Thursday, March 5, 2015

Mastering Triangular Zen

Back when Phil Jackson had recently won his 8th NBA championship ring as a head coach (6 with the Bulls followed by 2 with the Lakers) I wrote an article declaring that he was overrated.  I don't remember if calling people a "hater" was a thing back then, but if it was, folks from Los Angeles and Chicago and beyond surely would have called me one.  As a Knicks fan, Phil's championships with the Bulls had rubbed me the wrong way.  I took those he won with the Lakers less personally, but I didn't see his championships with a second team and different cast of players as proof that he had the Midas Touch when it came to hoops.  As I saw it, he had simply gone from one stacked situation to another and done what he was supposed to do in both.  Below I have reprinted my analysis of the legend of Phil Jackson.  These days, as a GM rather than head coach but still, my words seem rather prophetic.  Typically I love to be proven right.  But since the team he's now back with is the New York Knicks, I would have preferred to have been proven wrong.  Hope and logic say that next season will look A LOT better than this one for my Knickerbockers.  Until then, I suffer along with fellow fans.  Phil has been the butt of some jokes lately, but his impeccable legacy can easily handle the hits until he is able to follow up on Jordan+Pippen and Shaq+Kobe with Melo+player to be named later.  Prove me wrong, Phil.  I'm looking forward to it.   

Some people are blessed with a Midas touch. Others are born under a lucky star. Good fortune is the result in either case, but that which we credit for their accomplishments differs. After all, there is a crucial distinction between a man who does great things and one whom great things happen to. It is usually easy enough to tell such men apart, to see who belongs in one category and who resides in the other. But on occasion there are exceptions, enigmas about whom we cannot be certain no matter how closely we examine their lives.
Take Los Angeles Lakers coach, Phil Jackson. There is no disputing the success he has had in the NBA. Six championships with the Chicago Bulls, followed by a year off in which time that dynasty promptly crumbled, succeeded by a return to coaching that has netted him two more championships in as many years. It makes one wonder why pro basketball teams even bother to play out their seasons. Shouldn't David Stern simply head over to the headquarters of whichever team Phil Jackson happens to be running at the time and hand the man his trophy? 

I will admit right now that it's difficult for me to be unbiased in my opinion about Jackson. I happen to be a Knicks fan who vividly recalls the numerous times that they fell to Phil and his Bulls, but I'm not old enough to have recollections of when he played for the Knicks. So, since I only know him as the enemy, the temptation is great for me to side with those who feel that Phil is not a genius, but merely a good coach who has been the beneficiary of having some of the most talented individuals ever to lace up a pair of sneakers play for him. At this point in time (his legend possibly to be either validated or tarnished if he makes yet another comeback), Michael Jordan is a near unanimous choice for greatest basketball player of all time. His teammate Scottie Pippen was no slouch either. When two of the five guys that a coach has the luxury of sending out are at or near the top of the NBA's list of elite performers, how can you lose? In Phil Jackson's case, the answer is that you can't lose, because with that particular hand of cards he never did fall short. 

Of course, Jackson is not the only man in recent memory to have coached a dynamic duo. To name just one, although there are certainly several more examples I can give, Jerry Sloan of the Utah Jazz has had Karl Malone and John Stockton at his disposal for years. They have been remarkably consistent in winning a great many games while together, but they have not managed to win a single title. Were Malone and Stockton simply not as good as Jordan and Pippen? Perhaps not. Is Phil Jackson a greater strategist and motivator than Sloan. Perhaps. Even so, does coaching "the greatest" entitle one to the same accolades as the men actually performing the feats of skill and bravado? I've yet to hear anyone claim that Muhammad Ali achieved what he did in the ring because Angelo Dundee was the ultimate boxing trainer. Dundee received due credit for his work, but the man who threw and received the punches received the bulk of the praise. In Jackson's case, he gets a considerable degree of glory without having to put up a single shot. 

There is ample evidence that points to Phil Jackson being the greatest coach in NBA history, and perhaps even the most accomplished coach in the history of sports. The man already has eight championships under his belt, and all signs indicate that his current team is capable of earning several more under his helm. When the Bulls disbanded, it appeared as if Jackson's streak of success was over with. No matter what team he went to next, he would not have the safety net of Superman in a number 23 jersey to bail him out. Those who had reason to begrudge Jackson his triumphs reasoned with glee that he would be brought crashing down to earth wherever he ended up. Where he ended up was with the Los Angeles Lakers. Was the drop off in talent he had to work with at all significant when he went from Jordan and Pippen to Shaq and Kobe? The results say - apparently not. Or perhaps they proclaim - give Phil a couple of excellent players to build a triangle around and he'll beat your guys with his every time, no matter who the respective guys happen to be. Which of these conclusions is the correct one? Depends on your perspective. 

