Lord of the Rings: Phil Jackson a Legend or Lucky S.O.B.?


“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

NBA Champs -

* 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

NBA Champs2-
Phil, Shaq, and Kobe circa 2000

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.

2009 NBA Finals Portraits
Jackson with Gasol and Bryant 2010

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

Kobe Bryant
Pau Gasol
Horace Grant
Ron Artest
Lamar Odom
Steve Kerr
Dennis Rodman

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?


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  • bernasvibe

    I’ve got 2 sons that are B-ballers; & its the only sport that I actually know all the rules of. Love it..and P.J. is a legend. I’ve yet to see another coach, IMO(in my opinion) with the same midas touch. None. Not to the extent & number of times P.J. has accomplished b-ball success.

    • Cortonio

      well, be that as it may name a team he coached that didn’t have any franchise players? Do you think he’d coach the bobcats? kings? magic? cavaliers? pistons?absolutely not. I gave him his due, he’s great with ego’s and gets personalities to mesh but the talent was already there for him. I’d like to see him cement his legacy by building a team from scratch and winning with them. Take Larry Brown for example every team he’s coached got better because he improved that team. (I’d be long winded explaining him) Red Auerbach built the Celtics into the team they were. Chuck Daly built the ‘Bad boys’ pistons team and they won 2 titles with another trip to the NBA finals. They had 7 straight losing seasons before he came. I just don’t see Jackson doing that with any franchise, just my humble opinion.

      • bernasvibe

        Given that I know the histories of the other coaches you’ve mentioned & the teams; my vote is still P.J. is legendary! I think our definition of what it takes to classify someone as a legend or not; differs. But its cool we can agree to disagree..I’m a Cali girl originally from New Orleans but freshly living on the East I’ve been to a lot of Lakers games. And hands DOWN its some of the best , most entertaining game , of any sport, to actually attend. The air is electric…so the Hollywood in full effect. And when Phil was coach that electric current in the air was doubled. I’m just saying…

        • Cortonio

          you’re right it’s cool to disagree, and you have that Cali bias too, oh man LoL… That’s why were ‘opinionated male’ right? however, I’ve seen quite a bit myself and they do have a notorious arrive ‘late leave early’ crowd. That being said I’ve seen many good ones over the years. Both Lakers/Celtics series were great though (’08 and ’10)

          • bernasvibe

            Ahhh Cali bias; is that what its called? I’ll gladly take that as a compliment. And your opinionated maleness is what keeps me coming back for more & it. And yes! Lakers/Celtics games are always an example of competition for sure..Cali friend of mine & I were hardly speaking after one of the games; that lasted for about 10 mins after the game . lolllll When we realized finally it was just a game!

      • spam34

        “well, be that as it may name a team he coached that didn’t have any franchise players?”
        The fact that Chuck Daly, Larry Brown and Red Auerbach ALL had franchise players (save the ’04 Pistons which is clearly and exception to the rule) when they made their runs pretty much cancels your point here. Auerbach had what…8 hall of famers on his teams? And that’s when the NBA only had 8 teams in the whole league! lol.
        Jackson’s 11 rings greatly outweigh Red’s 10 and it’s not even close.

        • Cortonio

          Auerbach built those celtics teams. He was a coach/GM/owner. He drafted russell, Cousy, Heinsohn, Havlicek to have the dynasty he had, he didn’t just walk on the teams with those guys already in place. And it’s not Auerbach’s fault the NBA had 8-12 teams. That’s 8-12 teams that could have won instead of him. Remember the lakers had Jerry west, Chamberlain, and George mikan just to name some from the top of my head and the celtics still managed to beat them more often than not.
          When larry brown came to the 76ers they hadn’t made the playoffs in 6 years and he resurrected that team to become a contender and at worst a competitive team, so he didn’t come on an already good squad. When he went to the Clippers in ’91 they hadn’t made the playoffs in 16 years, although his stay was short lived he got 2 playoff appearances out of them in his only 2 years. And also Brown guided the Bobcats of all teams to 44 wins and a playoff spot. They haven’t sniffed the playoffs since.
          Same for chuck Daly when he came to the Pistons they hadn’t made the playoffs in 7 years and he got all the players in place so the could be a good to great team in the mid 80’s to early 90’s. Once again Daly didn’t come to an already good Pistons team. As I stated in the article when phil came to LA, they already had 4 consecutive 50+ win seasons, meaning they were already good when he got there. When he came to chicago they already had jordan, pippen, and grant and were making the playoffs regularly under Doug collins and advancing deep as well. It’s just phil took them to another level, and I don’t knock him for that. But how would he have done if he came to the bulls 4-5 years earlier when they truly stunk. That’s all I’m saying my brother.

