Read the opposing argument from Loyal Homer.
This probably seems like the type of debate that should have been done when Phil Jackson won his tenth championship ring. But, even now, there is a solid case to be made that comparing Phil Jackson to Red Auerbach simply cannot be done. What Phil Jackson has in numbers – 11 NBA titles – Red Auerbach has in true, credible, and authentic ability that expands well beyond coaching.
It was well known in both Chicago and Los Angeles that Phil Jackson was walking into situations where superstar talent was already in place, and management was extremely supportive (for a while). That is not to say Phil Jackson is without talent, since he won multiple NBA titles while coaching in both locations. Though he is not the “glorified baby sitter” Bleacher Fan called him, his main task was to manage, rather than coach. There is a big difference.
When Phil Jackson arrived in Chicago, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were already in place. The nucleus of a great team was present, and Jackson helped that nucleus achieve great things – as long as Michael Jordan was there. When Jordan retired to baseball, it is not as though Jackson forgot how to coach; but his teams were seemingly unable to get over the hump. Jackson was unable to turn Pippen into a superstar, and it appeared as though Jackson needed a superstar to reach the high bar he set for himself.
In many ways, Red Auerbach built the game of professional basketball we all enjoy today. Though it is at times boring, team play and defensive prowess were preached by Auerbach, and executed flawlessly by whatever personnel was on the court during Auerbach’s run as the Celtics head coach. Auerbach’s style of defensive toughness and his de-emphasis on individual accolades and performances were pioneering, and mandatory for his ability to build a dynasty. He locked in a system of play that worked for decades, regardless of which players were on the court. It worked so well his teams won nine championships in a ten season span… still a record unmatched across all sports. His system made good and great players Hall of Famers. Phil Jackson’s system and style only helped superstar talent reach the expectations fans, peers, and media already had for them.
Contrast Jackson’s history with Auerbach’s. Jackson chased superstars around the league like accident lawyers chase ambulances. Auerbach steadily guided the same franchise not just to success and several championships, but to a dynasty unrivaled in sports, regardless of changeover in talent. Auerbach’s teams never had a dominant scorer. The full team contributed, night in and night out.
Historical context also gives the nod to Auerbach over Jackson. While Jackson enjoyed coaching in a fully racially integrated league, he had Auerbach, and others, to thank for that. Auerbach was the first coach in the history of the league to start five black players at the same time.
Coaches are often evaluated on their coaching tree, as well. While Jackson’s is admittedly incomplete, Auerbach’s is decorated with championships. Former players Bill Russell (two championships), Tom Heinsohn (two championships), K.C. Jones (two championships), and Bill Sharman (one championship) all achieved the league’s top honor. Not bad.
Auerbach built a dynasty, a winning tradition that still thrives in Beantown. It is only possible to do that effectively if a coach remains in one location for his entire career. Auerbach stayed with Boston, Jackson sought out the top talent du jour.
Red Auerbach also wore a great many more hats than Phil Jackson ever had to. He was a general manager, a team president, and a coach – the ONLY coach on the Boston Celtics’ bench, too. Modern NBA organizations, like the ones Jackson has coached for, actually have two benches and as many as ten spots reserved for “coaches.” Auerbach pulled all the strings, called all the shots, and shouldered all of the responsibility. Jackson shares the burden, and even offloads it during some seasons due to his back problems.
If you wished to compare Auerbach and Jackson solely on the merits of their statistical achievements, consider that Auerbach won nine NBA titles… as a coach. He won seven more in his role as general manager and team president. No matter what Auerbach did, or how he was involved with the Celtics, he made his team successful.
There is no doubt that Phil Jackson is a good coach. As someone who grew up outside of Chicago I can attest to his refreshing style and ability to bend Jordan’s ear where few others were ever able to. But what Jackson has accomplished is not even close – still – to what Auerbach did. Whether Auerbach was patrolling the sidelines of the hardwood, or adjudicating talent from a loge seat, his insight and ability to get things done always made his team better.
Phil Jackson has been a great coach. But when he retires, he will have left no lasting impact on the game, other than his personal, albeit rather impressive, stats. When Auerbach left the game, it was better because of his influence.
Accepting, encouraging, and guiding talent is a challenging task. But recognizing and molding talent into greatness is what separates good coaches from great ones. It is also what separates Red Auerbach from Phil Jackson.