Yes, the five banners hanging in Staples Center thanks to Jackson’s coaching is one of them. But there are other, not so obvious reasons the franchise will forever be in debt to the “Zen Master.”
Let’s take a look.
Let’s start with the obvious. Phil Jackson led the Los Angeles Lakers to five championships and seven conference titles in his 11 seasons with the team.
The five championships Jackson won in Los Angeles gave him one more than Pat Riley, who won four with the team in the 1980s.
In February of 2010, Jackson became the franchise’s leader in coaching victories, earning his 534th victory, surpassing Riley’s mark of 533.
In my 17 years following the NBA, there have been two coaches who I felt gave their teams an advantage just by showing up and sitting on the bench. One is Gregg Popovich and the other of course is Phil Jackson.
I always felt the Lakers having Jackson as their coach was the difference in an evenly-matched playoff series or game.
Just like the cigar smoking Red Auerbach must have done for the fans of the dominating Boston Celtics back in the '50s and '60s, Jackson provided fans a certain peace of mind, sitting on the bench in his one-of-a-kind, stoic manner.
It’s hard to imagine the team having another coach who added so much punch just by showing up.
The Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t get over the proverbial hump in the postseason in Kobe and Shaq’s first couple of years with the team.
Then Phil Jackson arrived, bringing the experience of winning six championships with the Chicago Bulls with him. And having coached Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman in Chicago, he was able to harness the egos of Kobe and Shaq and translate it into success on the basketball court.
Yes, the one-of-a-kind talents of Kobe and Shaq played the biggest role in the team’s three consecutive championships between 2000 and 2002. But it’s very possible the team wouldn’t have won any of those three titles without Jackson as head coach, therefore significantly altering the way we look at Kobe and Shaq’s respective careers.
As I mentioned in the previous slide, before Phil Jackson arrived in Los Angeles in the summer of 1999, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and the rest of the Lakers were becoming best known for their playoff failures, despite being one of the most, if not the most, talented team in the league.
That was erased from the memories of fans shortly after Jackson arrived, as he led the Lakers to their first championship since 1988.
Also, after Jackson temporarily retired following the tumultuous 2003-04 season, the Lakers had one of the worst seasons in franchise history, only winning 34 games and failing to make the playoffs.
Jackson returned the following season, and although the Lakers were mediocre for a couple of seasons following his return, he eventually won two more championships with the franchise, giving him five with the Lakers and 11 total.
But he may have done something even more important than deciding to return before the 2005-06 season…
Let’s pretend Phil Jackson had not stayed and retired following the 2004-05 season. If that would have been the case, I don’t think Kobe Bryant would be playing for the Los Angeles Lakers today.
Remember, Kobe had a very underwhelming supporting cast to work with until Pau Gasol arrived in 2008, and he even demanded to be traded following the 2007 season with Jackson as head coach.
Something tells me Jackson played a bigger role than we think during those lean years of keeping Kobe focused and level-headed while having to play with the likes of Kwame Brown and Smush Parker.
A less-experienced, respected coach may not have had the same success.
It may be a stretch to think Kobe would not be a Laker today had Jackson not returned, but I still think it’s one of the more underrated “what-if” questions in league history.