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Phil Jackson trumps Red Auerbach as greatest NBA coach

Phil Jackson has 10 NBA titles (six with Bulls, last four with Lakers), one more than the Celtics’ Red Auerbach, and he also had to navigate different and more difficult times to do so.

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Phil Jackson has 10 NBA titles (six with Bulls, last four with Lakers), one more than the Celtics’ Red Auerbach, and he also had to navigate different and more difficult times to do so.

ORLANDO — I never saw Red Auerbach coach a game. Not in person, not on TV, not in some creepy, sweat-soaked dream.

His days on the Boston sideline were a little before my time, and so I have no firsthand knowledge of Auerbach's impact once the basketball was thrown in the air. I couldn't tell you if his in-game adjustments were brilliant or if his sideline temperament was beyond compare.

All of which serves as my official disclaimer. A way of acknowledging there are details and nuances of which I have no firsthand knowledge. So, having admitted that, I will move on to the point of this column:

Phil Jackson is the greatest coach in NBA history.

And pardon me while I duck.

I have a feeling this is not a popular opinion. Fans tend to be more comfortable with coaches who are gruff and stay up all night watching video and drawing plays on grease boards. Smug hipsters such as Jackson just don't fit the mold.

I also understand there is a tendency for people to protect the icons of their younger days. Trust me, I do it all the time. Just the other morning I got in a shoving match with my 5-year-old over the artistic merits of the original Scooby-Doo. I say the show jumped the shark when Fred stopped wearing an ascot. The little brat disagrees.

At any rate, I lean toward Jackson, 63, over the late Auerbach because of circumstances and eras. I think Jackson's 10 titles trump Auerbach's nine championships, and it's not simply a question of mathematics.

It has to do with degree of difficulty. And changes in the game. And pressures in the modern era. For the interest of brevity, I will narrow the factors to three categories.

No. 1: Jackson won his titles in an era of free agency and salary caps. It is much harder to keep a great team together today than it was for Auerbach and the Celtics in the 1950s and '60s.

This means Jackson had to contend and adapt to far more turnover than coaches of earlier eras. Auerbach had four players (Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones and Bill Russell) play for eight of his nine championship teams. Frank Ramsey played on seven of those teams, and Bob Cousy played on six.

Do you know how many of the same players were around for Jackson's ninth and 10th titles?


No. 2: The NBA has expanded greatly in the last 30 years. That means more competition in the regular season and more layers in the postseason. When Auerbach won his first title in 1957, the NBA was an eight-team league.

That year, the Celtics won the NBA Finals in seven games. They beat a St. Louis team that was 34-38 in the regular season. Two years later, the Celtics faced a 35-37 team in the Eastern Division final and a 33-39 team in the NBA Finals.

Not quite Frazier-Ali, eh?

No. 3: Jackson won six titles with the Bulls and four with the Lakers. Ninety-nine percent of the NBA's coaches go entire careers without winning four championships. Jackson has done it with two franchises.

(The only coach in one of the four major professional sports who comes close to this achievement is the NHL's Scotty Bowman, who won five Stanley Cups with Montreal, three with Detroit and one with Pittsburgh.)

Now this is probably the point in the conversation where critics will throw up their hands and say the only reason Jackson has won so many rings is because he has been surrounded by great players. Really? Do you think?

Of course, Jackson has had great players. It's pretty hard to win one title without great players, let alone 10. Kind of like saying Casey Stengel had great players on the Yankees and Francis Ford Coppola lucked out with those Brando, Pacino, DeNiro and Duvall guys in The Godfather trilogy. So, yes, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant have had a lot more to do with Jackson's success than his triangle offense.

But here's a little secret:

Auerbach had great players, too. According to the Hall of Fame, he had more of them than Jackson.

During the course of his nine titles in 10 years, Auerbach had 11 Hall of Fame players on his rosters. The fewest he had at any one time was four in 1966. The most was eight in 1963. Eight! That means he had three Hall of Famers hanging around the bench. Do you know who the third guy off the bench was in Chicago in 1991? Yeah, neither do I.

(For accuracy's sake, I went back and checked. The eighth guy in Chicago's rotation was a 30-year-old forward named Cliff Levingston. I'm guessing the Hall of Fame is not looking for his phone number.)

Hey, I'm not trying to slam Auerbach here. He is obviously a legend. He was ridiculously successful and, by most accounts, was a basketball genius. It wouldn't surprise me if his X's and O's were in an alphabet beyond Jackson's.

But coaching is not simply drawing up plays and calling for substitutions. It involves setting standards, and creating an atmosphere. It requires the deft handling of personalities and knowing how to push buttons for different individuals.

Jackson may not be an innovator, but he is a master when it comes to handling a roster and motivating players.

In my book, the best ever.

John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.

Phil Jackson trumps Red Auerbach as greatest NBA coach 06/15/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 16, 2009 6:51am]
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