Almost a year ago to the day, LeBron James said that Gregg Popovich was the greatest coach of all-time. Agree or disagree, but context matters. LeBron was having beef with Phil Jackson early last year. Jackson called LBJ’s friends a “posse”, LeBron was royally perturbed and the respect went downhill from there. So throw Jackson under the NBA coaching bus, prop up Pop.
LeBron has history with Popovich. Pop beat him in the NBA Finals in 2014 which caused LeBron’s exit from Miami. Popovich would have beaten LeBron in 2013 had Chris Bosh/Ray Allen not been heroes. So there is some merit to LeBron’s way of thinking. But not everyone agrees.
Ten months before LeBron’s side swipe of Phil, Kobe Bryant said:
“People in New York just need to trust the fact that he knows more about basketball than any of them put together. In my opinion, he’s the greatest coach in any profession. Ever.”
Not that Kobe can ever be accused of shyness or not being direct about what he thinks, but he had an unflattering assessment of the person he called the greatest coach in any profession.
“I would go to him in confidence and talk about certain things, and he would then use those things to manipulate the media against me. And from that standpoint, I finally said, ‘No way. I’m not gonna deal with that anymore.’ This was during our first run, during those first three championships [2000-02]. So when he’d come out in the press and said those things about me, I was finally like, ‘F— it. I’m done with this guy. I’ll play for him and win championships, but I will have no interaction with him. Yet at the same time, it drove me at a maniacal pace. Because either consciously or unconsciously, he put a tremendous amount of pressure on me to be efficient, and to be great, and to be great now.” (GQ Magazine)
Bryant’s dueling images of Jackson begs the question: can Phil be both things at the same time, a great coach and a master at getting into players heads in order to get the best out of them?
His 11 coaching rings say yes. Particularly since after repeating titles, he changed course. After his Chicago three-peat, he added Dennis Rodman. After his Lakers three-peat, he lost Shaq, added Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. The rap that Jackson always had good players is a non-sequiter. Gregg Popovich had Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and David Robinson. Eric Spoelstra had LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Rick Carlisle had Dirk Nowitzki. Doc Rivers had Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevn Garnett. Steve Kerr has Steph Curry and Draymond Green and Kevin Durant. Red Auerbach had Bill Russell and Bob Cousy. Of course he had great players. But is Phil Jackson the greatest coach in the history of the world?
If you are measuring championships then it’s a no brainer. In the NBA, Jackson leads Red Auerbach by two, 11 rings to 9. He leads Gregg Popovich by six, eleven rings to five. If you are counting wins, then Popovich wins the argument. He has 1179 NBA wins in his career while Jackson won 1155 games. Auerbach won slightly more than 800 games. Even the they didn’t play as many games in Red’s day doesn’t give Auerbach the advantage. Jackson won 70.4% of the NBA games he coached, a NBA record. Gregg Popovich has won 69.3% of the games he coached while Red won 65.8% of his games.
If you are measuring by Hall of Fame players, then Auerbach wins by a mile which only makes the Jackson argument stronger. He did more with less and with two different organizations, in an addition by subtraction way, with the league changing rules and style of play.
Red Auerbach Hall of Famers (10): Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Ed Macauley, Frank Ramsey, Arnie Risen, Bill Russell, Bill Sharman
Phil Jackson Hall of Famers (6): Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman
Gregg Popovich Hall of Famers (4): David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard
|Phil vs. Red vs. Pop||Winning %||Wins||Titles||Repeat as Champion|
When you look at what other coaches have done, Jackson still comes out on top. Bear Bryant won 6 titles for Alabama football. John Wooden won 10 titles as coach of the UCLA Bruins. Casey Stengel and Joe McCarthy both won 7 World Series, both managers of the Yankees. Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots won 5 Super Bowls (and 2 as a Defensive Coordinator, NY Giants).
This is a familiar subject revisited every few years because Jackson has never done much of anything to pull people to his side and Popovich keeps winning games, with Kawhi Leonard or without him. And Popovich adapted in a way Jackson never would.
Recently Popovich told the story of how he didn’t coach LaMarcus Aldridge as well as he should have and Aldridge asked to be traded. Popovich nixed that request. But he also changed the offense so it fit Aldridge as opposed to the reverse, forcing Aldridge to fit the offense.
Aldridge is having a career year, a throwback to his Blazers days. He has never scored over 20 points as a Spur. He is doing so now. He has never pulled in 3 offensive rebounds while in San Antonio. Except this year. He has a career high offensive rating and his defensive rating is his 4th lowest. His 24.1 PER is a career high. He is 12th among power forwards in Real Plus-Minus. Last year he was 22nd.
Think Phil would have kept a player around who couldn’t master the triangle and wanted to bail?
The irony of Jackson was he preached loyalty and tribal unity and each one teach one. But, he also had a very insular approach; no one was included but him and his players. Everyone else, even Jerry West, were outsiders. It was enough for Jerry West to quit. Jackson has never apologized for his block out the sun style. His arrogance was noteworthy enough that it is still being talked about 8 years after his last title. And while his accomplishments are respected, he has never been well liked by his peers.
As his last great player retired 18 months ago, all of the Jackson exceptionalism talk has faded away. Gone from the league are the Jackson apostle’s though they are represented: Jordan as owner of the Hornets, Shaq on TNT and Kobe with his new ESPN show, Detail. Still. As far as games, there is no current NBA player who Jackson mentored as a priest and teacher and myth maker, unless you consider an aged Pau Gasol and he plays for Popovich now. What’s left for Jackson is invisibility, absence. Retirement. He has done one better (or worse) than his famous pupils. They are still attached to the NBA, in some fashion or another. He is not.
But for Gregg Popovich, he is still writing the script. Over and over again. He will be in the WCF conversation, racking up more wins, getting more respect and love and distancing himself in the record book, not only in wins and losses but in affection, political courage, leadership and character. The things that also earn you the title, Greatest Human Ever.
photo via llananba