Coaches are key in the NBA. They bring out the abilities of every player on the team and stir their team to a championship. There is no question that one of the greatest coaches in league history is Phil Jackson. Jackson has won 229 postseason games, which is the most of any coach. These playoff wins have also translated to 11 NBA championships which remains untouched by any coach in NBA history. Aside from his collection of championships, he is also the record holder of the highest winning-percentage of any coach at 70.4% as he garnered 1,155 wins out of 1,640 career games. Because of this, he is arguably the most decorated and winningest coach in NBA history.
Although some would say that he was lucky enough to have star players like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and etc. on his team, it takes great leadership and top-tier coaching skills to convert these group of players into a championship team. Because of this, he definitely deserved the monicker, Zen Master.
For this piece, let’s take a look at the storied career of NBA coaching great, Phil Jackson.
Phil Jackson’s NBA Career Timeline
1967-1978 New York Knicks Player
1978-1981 New Jersey Nets Player/Assistant Coach
1987-1989 Chicago Bulls Assistant Coach
1989-1998 Chicago Bulls Head Coach
1999-2004 Los Angeles Lakers Head Coach
2005-2011 Los Angeles Lakers Head Coach
2014-2017 New York Knicks President
Pre-Bulls Coaching Career & NBA Player Experience
As a player, Phil Jackson was a decent power forward off the bench. Jackson averaged 6.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game throughout his career. Drafted in the second round by the New York Knicks, Jackson immediately made an impact in his rookie year as he was declared to be part of the NBA All-Rookie First Team in 1968.
His defense and high IQ earned him a reputation to become one of the best players in the Knicks’ bench. As a player, it is worth noting that he won two NBA championships. The first in 1970, where he did not see action after undergoing spinal fusion surgery. However he would play a key role in the Knicks’ championship in 1973, where Jackson provided 8.7 points and 4.2 rebounds per game while coming off the bench during the playoffs.
After playing for the New York Knicks until 1978, Jackson would eventually take his talents to New Jersey. He would go on to play two seasons with the Nets, while also serving as the assistant coach. However, he would retired as a player right after the 1979-1980 season.
Still eager to be part of the basketball world after retirement, Jackson went on to coach for professional teams overseas in order to build up his achievements with the hopes of landing an NBA job. This included a stint in the CBA with Albany Patroons, where he won his first championship as a coach in 1984. During the year after, Jackson would also win the 1985 CBA Coach of the Year as he stirred the team to a top spot in the CBA Eastern Conference. Jackson would also have coaching stints in Puerto Rico, where he coached Pirates de Quebradillas and Gallitos de Isabela.
It is worth noting how Jackson regularly pursued a job in the NBA, but was often rejected by NBA bosses due to his counter-culture image. However, the coaching great would eventually find his way back to the NBA. Before he became the Head Coach of the Chicago Bulls, Jackson served as the assistant coach of Doug Collins from 1987-1989 while working alongside fellow assistant coach, Tex Winter. During this time, Jackson developed a relationship with Winter that would become the foundation of their successes, as the latter was the creator of the famous triangle offense.
Phil Jackson’s Career as the Bulls’ Head Coach
Overall Season Record: 545-193
Overall Playoffs Record: 101-35
NBA Championships: 6 (1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998)
After being promoted to the head coaching job in 1989, Jackson would help stir the Chicago Bulls franchise to its glory days. He coached the Bulls that won six championships, in the form of two three-peats. The triangle offense proved to be a success especially with star players Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in tow.
The well-renowned coach made the Bulls a legitimate playoff contender every year, as they only got eliminated three times. Because of his achievements with the Chicago Bulls in the first half of the three-peat, Phil Jackson was also named one of the Top 10 Coaches in NBA History in 1996. Furthermore, it is worth noting that Jackson got his first and only Coach of the Year in the same year, where he coached the team to a franchise-best 72-10 winning record and the first of three NBA championships during the second edition of the Bulls’ three-peat championship run. There’s no question that Jackson played an integral part in giving the Bulls its best years.
Phil Jackson’s Career as the Laker’s Head Coach – Post Bulls’ Coaching Experience
Overall Season Record: 610-292
Overall Playoffs Record: 118-63
NBA Championships: 5 (2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2010)
After taking a break from coaching, Phil Jackson would take his coaching talents to Los Angeles. Right after being named as coach, Jackson would immediately make a contender out of the Lakers that had stars in Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
With a talented duo once again at his disposal, Jackson would stir the Lakers to a three-peat as well. Their three-peat dynasty run included a dominant run in the postseason during the 2001 playoffs where the Lakers finished with a commanding 15-1 record. This record has only been matched by one team so far until this day. Despite the friction between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, Jackson was able to make it work by navigating the Lakers to the third three-peat of his career.
