There have been few men who have had a bigger impact on the Los Angeles Lakers than Jerry West and Phil Jackson. West left his imprint on the franchise as a player and general manager, while Phil Jackson served as the team’s coach for 11 seasons.
But which man was more important to the franchise?
Was it “The Zen Master” or “Mr. Clutch”?
Let me start by saying: I watched just about every single game Phil Jackson coached with the Lakers. Conversely, I am way too young to have watched any of West’s games. Although, I rooted for plenty of the players he helped put on a Lakers uniform while serving as the team’s general manager from 1982-2002.
For the purpose of this article, I am going to use winning as the benchmark for deciding which man was more important to the franchise. After all, winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing, right?
Despite making nine appearances in the NBA Finals, West won just one championship in 1972.
Yes, West played 14 magnificent years with the team, averaging 27 points, in addition to currently sitting in second place on the team’s all-time scoring list. But from what I have gathered, West played the role of lovable loser more than dominating winner throughout his career.
And as I mentioned above, West was a magnificent GM for the team for 20 seasons, playing a hand in some of the team’s more recent championships. But West was a little too far removed from those championships to give him too much credit. After all, he didn’t draw up one play or score one point.
So that leaves Jerry West with one championship in which he contributed.
Not only did Phil Jackson take the team to seven NBA Finals, winning five championships in the process, he played the role of “savior.” Prior to Jackson joining the team in 1999, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were starting to get the reputation of not being able to perform on the biggest stages.
Jackson led Kobe and Shaq to a title in his first season as coach, building upon the mystique from his days with the Chicago Bulls, where he built a reputation of being able to harness some of the game’s biggest egos.
So, five championships, including three in a row between 2000-2002, en route to becoming arguably the franchise’s all-time greatest coach.
Now let’s talk about pressure.
Let’s pretend West had never won his title in 1972. It’s likely he wouldn't receive much less fanfare than he does today. I don’t know how much pressure West had on his shoulders back in the '60s and '70s, especially before winning his first championship, but it probably wasn’t close to what Jackson felt when he took over as coach of the Lakers.
Let’s pretend Jackson had never won a single championship as coach of the Lakers. If that were the case, I wouldn’t even be writing this article right now, and Lakers fans would think of Jackson as some “hack,” who couldn’t win without Michael Jordan by his side.
So, not only did Jackson “just win, baby,” he did it with substantial pressure on his shoulders.
Without West, the team would have one less championship. Without Jackson, five. And Kobe and Shaq may not be celebrating such decorated careers.
What Jackson lacks in quantity compared to West’s overall career as a Laker, he certainly makes up for with quality.