Much has been said about Phil Jackson's coaching technique. His vaunted triangle offense has consistently managed to get the ball into the hands of the team's best player, or else their second best player, while a collection of carefully selected role players take care of less glamorous but still invaluable duties. Imitation being the sincerest and most common form of flattery, other teams have employed the triangle with nowhere near the same degree of success. These teams have not had Jordan-Pippen or Shaq-Kobe, but they did feature players who made the star oriented three point offense seem like a fine idea at the time. Does the fact that they failed where Phil succeeded prove that Jackson is a coach without peer? Or does this mask the fact that if Jackson had found himself in less fortunate circumstances throughout his career, he would have had far less impressive results? 

It is easy to be irked by Phil's smug demeanor; the zen aura he exudes and fortune cookie wisdom dispensed; and his largely hands-off approach to dealing with turmoil, such as his habit of refusing to call time outs as other coaches do to stall an adversary's momentum. All of these things add up to a single infuriating perception. Phil Jackson acts as if he somehow knows in advance that he will be victorious. Far more frequently than not, he turns out to be right. It's enough to make one suspect that the man has made a pact with the devil. Has Phil Jackson created his incredible string of luck, or is the streak of good fortune responsible for inventing the sterling reputation of Phil Jackson? 

When Shaq and Kobe were feuding earlier this past season, both even separately demanding to be traded, it looked as if Phil Jackson might finally be exposed for the plain old ordinary man that he just had to be. But behind closed doors the situation mysteriously righted itself, bad attitudes were checked at the door, and the Lakers peaked with perfect timing in order to enjoy the most successful NBA playoff run ever. While with the Bulls, Jackson coached a certain miscreant by the name of Dennis Rodman. Dennis proved to be a distracting divisive force who negated his rebounding prowess with bad boy behavior on other teams.  But he didn’t hurt his Bulls teammates one bit, judging by all of those rings on their fingers. Apparently being a master psychiatrist is also part of Phil Jackson's resume. 

The only thing that those of us not in the Phil Jackson fan club can point to with satisfaction are the two seasons with the Bulls when his best player was MIA chasing after curve balls. During Michael Jordan's foray into baseball the Bulls remained a solid playoff caliber team, but they did not stay unbeatable. The Knicks and the Magic outlasted Phil Jackson in those seasons, both of them ultimately going down at the hands of the Houston Rockets. Scottie Pippen arguably became the game's best player without the shadow of Jordan cast over him, so why were championship trophies awarded to Hakeem Olajuwan and Rudy Tomjanovich? Why wasn't the coaching guru extraordinaire able to continue his win streak without missing a beat? Was his mortality finally exposed? Had holes of reality finally been poked in the myth of invincibility? The point became largely moot when Jordan and Chicago championships returned, and it has been just about forgotten thanks to Jackson's continued success with a different cast of characters in LA. At this rate, the only matter that will be left for basketball scholars to debate is whether the best of Phil's Lakers teams could beat his Bulls in their prime. You aren't doing too shabby when your only worthy competition is yourself. 

After much consideration, much to my distaste, I am forced to admit that Phil Jackson is enormously talented at what he does. What does he do? He gets himself into the best possible circumstances, leaves the real leading to his best players on the floor, and keeps the ship moving forward with a steady hand. The extreme confidence and composure that he possesses transfer to the men under his watch. His players sense no fear in him, whether they are up against a quality opponent or fighting their own inner demons, so they usually gather themselves in troubled times and take care of the business at hand. If Phil Jackson suddenly found himself as coach of the Clippers or the Nuggets or the Bulls as currently constructed, would he end up with yet another championship team by season's end? Most certainly not. I'd take a man like Doc Rivers over Phil Jackson to get a group of marginally talented players to overachieve any day of the week. But on the flip side of the equation, I didn't see former Lakers coaches Del Harris or Kurt Rambis leading the Lakers to the promised land, and they had the same main weapons that Jackson utilized with much greater efficiency. I'm not sure if Phil is suited to make a bad team good, and he has failed in the past to make a good team great. But there is no disputing his mastery as taking a great team and making them a dynasty. We can only question how dubious such a feat is. 

Shaq and Kobe are still young men. As Phil Jackson has done before with his superstars, he has gotten them to submerge their egos for the good of the team and the multitude of endorsements that will surely keep coming their winning way. It may be a long time indeed before another NBA coach gets his hands on the championship trophy, so for those who haven't already done so, get used to seeing Jackson's smug grin of satisfaction. Then again, it would really be something if Michael Jordan does come back and managed to lead the Washington Wizards to the Finals against the Lakers. Could it be that the man most responsible for having created the legend of Phil Jackson is the only one capable of smashing it? 

Midas touch or lucky star? My money is on the latter. After all, if truly everything that Phil Jackson touched turned to gold, the President of this great nation would be his buddy and former teammate, Bill Bradley. Instead, we ended up with George Bush, the equivalent of a first round playoff exit at best. I suggest that Phil restrict the sphere of his influence to men in shorts from here on out.

Fingers crossed for much brighter days ahead at Madison Square Garden.

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