Is this the end for Phil Jackson? No idea. But if it is, he leaves as the standard by which every modern NBA coach should be judged. He exits the sport with 11 NBA titles, almost split evenly between two franchises with two completely different cultures. I dare walk out on a limb and say no other coach will ever come even close to this remarkable level of success again.
Lots of people think “the Zenmaster” has had it easy. After all, look at the talent he coached. My response is sure, look at that talent and (1) how many championships any of them won without him, and (2) how few championships other Hall of Fame talent-level players won during the same era in which Phil Jackson coached both the Bulls and Lakers. You think just anyone can coach the best players in the world and get them to buy into a system of sharing the ball and trusting their teammates? Show me proof of it.
My sense is appreciating Phil Jackson is like appreciating the head chef in a Michelin three-star restaurant. You have all the talent in the world, with fans who expect you to do nothing less than win it all, and you manage to meet these irrationally high expectations again and again to the point where the remarkable becomes hum drum.
This is a decidedly different skill than coaches who can come to a bad team and turn it into a playoff team like Larry Brown, Doug Collins, and a few others, yet arent very good at managing the at once massive yet delicate ego of a Shaquille O’Neal or Michael Jordan, or the operatic nature of Kobe Bryant or Scottie Pippen any of whom while having enormous talent could become destructive to the system at any given moment.
Yet Jackson did it. There have been four distinctive championship runs under Phil Jackson and you could fairly describe them as four different teams, even though they were from two franchises. The common thread in all has been the need for Jackson to play psychologist-in-chief, while assistants like Tex Winter, Mark Hamblen, and the rest taught the team the X’s and O’s of the triangle offense, which is a system primarily useful to keep role players involved in the offense when they’re on the floor at the same time as a superstar, versus falling into the habit of standing and watching as happens so often.
Nobody thought much of Phil Jackson in Chicago when he took over from Doug Collins. I remember when he got the job, he was Collins’ assistant coach and many Bulls fans (me included) wanted Doug to stay because we assumed the Bulls were on the verge of greatness and he deserved to be part of the ride. But thats the benefit of hindsight isnt it? We can arrogantly look back and say “oh they were going to win all along, of course they had Michael Jordan”….that is hardly guaranteed. Ask Karl Malone and John Stockton. Ask Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter, whose Portland team I still marvel at as one of the great collections of talent I’ve ever seen. Ask Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns. Ask Patrick Ewing. You get the point.
So we say congratulations on a wonderful career and goodbye to Phil Jackson. Perhaps for good, perhaps not.
P.S.: Coach, if you get the itch to coach again, there’s only one stop left. You can always come home.