Decade’s Best: Coach

by December 09, 2009

by Tzvi Twersky

With nine minutes left on the clock and his team up 25, the coach still had his team pressing. The young DIII coach, entering only his third season as a head coach, eased off the fullcourt pressure soon thereafter, but he continued barking orders at his players. In spite of his team’s steady 20-plus point lead, his pestering of the refs continued, too. Spittle flying from his fat face, his verbal onslaught of everyone wearing a uniform—stripped or otherwise—was a disgusting display of a coach at work.

Watching the game courtside, I was taken aback by what I was seeing. I’m all for winning and winning big, but the total lack of sportsmanship displayed by the coach was appalling. At one point, with about a minute or so to go, the coach attempted to convince the refs to T up the other team for playing two scrubs who weren’t wearing the latest version of their team’s shorts. The refs refused. The coach whined. I made up my mind: I wouldn’t play for this coach; I wouldn’t play pickup with this coach; I wouldn’t have this coach on my staff; and I would never ever be on his coaching staff.

Did the winning team need their coach to prod them all game that night? Did his verbal onslaught of the refs help his team’s cause? Did the other coach’s laid-back demeanor cost his team the game—or at least lead to a widened margin of defeat?

All of these questions are part of a larger debate: How important is a coach to his team?

Is Lawrence Frank the reason that the Nets won his first 13 games as head coach back in 2003-04? Is Frank to blame for the Nets 0-16 start to this season? Does Kiki Vandeweghe deserve full credit for the Nets first win—in just his first game as their coach?

“Coaches are extremely important, extremely important,” Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s All-Time leading rusher, told me in late November. “You can have great talent [on a team], but with poor leadership that team is going to be average or below. You can have great talent and great leadership, and that team will be well above average to great…No matter where it’s at, you need good leadership.”

History and statistics seem to support Smith.

Over the course of the last 10 NBA seasons, five teams have won Championships (the Lakers have won four, the Spurs three, the Pistons one, the Heat one and the Celtics one). Out of 30 teams, these five grabbed 10 titles. And out of 30-plus coaches, only five—Brown, Jackson, Popovich, Rivers, Riley—won Championships in the Aughts. Is it a coincidence that a small group of coaches are constantly and consistently successful? Doubtful.

Taking it a little further back, in the last 20 seasons, only the Bulls and Rockets need to be added to the list of Champions, and only Chuck Daly and Rudy Tomjanovich need to be added to the list of O’Brien winning coaches. Adding it all together, seven coaches have dominated the NBA title, a staggeringly low number of leading men.

Looking at those figures and talking to various players, it’s pretty much settled that coaches matter. But of all of the NBA coaches, who has mattered the most this decade?

If you would have asked me to speculate at the end of the 90s as to which coach would be the best of the coming decade, being a Celtic fan I would have said Rick Pitino. With a 10-year, $70 million deal in his pocket, I really thought that Slick Rick would turn the franchise around. Ten years later, Pitino and I now both know that hindsight is 20-20 (and that Chauncey Billups is really a great NBA point guard).

If you would have asked me in 2005 for a dark horse in the Coach of the Decade race, I may have thrown Lawrence Frank’s name around as a candidate. Winning his first 13 games and 91 over the course of his first two full seasons at the helm of the Nets, Frank was the best young coach around. Having just mercifully lost his job, five years later it’s evident, I would’ve been dead wrong in mentioning him, too.

So who is the Coach of the Decade?

With four Championships in the decade—and 10 in less than 20 years—Phil Jackson is Coach of the Decade, edging out Gregg Popovich.

Some coaches are masters of Xs and Os, possessing the ability to take a blank clipboard and draw up a successful play in just 30 seconds. Other coaches are amateur psychologists, excelling at mastering personalities and getting players to coexist. While Jackson—who played 12 years in the NBA, and has been around the game his entire adult life—possesses a solid handle of the Xs and Os (specifically those of his and Tex Winter’s Triangle offense), what makes him the Michael Jordan of coaches is his deft ability to handle players, whether it’s on display in the balancing of egos or in getting eccentric players to focus on the their game and team.

Phil Jackson—as proven by his 1,057 career wins—has a unique ability to balance the highs and lows of an NBA season, keeping his team on an even keel. More than that, though, through his laid-back approach, Jackson never pushes his team too hard during the season, always having his team peak near the end of the season, thus saving their best for last—the Playoffs.

With four Championships won by his teams in the 2000s, Phil Jackson captured more titles than any other coach in the decade. Having lost two more times in the Finals over that same span, Jackson appeared in more Championships (six) than any other coach over that span. Six Finals appearances in 10 years, that’s Red Aurebach-esque.

After leading the Lakers past the Orlando Magic this past season, grabbing his 10th career title, Jackson surpassed Red as holder of the most Championship rings as a coach. And while plenty of people argue that Jackson’s success has merely been the result of coaching great players, that’s not the case.

In ’04-05, the season that Jackson didn’t coach, the newly Shaq-less Lakers went 34-48, running through two coaches (Tomjanovich and Frank Hamblen) over the course of that disastrous season. Back on the Lakers bench the next season, with much of the same roster, Jackson managed to coax 45 wins from his L.A. squad.

So yes, Jackon has had the pleasure of coaching Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and a ton of other terrific players throughout the decade, but as Michael Wilbon wrote last June, “he’s had great players and just as importantly—probably more importantly—they’ve had him.”

As I learned at that DIII game, when everyone turned a blind eye to that coach’s concerning style, coaching above the biddy level is all about results. And no one is better at getting them than Phil Jackson.


For more Decade Awards, check out the archive.