  • MadBlkMan

    I think calling Phil overrated would be a bit harsh in any basketball circle. You do make valid points when talking about the talent that was allotted to Phil over the course of the year but any current or former basketball player will tell you the hardest teams to coach are the talented one’s because of the expectation that is attached to having a talented team. In the NBA, it’s not Phil’s job to build or resurrect teams, that’s the job of the front office. Coach’s work the same way player’s do. There are player’s who can win you championships, player’s who can pull you out of holes, and every so often player’s who can do both. Phil is the coach you bring in to finish the job, not the guy to pull you out of a tough spot. Those jobs are reserved for coach’s like Larry Brown or Greg Pop who actually have the high level of understanding when it comes to x’s and o’s. Phil isn’t a great x’s and o’s coach to me, he just managed to find the perfect system for his coaching style. When you’re coaching a group of grown, ass, professional basketball players, most of the time all you need is a manager, not so much a coach. That’s why Phil is who he is.

    • Cortonio

      Larry Brown built the 76ers they hadn’t made the playoffs in 6 years before he came, 2 years after he came they made the playoffs (with a solid record at that) 2 years after that they were in the finals. The pistons had 7 straight losing seasons before chuck daly came when he got there he had a hand in drafting Isiah Thomas, Joe dumars, John Salley and Dennis Rodman. He traded for Bill Laimbeer, traded for vinnie Johnson, and even traded Adrian Dantley for mark aguirre in a cut throat patriots like move, see the pattern? He didn’t come to a talent-laden team and coast from there. And that’s why I don’t see all the hoopla for Jackson. He’s a very good coach again, I’ll give him props but has he resurrected a team? The truly great coaches make sweet lemonade out of lemons. The knicks were either missing the playoffs or losing in the first round Pat Riley came and 2 years later they were in the finals. He helped bring in players to get that done.

      • MadBlkMan

        I see exactly what you’re saying and I low-key agree with your perspective of Phil but the funny thing about Larry Brown is the fact that he’s coaching at SMU in Dallas now and it’s not because no one thinks he doesn’t have an elite understanding of the game but because he’s an ass to deal with. Phil is going to come in and do his job, which is coach. Granted, I’m sure these days coach’s have a little say in the type of players they want because of people like Brown (power hungry coaches who think they always have the answer). That’s just the business of pro sports now, you play the hand that you’re dealt so as a coach you have to be cautious what hand you choose to deal with. I can’t hold it against him that he never resurrected a team, like I said he’s a finisher, a damn good one at that. I put him in the same boat I would put Bill Gates. Bill Gates didn’t invent/innovate anything, he just capitalized on a good situation. Still doesn’t take away the fact that he was a great at what he did. In all honesty, I thing Greg Popovich is a way better coach than Phil. He did exactly what you think great coaches should do and to an even greater extent then what Riley or Brown ever did.

        • Cortonio

          i hear you and you’re right Larry brown does have personalty clashes with his players and doesn’t like to play rookies but he’s still been a very successful coach with over 1,000 wins 3 trips to the finals with a ring to show for it, and he led the Bobcats to a 44 win season three years ago they haven’t touched 35 wins since. Let me ask you if jackson coached say, cleveland, charlotte or orlando how do you think they’d do? With the current crop of player they currently have. He was offered the Bucks and Cavs coaching job before that and he turned them both down.Btw I totally agree with you on Pop.

