Phil Jackson: Legendary or Lucky?

In Simmons' FootstepsContributor IJune 17, 2009

ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 14:  Head coach Phil Jackson of the Los Angeles Lakers calls out in the first half against the Orlando Magic in Game Five of the 2009 NBA Finals on June 14, 2009 at Amway Arena in Orlando, Florida.  NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Sunday night, Phil Jackson won his 10th NBA Championship in his coaching career.  The win placed him ahead of Red Auerbach and in first place on the all-time NBA Championships list.

Most fans have overlooked the Zen Master and given Kobe Bryant a majority of the credit.  I have to give Bryant respect for his being incredible during all of the NBA Finals, but without the correct leaders in place, he wouldn't have won four championships.  

We've all heard the argument before. Jackson has just worked with all the best players.  Michael Jordan. Shaquille O'Neal. Kobe Bryant.  I give full respect to those players, but they all have played under coaches other than Jackson and not won championships.

MJ played for Kevin Loughery, Stan Albeck, and Doug Collins all before playing for Jackson.  With those three coaches, he never made it to the NBA Finals.  

Then came Jackson for the 1989-1990 season, and Jordan went on to win three straight championships with the Chicago Bulls.  Now, after the 1992-1993 season, Jordan retired for the first time in his career, and Jackson had little talent to work with.  Trust me, Steve Kerr and Scottie Pippen can only get you so far.  

Nevertheless, Jackson still took the Jordan-less team to the Eastern Conference Semifinals two years in a row.

When Jordan returned for the 1995-96 season, Jackson and MJ led the team to another three-peat, causing some to believe this Bulls team was one of the greatest of all-time (behind the 1960s Celtics dynasty).

OK. Before you comment angrily, I realize Jackson wasn't able to win championships without Jordan.  But remember this: Jordan wasn't able to win championships without Jackson.  He wasn't able to win championships with Loughery.  He wasn't able to win championships with Albeck.  He wasn't able to win championships with Collins.

MJ's NBA.com profile states, "By acclamation, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time."  Well, if that's the case, then the greatest basketball player of all time couldn't win with arguably the greatest basketball coach of all time.

The story of Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers is similar to that of MJ and the Bulls.  Bryant also played with three other coaches before Zen: Del Harris, Bill Bertka, and Kurt Rambis.  Once again, without Jackson, the Lakers never made it to the NBA Finals.

Along came the Zen Master, and with the Zen came NBA Championships.  In fact, Jackson coached Bryant, O'Neal, and the Lakers to a three-peat, the third three-peat of Jackson's coaching career.

My point is: there's no doubt in my mind Jackson had unbelievable talent to work with.  However, other coaches had the opportunity to work with that same talent, and didn't have near the success the Zen Master had.

Jackson is well-known teacher of the triangle offense, otherwise known as the "two-man game."  Jackson and Lakers consultant Tex Winter reformed the triangle offense to get Bryant more shots.  Jackson also used a version of the triangle in Chicago so he could spread the floor and let MJ work his magic.

The other coaches that worked with these players did not take time to design an offense like Jackson did.  Jackson obviously saw his talented players and spaced the floor to let them control the game.

That's what separates Jackson from every coach in professional basketball: working with what you have.  Of course, Jackson has had some of the best in the game to work with.  So have other coaches.  

In my opinion, Jackson is the greatest coach in NBA history.  Some say former Celtics coach Red Auerbach is light years ahead of him.  Well Auerbach, too, got to work with some amazing talent such as Bill Russell, John Havlicek, and K.C. Jones.  So, if you say Zen was lucky, you have to say Auerbach was, too.  And Auerbach sure wasn't lucky.


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