Phil Jackson is the epitome of an NBA lifer.
He is also very arguably the greatest coach in the history of the NBA. The real question is which of his two major coaching tenures has been more impressive?
Jackson entered the NBA as a member of the New York Knicks in 1967 as a second-round draft choice. He missed the entire 1969-70 season with an injury, but then spent several successful seasons with the Knicks, including being a top reserve on the Knicks squad that won a championship in 1973. He was traded in 1978 to the New Jersey Nets, where Phil Jackson became a player and assistant coach. Phil Jackson retired in 1980, remained as an assistant coach for one season. From 1982-87, Jackson coached the Albany team in the Continental Basketball Association, then returned to the NBA as an assistant coach with the Chicago Bulls in 1987. Phil Jackson became head coach in 1989.
After a second-place division finish in 1989-90, Phil Jackson guided the Bulls to three consecutive NBA championships, the first time that had been accomplished since 1966.
He won these rings with two Hall of Famers, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and a group of well crafted role players. He had arguably the greatest player of all time in his corner, Michael Jordan, but before Jackson had arrived Jordan was struggling mightily to just win a playoff series. Jackson changed all that. He brought a different perspective to the bulls and got them over the hump of the Detroit Pistons by hardening the Bulls defense to match their offense.
Jordan retired after the 1992-93 season, and the Bulls exited earlier in the playoffs for next two years.
Jordan returned in 1994 along with former Pistons nemesis Dennis Rodman. This along with Pippen and a solid core of role players still intact gave the Bulls what some people consider the best team ever assembled. They rattled off another three consecutive championships. One of these seasons was the 96-97 season in which they set the league wins record that still stands today with 72.
Next came the unthinkable, Jerry Krause, the Bulls General Manager decided to disassemble the team. Jordan retired once more, Scottie Pippen was traded and Phil Jackson retired.
After a year of retirement, though, Phil Jackson returned to coaching with the Los Angeles Lakers for the 2000-2001 season. The Lakers were a talented but troubled team, led by center Shaquille O'Neal and guard Kobe Bryant, who had joined them in 1996, directly out of high school.
Phil Jackson gave the Lakers a new intensity toward on team defense, and they responded by winning three straight NBA titles in his first three seasons guiding the team. Phil Jackson is the only coach ever to take two different teams to three consecutive championships.
After retiring from the Lakers for various reasons and the departure of Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers struggled for a couple years.
With some convince and a large contract, Jackson was convinced to rejoin the Lakers. In little time he had the team back in the NBA Finals after pairing big man Pau Gasol with Bryant. They were matched with the Celtics in 2007 only to be defeated. Jackson only pushed harder molding this new group into a well oiled machine. They have won consecutive championships in 2008 and 2009. They are looking to give Jackson his fourth three peat this season.
Both of Jackson’s major stops have been unparalleled successes. Arguments can be made for both sides being his more impressive stop.
I feel that the answer comes down to the players he was coaching.
I give the edge in the Phil Jackson sweepstakes to his Lakers legacy because he essentially did it with 2 different teams. One consisted of a dominant Shaquille O’Neal and an up and coming Kobe Bryant while the other was a few years later and much different. His second squad has been led by a more mature Bryant and a rock solid big man in Gasol. The Lakers roster has been completely revamped since their original championship with only Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant appearing on both rosters.
The Bulls dynasty however was essentially the same team with minor differences. They had the same lead guy, Jordan, same sidekick, Pippen, and many similar players.
I am not trying to take anything away from his tenure with the Bulls, but he has done much more in his coaching job with the Lakers, molding two separate championship teams.
Especially with the chance to add to his Lakers legacy this year and maybe beyond; Phil Jackson, correct or not, will likely go down in history as first and foremost a Lakers coach rather than a Bulls coach.