Sunday, May 15, 2011

On the Contrary: Phil Jackson's not overrated

A recent article quoted Scot Pollard saying the following about Phil Jackson:

"I just think he’s one of the most overrated coaches of our time. He’s only had the greatest players of our era on his teams. Put him in charge of the Sacramento Kings this year, and I don’t mean to offend Sacramento fans, but put him on a team with no Hall-Of-Famers on it at least no one that has established themselves as a Hall-Of-Famer already, put him as the Head Coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers right now and let’s see how he does next year with no Hall-Of-Famers on the team. That’s all I’m saying."

First of all, what would coaching the Cavs or the Kings prove exactly?  That he couldn't win a title with those teams?  Nobody could win a title with those teams.  Besides, no one is saying that coaches don't benefit from great players, but why are we pretending like Phil's the only one to do so?  Every Red Auerbach title included Bill Russell and at least three other future Hall-of-Famers (with four of his teams having as many as seven).  Bill Russell won two titles as a player-coach, but not without fellow future HOFers John Havlicek and Sam Jones.  Pat Riley never won a championship that didn't include Magic, Kareem, or Shaq.  Gregg Popovich never won a title without Duncan.  Rudy Tomjanovich never won without Olajuwon.  John Kundla never won without Mikan.  K.C. Jones never won without Bird, McHale, Parish, or Johnson.  Red Holzman, Tommy Heinsohn, Chuck Daly and Alex Hannum all never won without at least two future HOFers.

I just listed every coach that has ever won multiple championships.  Not one of them has done it without having a.) one of the 13 best players to ever play or b.) at least two future HOFers.  So yes, Phil Jackson benefited from coaching great players.  But so has every other coach that has ever won multiple championships.  To pretend that Jackson somehow benefited more than others is foolish.  It completely minimizes the personalities that he had to deal with.  Bill Simmons addressed this in his latest column, which just happens to be about Phil Jackson (I'd highly recommend reading it).  Here are two quotes:

"He never gets enough credit for successfully handling two of the three most difficult NBA superstars ever: Jordan and Kobe (with Wilt being the third)."

"When people dismiss Jackson's credentials with 'Anyone could have coached Michael Jordan,' they are wrong."

To give an example of the difficulty of coaching Jordan, here's what Simmons wrote in The Book of Basketball:

“For years and years, Jordan couldn’t rein himself in. He cared about winning, but only on his terms – he also wanted to win scoring titles, drop 50 whenever he pleased and treat his teammates like the biggest bully in the prison block – which led Phil Jackson to adopt the triangle offense in a last-ditch effort to prevent Jordan from hogging the ball (and, Jackson hoped, embolden his supporting cast).”

People look at what happened in the '90s and assume Jordan was just destined to win multiple championships.  Just because he ended up as one of the most successful basketball players ever, that doesn't mean championships were always inevitable.  In his book, The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith states:

"It was already a popular theory that the Bulls would never win a title because Jordan's style of one-on-one play eliminated the other players as contributors. But the fans loved it, and to Reinsdorf, that meant money."

"[Doug] Collins had always told [Reinsdorf] the Bulls couldn't win with Jordan, and Reinsdorf had always told friends he knew only two things about basketball: 'You win with defense and team play.' He could have one, he knew, but perhaps not the other as long as Jordan dominated the scoring."

You can't look back at what happened with Jordan and the Bulls and assume that would've happened in any scenario.  Why are people, in 2011, making inferences about the degree of difficulty it takes to win with Jordan?  Should we listen to people who had zero involvement with the Bulls, or people who had firsthand experience?  Because, in the '80s, the Bulls' coach and management didn't think that Jordan equaled "guaranteed championships."  So much so that they actually considered trading him.  Smith states that, during the 1987-88 season, Clippers owner Donald Sterling "offered any combination of five players or draft choices," in exchange for Michael Jordan.  With two of the draft picks they could get from the Clippers, they would possibly be able to draft Rik Smits and Mitch Richmond.  They also thought maybe they could trade Charles Oakley or Horace Grant for Kevin Johnson, "leaving the Bulls a starting five of Johnson, Richmond, Pippen, Grant or Oakley, and Smits. The Bulls thought about it long and hard; they were almost sure the deal could get them a title faster than staying with Jordan. But in the end, Reinsdorf held firm: Michael Jordan was untradable. Period."

Jordan had made multiple appearances on the All-NBA First Team, the All-Defensive First Team, the All-Star team, had won multiple Scoring Titles, had won Defensive Player of the Year, and had won a MVP award.  Did those accolades stop the Bulls from trading him?  Nope.  It was because of money and because Reinsdorf feared that "such a trade would force him right out of town."

If winning with Jordan is so easy, why was Doug Collins fired?  The Bulls had gone to the Eastern Conference Finals that year; it wasn't like they completely whiffed in the playoffs or something.  Why wasn't he the recipient of six championship rings, if having Jordan is all that's needed?  And if winning with Shaq and Kobe is so easy, then why did Dell Harris get fired?  In '97 and '98, the Lakers won 56 and 61 games respectively.  The '98 Lakers had four All-Stars, yet couldn't win one game against the Jazz in the Western Conference Finals.

If success is independent from coaches, then why did the "Showtime" Lakers replace Paul Westhead with Pat Riley?  Why did the '80s Celtics replace Bill Fitch with K.C. Jones?  It means something that Pat Riley won four rings with Magic, while Paul Westhead only won one.  It means something that K.C. Jones won two rings with Bird, while Bill Fitch only won one.  And it means something that Phil Jackson won 11 rings with Jordan, Shaq, and Kobe, while Doug Collins and Del Harris won zero.  There's a reason why Jones, Riley, and Jackson were the primary coaches during dynasties and had more success than their predecessors.  If having elite players leads to championships, than Fitch, Westhead, Collins, and Harris should have experienced the prolonged success that their replacements did.

Both Magic's Lakers and Bird's Celtics pushed out coaches.  Isn't it telling that Jordan's Bulls never pushed out Phil?  It's not like Phil let the Bulls do whatever they wanted.  He instituted the system that he wanted and they followed suit.  Is that not pretty significant?  Is it not noteworthy that even when Kobe did push out Phil that he was eventually brought back?  If Phil doesn't bring a lot to the table, then why would Kobe let him return?  If he could win championships with just about any coach, why on earth would he do it with the guy that blasted him in a book?  How does the fact that Phil didn't end up on whatever revenge list that Shaq ended up on not speak volumes?  Not only did Phil have only one major falling out during his coaching career, he repaired the one he did have.  How many other coaches could say the things about a player that Phil said about Kobe and still be welcomed back by that player?  Especially by a player with Kobe's ferocity?  He obviously has something that makes the players want him to be the coach.

Bill Simmons stated in his column, "Coaching isn't just about calling plays, riding the officials and figuring out strategies. Really, it's management more than anything else. You manage people. Jackson managed people better than anyone."  Westhead couldn't successfully manage Magic's Lakers and Fitch couldn't successfully manage Bird's Celtics, yet people are going to minimize that Phil Jackson could successfully manage Jordan and Kobe - two far more difficult players - for over 18 years?

Auerbach managing Russell, Riley managing Magic, Popovich managing Duncan and Kundla managing Mikan are all regarded as successful, but Jackson managing more difficult superstars makes him overrated?  Phil had more success than any other coach, with more difficult superstars (other than Wilt) than any other coach has had to deal with.  That shouldn't be ignored or minimized.  It should be admired.  Phil Jackson is not overrated.

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