Is Phil Jackson the greatest coach in NBA history or just the lucky benefactor of two highly favorable situations where he was allowed to win numerous titles without having to mold talent like other coaches?
It's the type of question that has divided not only sports fans, but also NBA sportswriters. Michael Wilbon argues that while he has usually had great players, "probably more importantly—they've had him."
Wilbon adds that Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal "never won squat without Jackson at the helm" and that even usually intelligent basketball experts continue to question his place among the leagues greatest coaches.
Sports talk radio announcer Christopher Russo sees Jackson's career differently.
"He had Michael Jordan for his first six titles and then Shaq and Kobe for [five] more," Russo said. "He wins because he has talented teams to start with. He has never built a team from scratch the way a Larry Brown has or the way Red Auerbach did. He's a good coach, but until I see him take a team that was initially terrible and turn it into a champion, I will question his place among the league's greatest coaches."
I will acknowledge that, for many years, I was sided with Russo as a Phil Jackson detractor, and this was after living in Chicago during the the Michael Jordan era of the1990s.
"I could coach the Bulls to a title if I had Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman," I said. "Phil has always had ready-made champs to work with. All he had to do was assure that the team cohered and presto, he gets another ring. He has the easiest job in the world."
I must admit, though, that my impression of Phil Jackson has changed dramatically in the last few years.
First, I considered his record as a coach. His regular season record currently stands at 1,098–460, an astounding 70 percent winning percentage. I considered the fact that his teams are 48-0 after winning the first game of a playoff series, and his teams have never been swept out of the postseason, a distinction even the great coaches like Larry Brown, Gregg Popovich, Pat Riley, and Chuck Daley cannot claim.
He leads all NBA coaches in playoff wins with 225 and playoff winning percentage (70 percent) and his teams have never missed the playoffs.
Remember, the Lakers went through two coaches in just 1999 alone before Jackson's entrance, and they were coming off back-to-back playoff sweeps.
When Phil came in, he challenged Shaq to become more of a defender and Kobe to defer to his teammates more than his apparent shoot first mentality would allow. These are things that their previous coaches were unable to do.
Could Brown and Popovich have joined the Lakers and had the same success?
But could they have managed to sustain the same level of consistent winning for such a sustained duration of time and win three titles in a row three times, including at least five with two different teams?
There's no way to know because Jackson's the only one to do it.
To me, the moment that typifies Jackson's legacy was Game 7 against the Portland Trailblazers in 2000.
Down 15 early in the fourth quarter and seeing the Lakers storied 67-15 season crash and burn, Phil Jackson did something that no other coach would have ever done
He wasn't yelling plays at his team, or pacing up and down the sidelines barking at the officials or frantically scribbling on his clipboard. He just sat and trusted his team to find a way back into the game. His team eventually rallied and won setting the stage for Jackson's third three-peat.
That moment, as much as any other, signified why Jackson is so effective as a coach. His cerebral, calm approach puts his players at ease and he teaches the more mental side of the sport rather than just focusing on the physical.
Fred Carter once defended Jackson from his detractors by arguing that, "It's easier to make a less talented team overachieve than it is to make a more talented team achieve."
I think Carter is right from this standpoint: While no one has benefited from always having the enormous amount of talent that Jackson has been blessed with throughout his coaching career, no other coach has ever had to deal with the expectations to win that Jackson has.
If his team doesn't win a title, it's considered a disappointing season. But with 11 titles in his 17 total years of coaching, there haven't been many times that he failed to meet the type of pressures that most coaches would be overcome by.
Jackson has done plenty of things in the past that I have disagreed with, like publishing The Last Season, after his exit from the Lakers in 2004, which shined a spotlight on private locker room interactions that didn't need to become part of the public domain.
I also don't like how he likes to work the referees prior to the playoffs and plant seeds in the media before series, like when he questioned the amount of times Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant got to the foul line prior to the series against the Thunder.
But I can't deny that the only coach that can claim to have ever been better than him at bringing together a group of talented players and winning as a team was Red Auerbach, and even that has the opportunity to be eclipsed.
If the 2010-11 season does represent Jackson's last season and he does win his 12th title, I think that he will stand alone as the greatest coach in NBA history and deservedly earning that distinction despite the arguments to the contrary by his detractors.
Count me no longer among them.