“This year there’s no maybe” was Phil Jackson’s answer heading into the 2010-2011 season when asked if it was his last year ever since The LA Lakers single-handedly embarrassed him on his way out of the NBA with their uninspired play and unprofessional conduct on the court (Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum both being ejected). They suffered a 122-86 game 4 evisceration from the Dallas Mavericks (Dallas swept the best of 7 series 4-0). We all thought he was done with coaching. After all, he’s 5th all time in wins with 1155, and has won 12 NBA titles, 11 of them as a coach.
He has guided the careers of first ballot Hall Of Fame players such as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and future ones Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. You figured he’d ride off into the sunset and enjoy the rest of his life while NBA pundits wonder whether he’d coach again. People always laud his coaching ability and point to his 10 fingers that can’t even accommodate all of his rings. So readers, I ask the question, is Phil Jackson legendary or simply overrated?
Chicago Bulls: under Phil Jackson
* 1989-90: 55-27 lost to Detroit Pistons in Eastern Conference Finals
* 1990-91: 61-21 won NBA championship
* 1991-92: 67-15 won NBA championship
* 1992-93: 57-25 won NBA championship
* 1993-94: 55-27 lost in 2nd round
* 1994-95: 47-35 lost in 2nd round
* 1995-96: 72-10 won NBA championship
* 1996-97: 69-13 won NBA championship
* 1997-98: 62-20 won NBA championship
Okay so after looking at that list it looks quite impressive right? For a coach to win 6 titles in 9 years is unheard of; some coaches would be content with just one. From 1990-1993 he had superstar two some, Jordan and Pippen. He had Horace Grant who was a good defender, rebounder, and could score. And to round out the rotation, there were solid contributors who knew their role (Bill Cartwright, John Paxson, BJ Armstrong, Craig Hodges, Scott Williams). As a matter of fact, the Bulls were a pretty good team before he became head coach.
They won 50 games in 1987-88, and won 47 games in 1988-89 and pushed the eventual champion Detroit Pistons to six hard-fought games before losing in the Eastern Conference Finals. People give Jackson all the credit for the Bulls success, but he didn’t build that team the way some of his coaching peers built theirs.
It was Doug Collins who coached the Bulls when Grant and Pippen came aboard as rookies and Bill Cartwright was traded for (Cartwright averaged 16 points and 9 rebounds for the New York Knicks before he was traded). Collins harnessed the talents out of Pippen and Grant who were already averaging double figures in scoring before Jackson came along. “But didn’t Phil invent the triangle offense” you ask? No. It was Tex Winter, Jackson’s long-time assistant who invented it.
Fast Forward to 1995-96 Jordan came back to the NBA after his ‘retirement’ and Toni Kukoc came aboard from Croatia (he was drafted a few years before but had to fulfill his obligations). This time around they acquired Dennis Rodman to go along with Jordan and Pippen. This three-some was billed as: ‘Superman, Batman and Rod-man. The Bulls won three more titles. Here are some stats averages to ponder for a second on these 4 players from the 1995-96 to the 1997-98 season.
* Dennis Rodman: 5.8 points, 15.1 rebounds (won the last 3 of his 7 consecutive rebounding titles with the Bulls)
* Toni Kukoc: 13 points, 35% 3-pt FG (in just 25 minutes off the bench)
* Scottie Pippen: 19 points, 5.5 assists, 6.0 rebounds (3 All NBA Defensive team selections, 3 All-Star selections)
* Michael Jordan: The name says enough, I will add that he won 2 NBA Most Valuable Player awards.
So with the aforementioned players alongside a solid bench, any coach would have won at least 1 title. You the reader could’ve won, all you had to do was say, “Go play”. The fact is, not opinion, but fact is that Jackson wouldn’t have won with the Bulls had they had an inferior team. Defenders of Jackson would say, “Look at the seasons Jordan was gone (1993-94 and 1994-1995) he did a good job and he didn’t have a good team”.
Horace Grant averaged 15 points and 11 rebounds earning a trip to the All-star game alongside BJ Armstrong and Scottie Pippen. He (Pippen) had a career year, finishing 3rd runner-up for MVP, winning All-Star game MVP, and was on the All NBA defensive and first team. Ladies and Gents, that’s three all-stars on one team. Regardless of how Grant and Armstrong finished their careers, the bottom line is that particular year Phil had yet again, a talented team.
Los Angeles Lakers: 1999-2004 & 2005-2011
Goodbye Windy City, Hello Hollywood
After an ugly departure from the Chicago Bulls in which he didn’t get along with team’s GM Jerry Krause, he took a year off and then ventured on to coaching the Los Angeles Lakers. He won 5 more titles with them, achieved the third ‘three peat’ of his career and made the NBA finals once more in 2003-2004. Once again he had talent: Shaquille O’Neal, who was already in the peak of his career and THE most dominant big man in the NBA, and surging superstar Kobe Bryant. Prior to the 2003-04 season they acquired Gary Payton and Karl Malone to add to this duo and lost to the Pistons in the finals. Jackson left after that season.
Reunited and it feels so good….well, not at first
When Phil came back in 2005-06 the Lakers struggled. The only star power he had was Kobe Bryant and an injured Lamar Odom. The rest of the rotation included: Smush Parker, Luke Walton, Kwame Brown, Devean George, Chris Mihm, and Brian Cook. That line up was not exactly a star-studded or even a good bunch of players. And the result was they lost in the 1st round two years in a row to the Phoenix Suns.
The following season, they traded Kwame Brown for All-Star Pau Gasol from Memphis, and a year later acquired Ron Artest (I refuse to call him Metta World Peace) and guess what? Phil Jackson had his toys once again and as a result they went to the NBA finals three times winning two. During that span, Gasol averaged 18 points 10 rebounds, Odom 13 and 9, an improved Andrew Bynum 14 and 10 and Artest was a solid contributor. Kobe Bryant captured his first NBA MVP in 2008.
He has shown the propensity of managing star players and the egos that go along with them, I get that. Here’s the deal, while I don’t have an axe to grind, I can’t understand how Jackson is lauded for being such an iconic coach. He never had to resurrect a bad team with no stars, or had to build a team from scratch.
When he came to the Lakers in 2000, they were already a good team. They won 50+ games the four years before he arrived, while finishing 1st or 2nd in their division. Lets face it, for the most part he has always had the talent lined up for him. He has been out of the league two years now and do you think he’ll take just any coaching position? Nope. He’s waiting for another star team to come calling with bags full of cash and you’ll see him on the sidelines again. Allow me to put this into perspective, if you were to combine the talent from the two franchises to make one team here’s what you’d have:
PG- Gary Payton
SG- Michael Jordan
CT- Shaquille O’Neal
SF- Scottie Pippen
PF- Karl Malone
That team, in their prime would run roughshod over any current team in the NBA. With this roster you have 70 All-Star appearances, 4 different players with an MVP award, 4 Defensive Players Of The Year, along with 8 future and current Hall of Fame players. So readers, I ask, is Phil Jackson a legendary coach or just has been lucky to be in the right situation to attain success?