There are a number of coaches who have graced the National Basketball Association over the years and the question as to who is the greatest is always up for debate. In terms of overall success however, one man is way out on his own.
Phil Jackson coached in the NBA between 1978 and 2011 and during that time, he won 11 titles in the division. That gives him a higher tally than any other coach since the NBA was formed and that’s the simple reason why many see him as the best that’s ever sat courtside.
Let’s take a look at how those titles were achieved but we’ll firstly start a little further back.
Before moving into coaching, Phil Jackson played basketball professionally for 13 years. He’s certainly built for the game at a rangy six foot eight inches in height and that career began with the New York Knicks in 1967.
Jackson would go on to play for 11 years with the Knicks and during that time he got a taste for silverware. The player would win two NBA Championships, in 1970 and 1973. Phil Jackson moved to the New Jersey Nets in 1978 but his playing days drifted from that point and he retired two years later in 1980.
Learning the Ropes
After leaving the court, Phil Jackson embarked on his long and successful coaching career but he wouldn’t jump straight into the NBA. With no previous experience to call on, he learnt his trade through lower leagues including the Continental Basketball Association and the National Superior Basketball in Puerto Rico.
It was in the CBA that he won his first title, leading the Albany Patroons to the title in 1984 but despite throwing his hat in the ring for a number of NBA jobs, no-one seemed prepared to give him a break.
The Wait is Over
He would have to wait until 1987 but Phil Jackson eventually was handed a chance in the NBA. He would not, however, be named as Head Coach right away but instead, Jackson was named as assistant to Doug Collins at the Chicago Bulls. After a period of struggle, Collins was fired in 1989 but Jackson would not be leaving with him. Instead, the Bulls promoted his assistant to Head Coach in what must have been the smartest move that the club had ever made.
Phil Jackson inherited the role at a time when he was getting deeply involved with the theories of Tex Winter. An NBA coach himself, Winter had devised the noted Triangle Offence and Jackson would use this ploy to great effect over the seasons that followed.
A Triangle Offence literally forms a three-sided unit involving the center, the forward at the wing and the guard at the corner. It has its weaknesses and can expose the defense but it can also turn the side using it into a potent attacking force. Phil Jackson harnessed the theory and the trophies came rolling in.
After he assumed the role of Head Coach in 1989, Jackson oversaw two ‘three-peats’. That is to say, his Chicago Bulls side enjoyed a run of three straight NBA titles over two separate periods. For the length of his tenure, the Bulls were never outside of the play offs as they enjoyed a success like no other.
Despite those glory years, it’s surprising to note that not all were happy at the club. Occasionally, in sport, we see an unfortunate clash of personalities and that seems to be the case here. It’s an open secret that there was incredible tension between Phil Jackson and the Bulls’ General Manager Jerry Krause but no-one is entirely sure how it came about.
One thing that is certain is that Krause told Jackson in no uncertain terms that the 1997/98 campaign would be his last. Bulls won the title but Jackson duly left. Such was the bad feeling between the two men that Jackson vowed never to coach again and he sat out for a year, seemingly good to his word.
In 1999, the LA Lakers needed a coach and with Phil Jackson deciding that he would, after all, make a return to coaching, the two parties were a perfect fit. Jackson had inherited a team that had exceptional talent and it wouldn’t be long before he was bringing home even more silverware.
Success began almost immediately when the Lakers claimed the NBA title in 2000. It was the seventh championship of Phil Jackson’s career but it certainly wouldn’t be his last. For the third time in his coaching life, Jackson would complete a three-peat as his LA side went on to claim two further NBA titles in 2001 and 2002.
It was another boom period but, as they did at the Chicago Bulls, things were about to turn sour. This time, the coach wasn’t implicated but there was a spectacular falling out from within the Lakers’ roster. Differences between two great players – Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal – were constantly simmering and they eventually boiled over during the 2003 campaign.
Injuries also played their part but when Bryant started to go against Jackson’s prescribed coaching, the end seemed to be looming. The Lakers lost to the Pistons in the NBA finals and with Phil Jackson unable to negotiate a significant increase in salary on his existing contract, the coach’s time was up.
Jackson left in the 2004 close season and, as he’d just reached his sixties, many felt that this would be the end of his coaching story. That wasn’t the case however and in 2005, he made a surprising return to the LA Lakers.
The Lakers, in Jackson’s second term, were a force but the coach failed to add to his impressive trophy cabinet. He would, however, stay for another six years until retiring from coaching duties in 2011.
As we’ve seen, Phil Jackson may have been an abrasive character at times and he didn’t always see eye to eye with players and management. However, in terms of sheer numbers, there are few who would dispute that he’s the greatest NBA coach that ever lived.