Phil Jackson is the greatest professional basketball coach of all-time. The Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers fans will always be grateful to him for the 11 championships between the two cities.

But why has his former rival, Greg Popovich been successful developing former assistants into head coaches while Jackson has failed miserably? It’s much deeper than what is seen above the surface and here’s three reasons why:


1) Innate Leadership – The best Vice Presidents don’t always make great Presidents. Jackson has a charisma that is visible, even to the non-sports fan. He famously pulled Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant into a room once and asked, “Who has the biggest ego in here?” His response: “Me.” It’s one thing to have talent, but it’s another thing to maximize it.

Jackson is a master at that and although his assistants were witnesses to it, it’s something you can’t teach. Jackson also has a unique way of relating to players. He doesn’t treat each player the same. Rarely did Jackson chide O’Neal in public because he was too sensitive. On the other hand, Jackson frequently rode Bryant because he could handle it. Jackson also played mind games with his players using rituals, practicing without a ball and passing out books.

He could not only relate to players, but more importantly he channeled their egos. Popovich’s former assistants run his system and although Jackson popularized Tex Winter’s Triangle Offense, he adjusted the system around the individual talent of his players. What makes Jackson great and unique cannot be taught. That’s why his assistants can’t replicate his success.


2) Young vs. Veteran Teams – Phil Jackson never coached ponies, only thoroughbreds. He rarely gave rookies ample playing time. Jackson wasn’t in the business of developing young talent. He preferred to have a finished product, do some minor tinkering, then watch his team gel.

There were few jobs in the NBA that interested Jackson. One of the knocks on him was that he always coached the best. Well, that’s exactly why he was great – he knew his strengths. Jackson never settled and took a job he didn’t think he would thrive in. Contrary to his former assistants who coached young, inexperienced teams. Take for instance Kurt Rambis’ stint in Minnesota or Derek Fisher’s current gig in New York. Not only would Jackson never coach those teams, but it’s nearly impossible to implement the Triangle Offense to players who lack fundamentals and a high basketball IQ.

Jackson inherited a Bulls team with Michael Jordan, picked up some solid pieces and built his resume from there. He rarely dealt with a rebuilding team and if he did, he was determined to acquire the pieces necessary to contend quickly. Jackson never wanted to be a part of a rebuild, whereas his assistants take what they can get. Two completely different scenarios.


3) Media Control – Jackson knows he has three audiences to work with: players, management and media. Players and management are enough of a headache to deal with, but he was a master at being one step ahead of the media. The same mind games he would play with his players, he would do to the media. At times he would stir up controversy to pull attention away from his team. Other times he would say something publicly to get his players upset at him.

Most coaches respond emotionally to what’s going on with their team at the moment, but Jackson was always very calculated about what and when he spoke to the media. Most coaches dread talking to the cameras, but Jackson relished in it almost as much as his players. Jackson commanded as much attention in a post-game interview as a superstar, because he was one.

Outside of Derek Fisher, none of his other assistants shined in the media spotlight. Jackson masterfully used the media as a platform unlike any other coach before him.


Outside of the evidence listed above, almost all his former assistant fail the “eye” test. When you think of Jim Cleamons, Frank Hamblem, Kurt Rambis and Brian Shaw you immediately think of “Phil Jackson’s assistants” not a Head Coach. If that’s what the average fan thinks so do the players. Head coaches need to prove themselves and actually separate from their mentor’s coattails.

All of Jackson’s assistants are known to run the Triangle Offense, but that’s where their identities stop. To be a great coach in this league, you need to have talent, wins and respect from your players. No disrespect to Jackson’s proteges, but they don’t have the intangibles to carry them through a rough season.

What made Phil Jackson great isn’t teachable and that’s why his disciples have failed.

About The Author

Author, blogger, speaker & die-hard Lakers fan

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