For a generation of basketball fans, Phil Jackson is just that guy that ran the New York Knicks into ground in the 39 months he was president of the team 2014 to 2017. However, for fans of the Los Angeles Lakers (and fans of them 1990s Chicago Bulls), Jackson is the greatest coach of all time, and, to his credit, he has a pretty compelling case.
No, Jackson isn’t the winningest coach in NBA history — he’s actually not even in the top five because he only coached for 20 years. What he does have, though, is an NBA-record 11 championship rings, five of which he won during his time in Los Angeles.
Jackson first signed with the Lakers in 1999, a year removed from his championship-winning season with the Bulls, famously led by Michael Jordan. In the nine seasons Jackson served as head coach of the Bulls, the team won six championships. He likely would have won seven had Jordan not stepped away from the NBA for a season to play baseball.
When Jordan retired for the second time in 1998, Jackson took a one-year break of his own before returning to the sidelines with the Lakers. At the time of his hire, the Lakers were a good team, but they were missing something to push them closer to championship contention. As it turned out, Jackson was that missing ingredient.
In Jackson’s first season with the Lakers, they won 67 regular season games, which, to this day, is the second-most wins they’ve ended the regular season with. A big part of their immediate success had to do with how well the team’s personnel fit Jackon’s Triangle Offense. Under Jackson, O’Neal averaged 29.7 points per game, which ended up being his career-high. He also won his only MVP under Jackson.
The Lakers’ success didn’t stop in the regular season, either. Once the postseason rolled around, the Lakers scrapped their way to their fist NBA Finals appearance in almost 10 years. Once they got there, they beat the Indiana Pacers in six games.
Suffice to say, it was a nice welcome back to the NBA for Jackson.
The following season, the Lakers had less success in the regular season, in part due to the fact that they moved on from a disgruntled Glen Rice, the team’s third-leading scorer. They had less trouble in the postseason, where they went 15-1. They were the only team to only lose one game in the 15-win playoff format.
The Lakers completed their famous three-peat in 2002, and no one has won three consecutive NBA titles since. The collection of talent they had was obviously incredible, but Jackson got the best out of them, because that’s what good coaches do.
Jackson coached the Lakers for 11 years, but there was a gap in the 2004-05 season, which also happened to be the first season the team didn’t have O’Neal. Suffice to say, it was a transitional years for the Lakers, but fortunately for them, it didn’t last long.
By the start of the 2005-06 season, Jackson was back with the Lakers, and this time, he had a new focal point in his offense: Kobe Bryant. In Jackson’s first season back, Bryant averaged a career-high 35.6 points per game. Sound familiar?
The difference between Jackson’s first year with the Lakers and his first year back with the Lakers, though, was talent. While Bryant was playing the best basketball of his career, the roster around him was less than stellar. As a result, Jackson’s first two seasons back ended with first-round exits.
Jackson’s slow start in his second stint with the Lakers nearly forced Bryant out of Los Angeles, but in Jackson’s third season, they acquired Bryant’s co-star in Pau Gasol. With an All-Star big man at his disposal and a familiar face from the three-peat years in Derek Fisher, Jackson had all the tools he needed to get the Lakers back into the Finals, and so he did — for three consecutive seasons, the Lakers made the playoffs. While they didn’t three-peat for a second time, they won two championships in three appearances.
For Jackson’s willingness to push the Lakers to new heights, even he upset people along the way, he’s someone worth appreciating from the organization’s history.