The Lakers were on the verge of another championship run in 2004 when they reached the NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons. Despite being declared as the favorites, the Lakers were ambushed by the highly-physical Pistons as they conceded in Game 5. Furthermore with tensions rising within the team, a breakup was inevitable. All Star Center, Shaquille O’Neal, eventually left the team. On the other hand, Jackson would often argue with Kobe Bryant, even deeming him un-coachable. Because of this, Jackson left the Lakers, which had to endure injury bugs and a losing season.
Jackson eventually returned to the Lakers for the 2005-2006 season. Burying his feud with Bryant, the Lakers emerged to relevance again as they made the playoffs in 2006 and 2007. In 2008, the Lakers were close to winning the NBA Championship but were outclassed by the Boston Celtics that were led by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen.
However in 2009, Jackson finally navigated the Bryant-led Lakers to a championship when they outclassed the Orlando Magic in five games. This championship run would be the first of two consecutive championships as they also won it in 2010. Here, the Lakers engaged in a highly physical matchup with their tormentor, the Boston Celtics. It needed seven games to decide a champion, as both heavyweights displayed their championship desire while showcasing their entire defensive and offensive arsenal. With the Lakers completing two consecutive championships, Jackson would seal his coaching legacy with his 11th NBA Championship.
The Lakers would continue to be coached by Jackson until 2011. With the hungry Dallas Mavericks out for a championship, the Lakers suffered a sweep as Jackson announced his retirement right after. Despite his last forgettable playoff stint, there is no question that Jackson was still successful in his overall coaching stint with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Phil Jackson’s Career as the Knicks’ Front Office Guru
After retiring from coaching in 2011, Jackson made waves once again in the NBA when he was hired as the New York Knicks’ President. Returning to the old team he once played for, Jackson was tasked to revive a struggling franchise that could not get out of the slump.
Although Jackson displayed great leadership in terms of coaching, it was evident that he lacked experience and knowledge when it comes to leadership in the executive position. One of the disappointing moves was to trade away talented pieces like Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton. This turned out to be a disaster as the Knicks set a franchise record for most consecutive losses at 16. They also ended that season with 17-65 losing record, which was considered to be the poorest performance in franchise history. Furthermore As acting President, the Knicks also drafted French guard, Frank Ntilikina, at 8th overall. So far, the guard has not been able to perform at par which didn’t turn the Knicks fortunes around.
Phil Jackson still managed to make a good move as President of the Knicks. This was drafting Latvian sensation, Kristaps Porzingis. The Unicorn made the Knicks a fun team to watch, as he displayed his all-around skillset with a 7 ft. frame. He also finished the season as part of the NBA All-Rookie First Team. However in terms of overall, Jackson’s performance as President of the Knicks was found wanting especially when compared to his achievements as a coach.
Reason Behind Jackson’s Departure from the Bulls in 1998
When Jackson left the Bulls in 1998, you might be wondering what happened given that he finished that season with a championship. With tensions rising between Jackson and Jerry Krause, Krause declared that the 1997-1998 season would be the last stint for Phil Jackson. He declared that he won’t be rehiring the multi-titled coach. Because of this, it put an end to the Bulls’ dynasty.
Despite being the general manager behind Chicago’s success, Krause wanted to dissolve the team and rebuild the Bulls franchise. In The Last Dance documentary, it was exposed that Krause was not in good terms with Jackson.
According to former Bulls coach Tim Floyd, Krause said “…you don’t understand, I can’t do it. I don’t want to work with Phil again.”
With Krause successfully kicking out Jackson off the team, the Bulls’ championship core also departed from the Windy City. Because of Jordan’s loyalty for Jackson, he would eventually retire but came back to the play for the Washington Wizards. Pippen would also be traded to the Houston Rockets.
Krause was successful in making a new team, however the Bulls would never taste a championship or even appear in an NBA Finals since 1998. To make matters worse, Tim Floyd, who was Jackson’s replacement, could only coach the Bulls team to 49 wins for three and a half seasons. Because of this, fans are just left wondering what would’ve happened if Phil Jackson and the Bulls’ championship core remained intact for at least one more season.
How did his NBA Career Come to an End
With his final stint in the NBA as the Knicks’ President not as great as his coaching performance, Jackson would part ways with the Knicks organization after trying to buy out the contract of former Knicks sensation Carmelo Anthony. Having not posted a winning record since the 2012-2013 season with Carmelo as the franchise player, the multi-titled bench tactician was motivated to trade away the all-star forward. In fact, Jackson was explicit when it comes to talking about the former Knicks star.
According to New York Times, Jackson said “We’ve not been able to win with him on the court at this time. I think the direction with our team is that he is a player that would be better off somewhere else…”
With Jackson having the desire to move on without Carmelo, the well renowned coach had to buy-out the contract of the former Knicks All Star. However, James Dolan, who is the Knicks’ owner opposed the decision of Phil.
