When the NBA season came to an unceremonious end for the Los Angeles Lakers last weekend, all of the attention turned to their Hall of Fame head coach, Phil Jackson. Jackson has announced that he is likely retiring from coaching basketball, at least for now, and so the talk of his career achievements were in all of the sports headlines.
Most NBA fans believe that Phil Jackson is one of the greatest coaches of all time. His 11 NBA World Championships are the most all-time by any coach, and in age of free agency where there seems to be more parity in the league than ever, he has “three-peated” three times (meaning he won three championships in a row, twice with the Chicago Bulls and once with the Lakers), and had won back-to-back championships with the Lakers before losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs this season.
Many of those who would seek to downplay those accomplishments would point to the fact that he had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen playing for him in Chicago where he won six NBA Titles, and he had Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal on the same team for three Championships in L.A., then Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol playing together for the other two.
I think it would be silly to suggest that anyone could win a championship in any sport without a great player or two or three….so to me, that’s a ridiculous argument. Besides, there were other coaches who had Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and Pau Gasol on their teams and together they won, um, ZERO Championships!
Now, those who would say Phil is probably the greatest, point to how difficult it is to manage superstars of that caliber and at that level, factoring in egos, sense of entitlement, etc. And I would say that’s a pretty solid point. It isn’t the easiest thing in the world to get someone who is physically capable of dominating a sport to listen to you and your advice on a nightly basis. In fact, it takes an extraordinary leader to accomplish that.
But I believe there is a more compelling argument to make in Phil’s favor, and it’s the reason that I have pointed to him and his teams as one of the greatest examples of leadership and success that I have ever witnessed.
It has nothing to do with Michael or Kobe or Shaq. It has everything to do with all of the other players that were on the teams Phil led to World Championships.
When you go back and start filling in the rosters on the Chicago Bulls teams that won six NBA Titles, you find that you are naming players who you would probably not ever imagine playing on a championship team, let alone teams that won multiple Titles. Steve Kerr, John Paxson, Luc Longley, Toni Kukoc, BJ Armstrong, Ron Harper, Jud Buechler, and the list goes on and on. These are not household names, nor are they players that you would draft to build a championship caliber team around. Yet, they all had roles. And ultimately, they all had championships.
To me, what makes Phil Jackson the best is that he was able to maximize the strengths of all of his players and minimize their weaknesses to the point where the team actually became better than it really was. He may have had Michael Jordan, and sure, he wanted the offense to run through Mike, for MJ to handle the ball in the 4th quarter, be the guy who scored 30 points per game and the only one who took the game’s final decisive shot. But he needed other things around Jordan to work, in order for that formula to become the stuff of legend. He had Dennis Rodman on some of those teams, and really, all he asked him to do, was rebound and play defense. If Rodman scored even 2 points, it was icing on the cake. He knew that Rodman’s strength was rebounding and he was a relentless defender who would pester opposing players into complete frustration. So, by cutting him loose to attack the backboard and those other players, he turned Rodman into the league’s leading rebounder and a defensive presence as annoying and effective as any who has ever played.
Guys like Kerr and Paxson were spot-up jump shooters. So, when Phil had them in the game, he only asked them to shoot. When the time was right. That is what maximizing your players abilities to the greatest degree is all about. Kerr was never asked to dominate a game, score 25 points, or play shut down D. Just shoot, baby. And that was the winning formula.
Jackson did the same thing in L.A. He won World Championships with players who were thought to be past their prime (and they were), like Rick Fox and Derek Fisher. Solid NBA players for sure, but not dominating. Yet, their roles, while not near as grandiose, were no less important to the overall success of the entire organization than those of Kobe Bryant.
Phil even got Ron Artest to behave long enough to earn a Championship ring…
The greatest teams at any level of life, be it professional sports, a sales organization, a small business, or wherever, all have this in common with the Bulls and Lakers under Phil Jackson; they focus on, and utilize the strengths and talents of the individuals to the absolute maximum capacity, and minimize weaknesses by steering away from the places where the group is not strong. If there is a weakness or a void which needs to be filled, then the right individual is recruited to fill that spot, as opposed to trying to make someone else not suited for the role, fit in. The focus is always on ability of the individuals who make up the whole. It’s what turns good to great, great to extraordinary, and extraordinary to unbelievable!
The greatest leaders will lead exactly this way.
Phil did, and he did it better than anyone else ever has in the NBA.