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In the NBA Coaching Pantheon, Phil Jackson Stands Above the Rest

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

After his retirement as a player in 1980, Phil Jackson didn't quite know what was next.

Jackson was drafted in the second round by the New York Knicks in 1967, playing 11 seasons before joining their cross-Hudson rival New Jersey Nets for two seasons more. He knew he wanted to coach following his playing career, but where? There weren't many opportunities open for him after a gig as assistant coach for New Jersey for a year, so he looked outside the NBA. In 1982, Jackson became the head coach for the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association. After leading the Patroons to a championship in 1985, he was finally hired by the Chicago Bulls as an assistant coach in 1987. Within two years, he became head coach. Following years of searching, Jackson had made his way back to the game he loved.

Phil Jackson became a triangle offense devotee after he met Tex Winter, the legendary coach that had invented the system. In his first season as head coach, he led the Bulls to a 55-27 record, where they lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the season's champions, the Detroit Pistons. It was a fantastic start for Jackson, a journeyman that was handed the task of utilizing Michael Jordan to his fullest potential.

Even better, Jackson and the Bulls went on to win three straight championships on two separate occasions. This unprecedented stretch of dominance was only divided in half because of Michael Jordan's unexpected retirement in 1993. In the two seasons without His Airness, Jackson still led Chicago to the playoffs.

Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls and head coach Phil Jackson won six championships together.
Phil Jackson (right) led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships. [Image via Getty/Jeff Haynes]

Unfortunately, his tenure in the Windy City ended after winning his sixth championship in 1998. Although the Bulls had been utterly dominant, Jackson's relationship with general manager Jerry Krause became more and more vitriolic as the seasons passed. Krause even went on to declare that Jackson would not be rehired even if they won a championship.

"I don't care if it's 82-and-0 this year, you're f---ing gone," said Krause.

And so, Jackson took a year off before joining the Los Angeles Lakers in 1999. Immediately, he had stellar talent to work with in Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. The question was they would mesh with Jackson's triangle offense.

Those questions were more than answered in the first season, as the Lakers finished first in the Western Conference with a 67-15 record. O'Neal averaged a career-high 29.7 points per game and a 21-year-old Bryant provided a scoring punch with 22.5 points per game. Their superb performance in the regular season translated in the playoffs, as Jackson and the Lakers won the championship over Reggie Miller and the Pacers.

Jackson managed to lead Los Angeles to two more championships in 2001 and 2002, making it his third career three-peat as a head coach. However, their success did not come without tribulations. Although Kobe Bryant was efficiently putting up gaudy scoring averages, he wasn't a fan of Jackson and the triangle offense. He believed it was a boring system, and the two butted heads more often than not. Jackson, known as the "Zen Master," became so frustrated with Bryant that he requested for him to be traded (which was smartly denied).

Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers won five championships together.
Despite an initially tense relationship, Jackson and Kobe Bryant worked together to win five championships. [Image via USA TODAY Sports/Robert Hanashiro]

Following O'Neal trade rumors, it became clear to Jackson that the Lakers front office saw Bryant as the only untouchable piece of their organization. In June of 2004, the disgruntled Jackson left Los Angeles and took another coaching hiatus.

With Jackson gone and Bryant now the sole focal point of the Lakers' offense, they managed a 34-48 record and missed the playoffs for the first time in 11 years. Bryant soon realized he actually missed the triangle offense, and Los Angeles rehired Jackson in June of 2005.

In his second stint, the Lakers had a different look. Kobe was still Kobe, but the center position had been filled with All-Star Pau Gasol, the perfect fit for Jackson's system. Everybody rallied around the veteran coach, and they went on to appear in three more consecutive Finals, winning two championships in 2009 and 2010. Jackson retired in 2011 after the Lakers lost the Conference Semifinals, ending a tremendous 21-year head coaching career.

Phil Jackson went from coaching outside of the NBA entirely to leading teams to 11 championships, a league record. He overcame strenuous relationships, managed the biggest of egos, and kept a level head no matter what stepped in his team's way. Almost his entire tenure with Chicago was marred with his relationship with the front office. He found a way to lead two completely different Los Angeles teams to multiple championships each. For these exceptional feats, Phil Jackson is the best head coach that basketball has ever seen.


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