Some “all-time” lists are really hard to arrive at. Yet, as the San Antonio Spurs celebrate another NBA championship, the thought is striking in its obviousness: The top five coach-player relationships in NBA history aren’t very difficult to determine. The order might be a source of debate, but the noteworthy aspect of these five relationships is that they don’t have very much competition.
John Kundla and George Mikan forged the first great coach-player relationship in league history, and yet the work of the Minneapolis Lakers was most significant because it sent the NBA on its way. Subsequent coach-player relationships managed to achieve success at a higher level, in eras with more competition and in contexts more defined by the struggles that preceded various championship runs.
5 – PAT RILEY AND MAGIC JOHNSON
The 1981-1982 season began with a steady series of victories for the Los Angeles Lakers, but Magic Johnson wasn’t happy. Head coach Paul Westhead was fired. In came assistant Pat Riley to make everything right. The move seemed absurd and unfair from the outside, serving as an uncanny parallel to Riley’s sacking of Stan Van Gundy 24 years later in Miami with the Heat. Nevertheless, the move certainly worked. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar might have been the captain, and it was Kareem who turned around the 1985 Finals against the Boston Celtics, thereby engineering the most central turnaround of the Laker franchise in the ’80s. Yet, the closeness of the bond forged by Riles and Magic enabled one of the greatest point guards to become an extension of his coach on the floor. That core reality fueled the Lakers’ run in the 1980s, a run made significant not just for its five world titles (four under Riley), but eight Finals appearances (seven under Riley).
4 – PHIL JACKSON AND KOBE BRYANT
You could reasonably say that Phil Jackson simply inherited the best talent of his era, and that his 11 NBA titles — first among all coaches, even more than Red Auerbach — are little more than products of the players he had at his disposal. It’s a reasonable critique.
It might not be the most accurate one at the discussion table.
Coaching is a craft centered around the art of getting the most out of one’s players. What is Jackson if not a master of that core coaching skill? Superstars are not easily impressed, their trust not earned without considerable effort and top-tier people skills. Yes, the Lakers needed to swing the Pau Gasol trade to make one more big run at championship glory, but once they gained that piece, Phil and Kobe were able to reconstruct the Lakers and make them whole, with Shaquille O’Neal no longer a part of the picture. From 1999 through 2010, when the San Antonio Spurs were not able to lay claim to the Western Conference, Phil Jackson was able to wrest the West away from the Alamo City with the sole exception of 2006.
3 – GREGG POPOVICH AND TIM DUNCAN
Here’s the most difficult rankings question on the list: Should Pop and Duncan rate ahead of Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan in the battle for second place? You could make a strong argument.
For one thing, it wasn’t until the Bulls pulled in Dennis Rodman (interestingly enough, from a Spurs organization where Popovich served as general manager at the time) that they reached the absolute height of their reign under Phil and Michael. One could make the case that Popovich and Duncan, with help from David Robinson, cultivated a culture from which the Spurs’ international identity and team principles managed to sprout. Statistics such as this one affirm how Popovich and Duncan have never competed in basketball for personal statistics or individual acclaim.
It’s entirely reasonable to say that the Spurs’ ability to deliver Duncan an old-man championship (at 38) while producing a quality of basketball rivaled by few teams in league history (only the teams mentioned here, plus the 1986 Boston Celtics) could make Pop-and-Timmy the second-best combination on this list.
2 – PHIL JACKSON AND MICHAEL JORDAN
Pop and Duncan could be number two on this list, and there would be no reason to riot. Yet, it seems appropriate to give Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan the nod.
No – this isn’t about the simple “six titles to five” math. This is more about the fact that from 1991 through 1998, the Chicago Bulls simply didn’t miss the mark when Jordan played a full season in genuine basketball shape. That’s not excuse-making for the 1995 season; it’s a cold, hard reality. As mentioned above, it’s true that the Bulls needed Dennis Rodman to max out in 1996. Rodman then defended Karl Malone in the 1997 and ’98 Finals, giving the Bulls the heft they required in the painted area. Without Rodman, the Bulls might not have gone six for six in Finals, and we might not regard Phil and M.J. in quite the same way.
Yet, the story of the 1990s Chicago Bulls is one in which the head coach and the superstar player were able to mesh with each other… and the diverse personalities in the locker room. They took odd pieces such as Luc Longley, Toni Kukoc, and Steve Kerr, bringing them into a cohesive unit when so many other coach-superstar duos would have been slightly less able to find a happy medium. (Think of Pat Riley and Patrick Ewing being just a little less able to rein in John Starks in the 1994 NBA Finals with the New York Knicks. Riley-Ewing rates as an upper-tier coach-star combo, but you couldn’t put it on a top-five list for precisely that reason.)
The other simple and resounding fact about the quality of the Jackson-Jordan duo is simply that Doug Collins was never able to get the Bulls to the mountaintop. Collins would never be called an elite coach. Yet, in the same breath, he would rate as something much better than mediocre when compared to all coaches past and present. Collins never quite solved the Detroit Pistons — yes, Scottie Pippen had to go through some tough times in order to become the player he eventually became. Maybe this process could have run its course under Collins.
Yet, what else can one say? It ran its course under Jackson instead. It was Jackson who not only guided the Bulls to the top of the heap; he kept them there.
Phil Jackson’s greatness as a coach flows partly from his assistants, chiefly Tex Winter and his use of the triangle offense. Jackson’s history as a player with the New York Knicks of the early 1970s — like the 2014 Spurs, one of the great “blended teams” of all time — enabled him to school the Bulls (and later the Lakers) on what it meant to have “five-as-one” unity on the court, even with massive superstar egos in the mix. So much of coaching in the alpha-dog NBA is about the management of personalities, and no one has done this better in the modern world of pro basketball than Phil.
Michael Jordan is the most competitive athlete most of us (who are over 30 years old) have ever seen in our lifetimes.
It’s more than a little instructive that Phil Jackson — and no one else — was able to channel that competitiveness into a steady stream of championships.
1 – RED AUERBACH AND BILL RUSSELL
The most enduring testimony to the greatness of the Red Auerbach-Bill Russell alliance is one that deserves a lot of contemplation.
Is it the 11 championships?
Is it the ability to unceasingly fend off so many great Los Angeles Laker teams throughout an entire calendar decade?
Is it the ability to establish a dynastic team with a distinctly integrated racial identity in a city (Boston) that owned a long and difficult history in and around matters of race, all during one of the most turbulent decades in American history (the 1960s)?
Is it the fact that Auerbach, the coach, was able to hand the coaching reins to Russell and watch his protege win two NBA titles as a head coach in his own right (in 1968 and ’69)?
It’s hard to choose the best answer, right?
That’s precisely the point, is it not?