Of all the Kobe Bryant-Phil Jackson titles, this one is especially special.
But not because it’s Kobe’s first without Shaq. No, this title is special because it locks up Phil Jackson’s legacy.
Phil Jackson now has more titles than any other coach in NBA history, even Red Auerbach, but has rarely gotten any respect for them. After all, people say, he just so happened to be the coach who won six titles with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, then won three more with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Lucking into two all-time great, title-winning pairings shouldn’t be the criteria that gets you seen as great.
Well, this year, Phil Jackson proved he really is that great a coach.
This wasn’t a Jackson/Pippen or O’Neal/Bryant situation. Jackson had Bryant, but he came into the 2005-06 season without much else. Those years proved that Jackson and Bryant were in fact human; they would have to earn a fourth title together. You can attribute the Lakers’ success to shrewd front-office decisions, but it was Jackson that turned Bryant into the leader he always wanted to be, and Jackson that created the environment that allowed the team to gel and succeed.
The jury’s still out on whether Jackson is the greatest coach of all time, but he’s locked up his spot in the top five to ten. If you don’t think Jackson had something to do with the Lakers’ win, you’re effectively saying that coaches never have anything to do with successful basketball teams. After all, didn’t Auerbach have Bill Russell for much of his career?
Now, maybe that’s the case. But here are the last 25 Finals winning coaches, from most recent to least recent: Jackson, Doc Rivers, Gregg Popovich, Pat Riley, Popovich, Larry Brown, Popovich, Jackson, Jackson, Jackson, Popovich, Jackson, Jackson, Jackson, Rudy Tomjanovich, Tomjanovich, Jackson, Jackson, Jackson, Chuck Daly, Daly, Riley, Riley, K.C. Jones, Riley. The only possible duds (or even non-Hall-of-Famers) of that bunch are Rivers and Jones, and Rivers had three great players working for him (and arguably, Jones did too) and Jones comes close to being the oldest name on the list.
It seems apparent that even great players can’t get to the Finals without a good coach by their side, especially with how egocentric NBA superstars tend to be. If Phil Jackson is the luckiest coach in NBA history, there should now be no doubt he created some of his own luck. He deserves to be on the same level as Red Auerbach and the other great coaches. That can no longer be disputed.