Really, is Phil Jackson the Greatest Coach in the History of the World?

This week, LeBron James said that Gregg Popovich is the greatest coach of all-time. Not to take away from Pop, but it was one of those passive-aggressive digs LeBron is known for. He had beef with Phil Jackson early in the year who threw shade LeBron’s way. But there is real history for LeBron and Pop as well. Pop beat him in the NBA Finals in 2014 which caused his 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 ago, after losing on a last second shot to the New York Knicks, in his familiar post-game presser, Kobe Bryant was inevitably asked about Phil Jackson. Bryant, of the 5 Jackson rings, had no patience for Jackson critics.

“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 a year ago he had this assessment of Jackson, reflecting on when he was a young player.

“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. Steve Kerr has Steph Curry and Draymond Green. 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 more wins, than Jackson still wins the argument. He has won 1155 NBA games in his career while Popovich has won 1122. Auerbach won slightly more than 800. Even the they didn’t play as many games in Red’s day doesn’t give Auerbach the advantage. Jackson has won 70.4% of the NBA games he coached, a NBA record. Gregg Popovich won 69.4% 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
Red Auerbach 65.8% 823 9 7
Phil Jackson 70.4% 1155 11 7
Gregg Poppovich 65.8% 1122 5 0

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. Chuck Noll of the Pittsburgh Steelers won 4 Super Bowls.

This is a familiar subject revisited every few years because Jackson has never done much of anything to pull people to his side. The irony of Jackson is he preaches loyalty and tribal unity and each one teach one. But, he also has a very insular approach; no one is included but him and his players. There are outsiders. And there are insiders. It was enough for Jerry West to quit. Jackson has never apologized for his block out the sun style. His arrogance is noteworthy enough that it is still being talked about 7 years after his last title. And while his accomplishments are respected, he has never been the most popular coach in the league.

As his last great player retired last year, all of this Jackson talk will fade away. For the first time in 27 years there is no Jackson apostle, no great NBA player who Jackson, as a priest and teacher and myth maker and book critic, molded into a champion. What’s left for Jackson is the ever continuing puzzle of the Knicks mediocrity. And to get it done in the front office now that the last of his extraordinary legacy players has left the basketball stage.

But for Gregg Popovich, he is still writing the script. He will pass Phil on the wins and winning percentage list. He won’t pass him on the titles list or the repeat as champion list. But he will definitely pass him on the most liked list and the most influential. Everyone borrows a part of Pop’s offense. No one plays the triangle anymore. Especially not Carmelo.


photo via llananba