen backing him up as the other threat, and then he had the rest of the team playing solid basketball when those two were otherwise preoccupied. As far as I’m concerned, no other coach could have gotten that team to a championship. Firstly, keeping Pippen on the team — when he could have been top dog at pretty much his choice of franchises — was huge. Secondly, using his triangle offense to open the game up significantly and give his superstars the support they didn’t know they needed. And thirdly, doing it in a league that was dominated by the older masters who were were all standing in line to take down his upstarts. There were Johnson and Bird and Thomas as I said before, but also there were indefatigable team-generals like Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, and Karl Malone. All players who’s teams the Bulls would run roughshod over to get to their six championships.
That would be impressive enough. But then Jordan went away for two years and then came back to a vastly changed NBA. The Knicks and the Pacers and the Heat and the Magic and the Nets… all teams making waves in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the West had become the land of the Spurs and the Suns and, of course, the Houston Rockets. And yet, like nothing had happened, the team got back together and proceeded to, once again, dominate everything.
Some people attribute this to Michael Jordan, but I’m not so sure. He was a great players, but he wasn’t the X-factor. He may have been the missing piece to Jackson’s winning mechanics for that very reason.
So there’s another three-peat and then Jackson goes away for a year. And then he comes back to coach the O’neal-Bryant Lakers. And guess what he does there? Three-peat. That’s right. Even after Shaq leaves, Jackson is able to eek two more championships out of what I think was a slowly crumbling franchise.
Paraphrasing Mike, anyone can make-up fancy plays and direct drills and call time-outs. It is not that alone that makes a great coach. It is envisioning the broader conflict and strategy, recognizing your assets and putting them where they can be most effective, and — yes — keeping the team together and focused on winning. If we count those as core elements of being a Head Coach — then Jackson is inarguably one of the best in NBA history. And coming from a Knicks fan, that is high praise indeed.