How Will Phil Jackson be Remembered?
If I offered you a coach who has won 11 NBA championships, 1,155 games with a 70.4 win percentage, and coached three of the greatest players of all-time, you would take him in a heartbeat, right? What if I offered you a President of Basketball Operations who publicly ridiculed the star player to force him out, actively tried to trade the young up-and-coming fan-favorite due to an ego battle, fell asleep during draft workouts, skipped the combine, and was paid $12 million annually (yes, annually)? You would spit in my face over that train wreck, no? The fact that these are the same person is stunning.
The history books of the NBA cannot be written without Phil Jackson. Throughout his storied life, he has had an impact as a player, coach, and president with some of the biggest franchises in NBA history. On June 28th, 2017 the Knicks fired their 71-year-old President, Phil Jackson, ending one of the most troubling front office tenures in recent NBA history. While Phil clearly was not right for this job, was it his entire fault? Is this how he should be remembered?
Jackson spent 12 years as a player in the NBA, ten with the Knicks and two with the Nets. While he was never a star, he was a solid role-player who averaged 17.6 minutes, 6.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game. In his rookie year, Jackson was named to the NBA All Rookie First Team after being named a two-time All-American at North Dakota. While with the Knicks he was their enforcer at center, always towards the top of the leader boards in fouls. In 1970 and 1973 he helped the Knicks win the NBA championship. Unfortunately, a severe back injury would end up limiting Jackson’s playing career. He was never able to fully regain what he once had; resulting in a role that mostly occupied the bench. For most athletes this can be devastating for a career, but Jackson was able to see the game from a different view, a coach’s view.
After retiring as a player, Jackson remained with the Nets for three years as an Assistant Coach before moving to Chicago as an Assistant Coach for two years. In 1989, the start of one of the most successful nine year runs, Phil Jackson earned his first head coaching job with the Chicago Bulls. In Jackson’s first year, the Bulls lost in a brutal seven game series to the Detroit Pistons, the eventual NBA champions. After that, the Bulls would go on to win the next three NBA championships. Even during the two year “slump” when Jordan retired (1993–95), Jackson led the Bulls to 55 and 47 win seasons. In 1995, Jordan’s first full season back, the Bulls had another run of three straight championships. In nine years with the Bulls, Jackson was able to win an amazing six titles. The three years he didn’t win a title were his first season, a narrow loss to the eventual champions, and two seasons without the greatest player in the history of the game. Some have argued that how good of a coach do you have to be to win with Michael, any bozo could do that job. While there may be some inclination to that, Jackson still had a lot of responsibility on his plate. He had to install an offense that worked for his personnel, he had to teach sound team defense, and most importantly he had to manage the roaring egos of those teams to keep everyone from killing Jordan (or more likely from Jordan killing all of them). At the end of the day Jordan will (and should) get more credit for the championships, but to say that Phil had no impact is a great disservice.
After completing his second three-peat with the Bulls, Jackson was forced to take a year off due to not being resigned by the Bulls over an ego battle with the front office. In the 1999–00 season, Jackson took the head coaching job of the Los Angeles Lakers that was led by a young Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neil who was in his prime. Jackson was quick to install his patented triangle offense and continue the success he had in Chicago. The Lakers rattled off three straight championships in Jackson’s first three years. In the 2000–01 playoffs, the Lakers proved their dominance by going 15–1 in the playoffs. Jackson would end up spending a total of 11 years with the Lakers where he would win five titles in seven appearances.
As a coach, Phil Jackson has had some of the greatest players of all-time between Jordan, Kobe, and Shaq. It may seem obvious that if you have any of those players on your team you should be able to win a lot, but don’t discount the role the head coach still has to play in managing those players. Jordan and Kobe are two of the most competitive athletes in the history of sports. This often drove teammates away and created divides in the locker room. Jackson was able to keep those relationships tolerable enough to still win championships. Jackson was a master at running his offense, challenging his players, and managing egos. While Jackson did have some of the greatest to ever step on the court, none of them were ever able to win a championship without him.
After the 2010–11 season, Jackson stepped away from coaching and appeared to be done for good. Unfortunately, James Dolan was hell-bent on signing Jackson as President and this is where Jackson’s story takes a turn for the worst. In 2014 Phil Jackson signed a five-year $60 million contract to become the President of the New York Knicks. From the start it never seemed like Jackson really wanted the job as he turned down multiple offers from the Knicks before finally accepting the five-year $60 million deal (kind of hard to turn that down). With the history of Jackson’s success, the expectations were very high for him to turn around a franchise that hadn’t won a championship since he played for them. Jackson never came close to reaching these expectations as the team experienced some of its worst basketball in franchise history. The Knicks continued to miss the playoffs and posted their worst losing streak in franchise history of 16 games. The head coach position was never solidified as Mike Brown was fired after one year to be replaced by Derek Fisher who had zero coaching experience and was involved in multiple off-court issues. As Fisher proved to be unqualified for the job, he was fired and replaced by Kurt Rambis as interim head coach. Rambis’s lack of success as a head coach from the past continued through the season and Jeff Hornacek was hired as the current head coach. Hornacek was the head coach in title, but was forced by Jackson to run the triangle offense despite not having any players who fit into that offense. The constant turnover of head coaches never allowed the Knicks to develop any type of continued success or vision.
As far as transactions went, Jackson wasn’t terrible. He was able to trade away J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert (both of whom were playing awful basketball), acquire some picks for Tyson Chandler, draft Kristaps Porzingis, and resign Carmelo Anthony. The issue was that due to personalities, lack of success, and constant ridicule, free agents wanted nothing to do with the Knicks.
As a coach Jackson would frequently challenge his players in the media and ridicule their game to motivate them. This was able to work because he was with them every day working on getting better. As President, this tactic could not have been more destructive for Jackson. He frequently ripped his players, most notably Carmelo, directly to the media and through surrogate writers. This created ultimate dissension with the players and the fans. The Knicks desperately need to rebuild but it is hard to do so with a contract like Carmelo’s on the books which is made even harder by his no-trade clause. Jackson decided that the best way to get Carmelo to waive his no-trade clause was to make him as miserable as possible by constantly criticizing him. This led to a major ego battle between Carmelo and Phil (neither willing to budge an inch), free agents avoiding the Knicks at all costs, and Kristaps skipping his exit interview to prove his frustrations with the front office. Not only did Phil drive a wedge between his star player, he openly shopped his young star and fan-favorite Kristaps because of a bruised ego.
As President, Jackson proved that he was unwilling to adapt to the changing times and understand the climate and demands of his position. He had many concerning quotes from calling LeBron’s extremely successful business group his “posse” to saying Carmelo “would be better off somewhere else”. He has skipped the combine altogether, fallen asleep during draft workouts, and alienated his two best players by actively shopping and ridiculing them. The Knicks have moved on from one controversy not by solving it and improving the situation, but by creating another one. On June 28, 2017 Phil Jackson was relieved of his duties with the New York Knicks after one of the more troubling front office tenures in recent NBA history.
As a Head Coach, Phil Jackson was a master at controlling and pacifying egos; as a President, he let his ego get the best of him. So how will you remember Phil Jackson? Will he be the role player who helped the Knicks win their only two championships and went on to win 11 championships as a coach with all-time greats like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neil? Will he be the President of the Knicks who tried to drive away their two best players, used surrogate writers to criticize players, and didn’t care enough to go to the combine or stay awake during draft workouts? How will Phil Jackson be remembered? How should he be remembered?