    • spam34

      ” Phil isn’t a great x’s and o’s coach to me, he just managed to find the perfect system for his coaching style.”
      LOL!! Listen, when coaching at the level most if not all coaches are great at X’s and O’s. It’s when to implement the plays and the gameplan/strategy into the game and at the right times is what differentiates one coach from the next.
      A lot of times it’s not the X’s and O’s, but the Jimmy and Joes and how can one maximize the most talent and potential out of them to take them to a level they otherwise wouldn’t be able to achieve on their own. That’s what Phil Jackson, and other great coaches, do so well and it’s what makes them legendary.

    • spam34

      “Those jobs are reserved for coach’s like Larry Brown or Greg Pop who actually have the high level of understanding when it comes to x’s and o’s”
      Speaking of Popovich, are we gonna sit here and act like when he got hired by the Spurs they had David Robinson and then drafted Tim Duncan the NEXT year and has had Duncan, arguably the best power forward of all-time, on his team for basically his entire tenure there in San Antonio? Like that didn’t help him win 4 rings, lol. Pops a GREAT coach….but like any great coach you need talent to win and he lucked up with that #1 pick in ’97 and been riding it ever since…and I’m not mad one bit!

      • Cortonio

        You’re right but but he has kept the spurs at a championship level with guys no one has heard of outside of duncan parker and ginobili–who are constantly injured. Pops is a great coach but in the end david robinson was past his prime and when pops inherited the spurs they weren’t good at that time and robinson was out the entire season. A 37 year old dominique wilkins was his leading scorer, what does that tell you?

  • MadBlkMan

    If Phil coached Cleveland I think he would do okay considering he had Kyrie and solid role players. Charlotte? Hell, everyone fails in Charlotte and he would be no different. Orlando? Fail. It’s only a handful of coaches who could coach at those places honestly. I would hire hard-nosed, old-school coaches for places like that because being a player’s coach only works when you actually have player’s. Phil’s not a disciplinarian, he’s just one of the few coaches that takes the time to actually understand his players, not only on the court, but off the court also. I think Larry Brown would be a way better coach in Cleveland than Phil would. He’s already shown he could coach undersized scoring point guards before with Iverson.

  • Larry

    Phil Jackson is a legend, no question. Show me someone who doesn’t think so and I’ll show you someone that doesn’t know that much about hoops, lol.
    Bottom line is this: You can’t win without talent, but you can lose with it.
    Miss me with all the Chuck Daly, Larry Brown, Red Auerbach examples. All great coaches in their own right and Hall of Famers, no doubt. I’m not going to minimize their accomplishments to prop up Jackson. His merits stand on their own.

    • Cortonio

      okay well we’re gonna have to agree to disagree because i can’t see how he’s a legend. Look at the roster of players I combined in the last part of the article. I’ve always given him his due of managing egos but you can’t tell me you wouldn’t win a ring with those dudes. Eric spolestra doesn’t have to do much of anything himself because he has (when Dwayne Wade is healthy) two top 5 players and bosh who is definitely a top 20 player. So if coach ‘Spo wins 4 rings with Miami are we going to put him in the upper echelon of coaches? I understand you can’t win w/o talent but a coach is supposed to get all he can out of his players whether they’re talented or not. (Like popovich) Fair to say?

  • Jay

    I think it’s a mixture of both (luck and skill). He’s a great coach, no doubt about it. BUT the best “bar-none”? That’s a bit of a longshot. Personally, I value coaches whose skill has stood the test of time and LESS THAN STELLAR rosters (i.e. Sloan), or coaches that can turn bottom feeders into playoff teams and playoff teams into title contenders (i.e. Larry Brown) over coaches that have “lucked” into HOF-laden rosters (Doc, Spo, etc). Don’t get me wrong, Phil IS a legend. He’s just not the “god” Bulls/Lakers fans make him out to be.

    • Cortonio

      I agree to a point, he’s a great coach I just think people (NBA pundits) over rate and over value him as a coach. And like I stated in the article he isn’t going to a sub par team, if he does come back that team has to already be a contender. Doc did do a decent job in Orlando with mcgrady and little else. Spolestra I can’t give too much props too, although miami did go to the playoffs twice before bosh and james got there.

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