Aside from his failure to dismiss Carmelo Anthony from the Knicks, his public clash with the player he drafted himself, Kristaps Porzingis, would also contribute to his exit from the executive position. After Porzingis missed the exit interview, Jackson took it to public to vent his ire. To make matters worse, he revealed he was entertaining trade proposals for the Latvian big man.
Because of this, Phil Jackson and the Knicks would go on their separate ways after unnecessary team dramas and disagreements off the court. Under Jackson’s term, the Knicks finished with a dismal 80-166 win-loss record for three seasons.
Phil Jackson’s Influence on Today’s NBA Coaches
Given that Jackson has achieved a lot as a bench tactician, there’s no question that coaches in the NBA look up to him today. In fact, even his rivals consider him one of the greatest coaches of all time. Doc Rivers, the current coach of the Los Angeles Clippers and former coach of the Boston Celtics that battled Phil Jackson’s Lakers in 2008 and 2010 mentioned:
“Phil’s a great example of handling whatever comes his way. We all want the calm, and he dealt in the calm very well. But he also desalt with the storms extremely well. He got personalities and people to work together.”
Jackson’s calm demeanor is one of the most striking aspects that has influenced coaches today. This group of coaches also includes Frank Vogel, the current head tactician of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Vogel states “…the calm mental adjustment is something that I try to always carry with any conflict or any adversity my team faces. I always admired that approach, letting guys play in. Not bailing teams with timeouts, letting them play through things, figure out themselves.”
Aside from Vogel, another coach who appreciates that calm demeanor under pressure is Sacramento Kings Coach Luke Walton, who played for Jackson and the Lakers from 2003-2011. Walton mentioned:
“One of the main things that I try to take with me, from what Phil has taught is training yourself and your players to always try to be able to stay level-headed throughout and not get too emotionally high or too emotionally low. He would talk about The Peaceful Warrior…that’s where you’re most dangerous, if you can stay in that area.”
The Kings’ coach also served as the interim head coach of the Golden State Warriors team in 2015-2016 that holds the record for most wins in a regular season, 73-9.
Another former player of Phil Jackson that is currently enjoying coaching success is Steve Kerr, who is the Head Coach of the mighty Golden State Warriors. The current Golden State Warriors’ battlecry “Strength in Numbers” derives from the triangle system that Phil Jackson utilizes. Kerr proclaims:
“The triangle was not just an offense to run, it was part of a whole philosophy of teamwork and connectivity…For me, that was Strength in Numbers”
Steve Kerr has navigated the hot shooting Warriors to three championships in the last five seasons. He also won Coach of the Year in 2016.
There’s no question that Phil’s system can produce championships. In fact, the current coach of the reigning NBA champions, Nick Nurse, also admires the Hall-of-fame coaching great. When Nurse was coaching overseas before applying for an NBA job just like Jackson, he would study the Bulls’ offensive plays. Because of this, it is not a coincidence when Nurse used the triangle offense while he was coaching in the British Basketball league. Although his current system with the Raptors veers away from the triangle, it still preaches spacing and ball movement. He states:
“…ours is less of a triangle and more of a big, spaced-out square but it got better over the year and they’re in a situation where now there’s more opportunities for them.”
Nurse coached the Toronto Raptors to its first ever NBA Championship by dethroning the heavily favored, Golden State Warriors in 2019.
Despite retiring from coaching in 2011, nine years later, Phil Jackson remains as a memorable figure to the coaches today.
The Verdict: Is Phil Jackson the Greatest Coach Ever?
To be the greatest coach in the NBA, you not only have to have a game changing system but you must also have the hardware to show for it. System wise, Jackson’s triangle offense allowed the likes of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to shine. Furthermore, it allowed Jackson’s teams to become unstoppable. Although his system is slowly becoming obsolete in the modern day, there’s no doubt that it was a coaching scheme that rocked the league during Jackson’s coaching era. Adding to that, it is worth noting how modern coaches still derive from his coaching philosophies. This only goes to show how big Jackson’s influence is in the NBA coaching scene.
In terms of hardware, I believe there’s no other coach that has come close to what Phil Jackson has achieved. For every team he has coached, he has given both the Bulls and the Lakers at least a three-peat each. Although he may have not the most career wins for an NBA Coach, Jackson did win 11 NBA Championships. The only coach that came close was Red Auerbach, who won nine NBA titles with the Boston Celtics.
Although some would say Jackson had talents such as Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, and Scottie Pippen, it takes coaching talent to blend all the stars’ skills together and to lead them to a championship. Furthermore, Jackson should also be credited on how he dealt with his obstacles. When Krause has chosen not to rehire him after 1998, Jackson had the composure to still stir the Bulls to its third NBA Championship. Aside from this obstacle, Jackson also had to deal with the rising tension between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. But despite this, he still managed to produce three championships from the All Star duo.
Because of his achievements in his era, it is safe to say Jackson should be declared as the greatest coach ever.