Phil Jackson, a.k.a. the “Zen Master,” was truly one of a kind. In the 90s, he won six championships with the Chicago Bulls, then he retired. Jackson came out of retirement in 1999 and came onto the Lakers franchise — becoming their head coach, won three titles then retired again in 2004. Then in 2005, Jackson came back to L.A. and won two more titles before retiring for the final time in 2011. When all was said and done, Phil Jackson had won 11 NBA Championships in a matter of 20 seasons. No other coach in U.S. professional sports history has even won 10 titles, let alone 11! There was never a season that Jackson’s team didn’t make it to the playoffs. Out of the 1,640 games he coached, Phil Jackson won 1,155 and lost 485 — giving him an incredible .704 (out of 1) win percentage.
With these astounding stats, Phil Jackson might be quickly considered the greatest or quickly dismissed in the debate for who might be the best NBA coach of all time, but in all reality, there’s much more to it than that.
In order to fully understand the capability and level of coaching talent that Jackson had, it is important to examine his past by going way back — all the way to 1967.
In 1967, Phil Jackson was drafted by the New York Knicks in the second round of the NBA Draft. Despite being a well-rounded athlete and having an unusually long wingspan, Jackson still struggled with offensive capabilities — which was compensated for with his incredible defensive skills and basketball IQ. It was with those attributes that Phil Jackson established himself as a fan-favorite and one of the NBA’s greatest sixth men, and was the top reserve in the Knicks’ 1973 championship run (He also won a championship with the team in 1970, but he had spinal fusion surgery that year so he was out that season). Jackson went on to play with New York until 1978 and then played with the New Jersey Nets until his retirement from the league in 1980.
From 1987-1998 Phil Jackson coached the Chicago Bulls, which was when he really rose to fame. It was there that he adopted the triangle offense — which became very successful for the entire Bulls squad because it put an emphasis on spacing the offense out and moving the ball. This, in return, probably was part of the reason why Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were given so many open looks, despite Jordan’s initial skepticism. After winning three championships in a row during the 1991-1993 Finals, Jackson’s Bulls became the first team to establish a threepeat since the Boston Celtics won eight titles in a row (from 1959 and going until 1966).
After Jordan retired for the first time, Phil Jackson was truly limited in what he could do with his team. That said, Chicago still made it to the Eastern Conference Semifinals without MJ, but their championship hopes stopped there. Then after Jordan came back, the Bulls successfully established another threepeat from 1996-1998. It was in this time frame that Jackson was informed by Bulls general manager Jerry Krause that he would not be brought on as the head coach the next season. Krause stated: “I don’t care if it’s 82-and-0 this year, you’re f***ing gone.”
After his departure from the Chicago, Phil Jackson vowed to never coach again. But after taking a year off and seeing the incredible talent and potential in Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, he reconsidered and accepted the Lakers’ head-coaching position in 1999.
Immediately, the Lakers started to see tremendous results. In his first season coaching, the Lakers went 67-15 in the regular season and beat the Indiana Pacers in the NBA Finals. And guess what? That championship quickly turned into another threepeat as the combined talent of Bryant and O’Neal complimented the basketball IQ of Jackson became even more refined.
After losing Shaq due to some tension between him and Kobe, Phil Jackson stopped winning championships until the Lakers landed Pau Gasol in 2007. In the 2007-2008 NBA season, Jackson, Bryant, and Gasol brought L.A. to an NBA Finals appearance, but were beat in a six-game series by Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics. The Lakers came back the following season and claimed the title of NBA champion by beating Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic in a five-game series. Perhaps the most satisfying of the Lakers’ Finals wins, however, was in the 2010 NBA Finals. After putting up an intense fight, the Lakers took control of the series in the seventh game — making it their fifth championship in 10 years! Jackson went on to coach again for the Lakers in the 2010-2011 season, but retired immediately after that.
As stated before, Phil Jackson was one of a kind — sure, he had the opportunity to coach NBA legends such as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal, but even in their talent it was made clear that they couldn’t have done it alone. When Michael Jordan was approached by a reporter about what he would do if Phil Jackson wasn’t coaching anymore, Jordan stated: “If Phil is not back, then certainly I’m not back.”
“If Phil is not back, then certainly I’m not back,”-Michael Jordan on what he would do if Jackson did not return to coach
Even through all the drama on the Bulls and Lakers, Jackson still found ways to win title after title, due to his incredible basketball IQ — a coaching intelligence that was one of a kind. And it is because of that, I believe him to be the greatest individual to ever coach the 48 minutes of NBA basketball.