Phil Jackson does not look like the greatest coach of all-time. He refuses to call time-outs during difficult stretches, coaches from an over-sized booster seat and often appears bored or aloof during critical moments of games.
He may not look like a great coach, but looks can be deceiving.
Phil vs. Red
Phil’s resume speaks for itself. His 11 NBA championships place him two ahead of the legendary Red Auerbach. Auerbach won his titles in a different era. While he was coaching there were less than 10 NBA teams. Red never worried about players jumping to other teams because free agency didn’t exist.
The NBA is much different today. The number of teams has more than tripled since Auerbach’s days and star players often have more power over team management than their coaches do. Phil has won more titles in a more competitive era. He has won with multiple teams and multiple stars.
Critics argue that Phil’s 11 titles are a direct result of the talent he has coached. While he did coach Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, there have been other teams with tremendous talent that could not put the pieces together. How is the Miami Heat doing with its Super Friends experiment right now? How many titles did the Olajuwon, Barkley and Drexler/Pippen Houston Rockets win? Talent is necessary, but coaching makes all the difference.
Let’s go back to Auerbach’s Celtics for a moment. While he was a great coach, his teams were loaded with talent. He coached many Hall of Famers including Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and John Havlicek. If Phil only won because he had top players, the same must be said of Auerbach.
The Smartest Guy in the Room
The 82-game NBA season is a grueling marathon and Jackson manages accordingly. Does he stress over an early season loss? Of course not. Phil knows the difference between an early December game against the Grizzlies and an early March game against the Spurs. His teams get better as the season rolls on and they always peak at the right time.
Phil loves getting into his opponent’s head and is constantly seeking to gain a psychological edge. He has verbally sparred with Mark Cuban, Stan Van Gundy and Erik Spoelstra. After hearing that members of the Miami Heat were in tears following a late-game collapse, Phil’s response was classic—“Big boys don’t cry. But, if you're going to do it, do it in the toilet where no one can see.”
Jackson manages his players better than anyone else. How many coaches could have corralled Dennis Rodman, turning him into a valuable contributor on a championship team? What about his success with Ron Artest? Phil has extracted maximum value from these two volatile players.
Jackson’s teams are known for having role players that step up in clutch situations. He has persuaded his role players to set aside their individual interests and focus on what is best for the team. Key players including John Paxson, Steve Kerr, Robert Horry, Derek Fisher and Glen Rice made timely contributions on championship teams. Convincing a good player to take a lesser role is no small task in today’s game.
With all of that said, Phil’s most impressive feat might be his repaired relationship with Kobe. Following the 2003-2004 season, Jackson walked away from the Lakers. Many have blamed Bryant for forcing him out. Phil went public with his Kobe frustrations in the book, “The Last Season.” The book is very critical of Kobe and at one point Jackson calls him “uncoachable.” Phil and Kobe reunited in 2005 and have managed to coexist. Despite their differences they have worked together to win back-to-back championships.
The Greatest Coach
Phil is a winner. Since 1996, there have only been three teams that have completed a three-peat. Jackson coached all of them. He has repeatedly announced that this will be his last season as a coach. Should the Lakers win the title this year, Jackson will have completed his fourth three-peat. If they don’t win it all, he will still go out with more championship rings than fingers.
Sounds like the greatest of all time to me.