Report Card: Phil Jackson

Phil Jackson's career has always been a paradox.  He has become the greatest, most successful coach in the history of professional basketball by doing the exact opposite of what we would expect a good coach to do.  Good coaches manage a game ... Phil Jackson lets the game do all the managing.  Good coaches make sure the right people are on the court at all times ... Phil Jackson experiments with rotations for no reason in the regular season, and then leaves the same rotation to fail time and time again in the playoffs.  Good coaches are active and engaged, yelling out adjustments on the fly to help his team win ... Phil Jackson, well, he whistles really, really loud.

None of this is groundbreaking analysis.  People have been trying, and failing, to understand the mysteries of Phil Jackson's success for well over a decade now.  It is because he is so different, his style so unique, that so many people still believe he has achieved all that he has by simply being in the right place at the right time.  Nobody knows exactly how Phil was able to do what he did in order to win so much, and nobody is stupid enough to try and duplicate his style, in part because nobody is sure that it's a good style to duplicate.

Again, nothing you haven't heard before.  Phil Jackson is amazing , and nobody really knows why.  He is the ultimate coaching paradox ... so what happens when the paradox resolves itself?  What happens when the conflicting logics that ultimately lead to contradiction instead lead to a conclusion that is reasonably expected?  What happens when everything that Phil Jackson does, and doesn't do, all of those differences between Phil and the other good coaches, ends up being the reason (or at least one of the reasons) why his team lost?

That's was Phil Jackson's season in a nutshell.  This was the year when all of Phil's coaching strategies came back to bite him, and us, in the ass.  His trust in role players never materialized into success for those players in important moments.  His belief that his veteran team would simply know what to do when the time came was proven false.  His understanding and ability to bring the best out of the team's lynchpin (yes, I'm talking about Pau Gasol) failed him.  And most importantly, his calming voice soothed the team into thinking nothing was wrong instead of giving them the poise to deal with the issues that existed.

When taken only within the context of this past season, the conclusion makes perfect sense.  Finally, the real world's understanding of Phil Jackson as a coach matches up with his team's success (or, in this case, failure.)  We don't have to worry about understanding what makes him a great coach, because he wasn't a great coach.  But that approach is both silly and misguided, because there is no way that we can pass any kind of judgment on Phil Jackson on this one season, even if all we are judging is his performance in the one season.

We can all agree that the Los Angeles Lakers didn't do all that well this season, and that a decent portion of the blame for that lies at Phil Jackson's feet.  But what would you have had him do differently?  All his actions that didn't work, that had us so frustrated, they are all found on PJ's blueprint for coaching success.  Yes, his "strategy" failed miserably this season, but how many seasons has Phil Jackson had a legit championship contender and failed to lead that contender to the title?  Three times?  Maybe four, if you count his first year in Chicago.  So the man was working on something like an 80% succcess rate by utilizing the same hands-off strategies.  Can we really fault him for holding a hard line on his philsophical style when it had such a strong track record coming in?  Probably not, but that doesn't mean he gets a free pass.

When combined with the rest of his career, this season in which the paradox of Phil Jackson's coaching ability was resolved becomes the paradox itself.  If Phil Jackson wasn't a coaching genius who understand what is important to winning championships on a level that nobody else can comprehend, then why was he able to win so many titles?  If he was said genuis, then why did all of his unique strategies fail him in the end?  Phil Jackson's last act as a head coach was to leave us even more confused about his abilities than we were in the first place.  I imagine he'd prefer to have that 12th championship instead, but if I know anything about Phil Jackson at all, I imagine he takes some small amount of joy out of that consolation prize.

I'm not really sure how you grade a paradox.  Seems kind of counter-intuitive to the process.  So we'll stick with the facts.  The Lakers were expected to be a prime championship contender, and got swept out of the 2nd round.  Fault lies in many places, but Phil deserves his share:  C

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