In establishing criteria for naming the greatest NBA player of all time, one might consider athleticism, skill set, versatility, and number of rings, to name a few. And normally, the conversation begins and ends with Michael Jordan . Claiming all of the above qualities for the length of his storied career, he forever raised the benchmark for greatness with a killer instinct to match his sensational resume.
The debate for the greatest NBA coach of all time, however, is not quite as certain. While Pat Riley, Red Auerbach , and Phil Jackson compile the short list of coaches who are all in their own right, worthy of the title, only Auerbach has truly built a coaching legacy that boasts the credentials to claim the number one spot.
When Red Auerbach took over as head coach for the Boston Celtics in 1950, they were a reeling franchise coming off a 22-46 record the previous season. He quickly made several bold moves, notably selecting African-American Chuck Cooper , the first black player to be drafted by an NBA club, breaking down the color barrier in pro basketball.
Auerbach quickly turned these Celtics into a perrenial playoff team who played high-octane, fast-break basketball, resembling a modern Phoenix Suns team. Though they made the playoffs every year until 1956, they, “Would get tired in the end,” as Auerbach put it and fall to teams with a greater post presence. It was then that Auerbach decided they needed a defensive big man who could control the paint and grab rebounds that led to easy fast break points . Bill Russell was that man, and alongside point guard Bob Cousy , the Celtics won the NBA Championship an unprecedented nine times in the next eleven years. This all came in time as Auerbach learned to make adjustments with his roster and style of play. It is Auerbach’s genius, his ability to make the adjustments alongside the nine rings that make him special.
Though Jackson leads the pack in championship rings , ultimate barometers of success, with 10, he falls short in the category that will eventually define him if he doesn’t do something about it. And fast. Jackson is yet to build his coaching career into a legacy the same way Auerbach did because he has yet to overcome true adversity.
Throughout Jackson’s career, he has had the pleasure of coaching several Hall of Fame players including Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen , Shaquille O’neal, and his current captain, Kobe Bryant . Bringing superstar players to set their egos aside and trust each other is a challenge on its own, but Jordan and Pippen never had any issues big enough to go public. Shaq and Kobe though, won three rings together despite their infamous beefing, suggesting that maybe chemistry isn’t as much a championship piece as talent is. And just maybe, that all of the teams Jackson has coached were talented enough to win without his triangle offense or his pre-game meditation sessions.
To silence his critics, Jackson must do what he has not done in his career and overcome his biggest challenge yet: The Boston Celtics. With health problems lingering and his coaching future uncertain, this may be his final chance to prove that he can do what all great NBA coaches can do and mak adjustments.
The 2008 NBA Finals marked the second time that a Jackson-coached team was unable to get it done in the Finals (The first being 2004.) Going into the 2008 NBA Finals the favorite, Jackson’s Lakers seemingly had the edge in almost every category, particularly coaching. Doc Rivers was dubbed too inexperienced to make the necessary adjustments to guide his Celtics to a Finals victory, but he had other plans.
Rivers outcoached Jackson for the better part of six games, employing a hard-nosed defense that stifled the Lakers ’ frontline and hassled Kobe Bryant into 40% shooting. Jackson had six games to counter the aggressiveness of Rivers’ Celtics, but his adjustments only played into the hands of Boston and his game plan came up short as the Celtics closed out the series with an emphatic 39-point victory, the most lopsided clincher in NBA Finals history .
Jackson has always been the favorite, never the underdog, which has worked both for and against him in his 21-year coaching career. Expectations for his teams are so high that even if they fall just short, it is a disastrous letdown. And great coaches do fall short just like Auerbach did six years in a row. But when they do, they learn from their flawed game plans and learn to play the game of basketball more like chess; countering the opponent’s strengths while exposing their weaknesses. Phil Jackson has little choice but to take a page out of Auerbach’s playbook and rise to the occasion on the world’s biggest stage in these 2010 NBA Finals .
The ball is in Jackson’s court. He can show the world that he will not be outplayed by the same team twice and achieve everything you possibly can as an NBA coach or he can fall to these Celtics again, tarnishing what is otherwise a legendary career. Because despite his ten championship rings, he will be remembered as the coach who always had rosters with enough talent to coast on, and more importantly as the Zen Master who never could quite master taking out these big, bad Boston Celtics.