The NBA After Phil Jackson Will Be Very, Very Boring
The most successful coach in league history retired at the end of this season, taking his creative playing style and colorful personality with him
It was the best of seasons. It was the worst of seasons.
The best because the team-oriented Dallas Mavericks beat the individualistic brilliance of the Miami Heat for the NBA championship. The worst because the 2010-11 NBA season ended the career of Phil Jackson, the most successful coach in the history of the league.
In leading the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers to a combined 11 championships, Jackson's modus operandi was so unique that his absence leaves a void that cannot be filled by any of his peers. Indeed, his retirement will result in the dumbing-down of the NBA's coaches and players, as well as the game itself.
First of all, Jackson was the last remaining champion of triangle offense. The ball-and player movements in the triangle offense are totally dictated by the defense. The premise is that it's impossible to overplay and deny passes directed at all of the four players who do not have the ball without getting burned by backdoor cuts. So the Triangle offense is initiated by the ball-handler passing to whichever of his teammates that must necessarily be open. All of the ensuing passes and cuts depend on who catches the first pass, which makes the Triangle strictly a reactive offense. The triangle's mantra, then, is "Take what the defense gives."
The triangle was developed by long-time assistant coach Tex Winter and refitted for NBA competition by Jackson and is actually an overall philosophy rather than an Xs and Os game plan. While a full commitment to discipline and coordination among the players is essential, the very foundation of the Triangle is nothing less than the systemization of unselfishness. This is precisely why the vast majority of statistics-oriented players resist being triangularized, and why only Jackson, with his double-handful of championship rings, can convince his players to trust him and also one another.
Other coaches have used portions of the triangle, but that's like an individual's embracing the highest moral behavior only while attending religious services once every week. With Jackson gone, there are no full-time practitioners of the Triangle. The unfortunate result is that literally every team will perform slight variations on the same offensive themes: Screen/rolls, isolations, and drive-and-kicks. (You can read more about those in The Complete Idiot's Guide to Basketball by Walt Frazier.) In Jackson's absence, color the NBA game repetitious and ultimately boring.
While all coaches deem themselves the primary leaders of their teams, Jackson understood that someone who wears a business suit during games cannot be a ballclub's primary motivating force. That's why he created an environment wherein players had to work out their own on- and off-court problems. For example, by not calling time-outs when opponents were on scoring binges, Jackson trusted his players to figure out what was going wrong and what corrections were necessary.
Moreover, on May 13, 1994, the Bulls were down 0-2 to the Knicks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the score was tied at 102, and there were only 1.8 seconds left on the game clock. In Chicago's huddle, Jackson designed the ensuing play for rookie Toni Kukoc with Scottie Pippen designated to make the inbounds pass. But Pippen was incensed that he was to be a mere facilitator and not the potential hero, so he refused to re-enter the fray. Turned out that Kukoc bagged a fadeaway jumper at the buzzer for the dramatic win.
Instead of berating Pippen in the post-game locker room, Jackson paused in the hallway to allow his players to chastise Pippen. Which they did with a fury and sense of betrayal that Jackson never could have approached.
With Jackson walking away from the command seat, the my-way-or-the-highway will be the most prevalent coaching methodology. Although their ability to banish recalcitrant players is limited by guaranteed contracts, recent and current coaches who are partial to this style include Larry Brown, Doug Collins, Mike D'Antoni, Nate McMillan, Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Scott Skiles, and Jerry Sloan.
Getting and maintaining players' attention is another vital component of coaching where Jackson's unique approach excelled. Players are routinely turned off by the constant nagging that most coaches employ as instructional and corrective devices. A total disconnect is inevitable and players get accustomed to completely disregard whatever these coaches have to say.
But Jackson was always surprising his players. Using smoldering leaves of white sage to cleanse the locker room of negative energy. Beating on a tom-tom to attract positive energy. Leading meditation exercises that directed players to identify their personal "safe" spots on the bench. Forgoing the standard-issue team sweat suits to conduct practice sessions while wearing a tie-dyed shirts and cut-off jeans.
Jackson also used video sessions to keep his players guessing. Like the time he interrupted the tape of a post-season game played in 1996 between the Bulls and the Heat by silently replaying one particular sequence five consecutive times: Miami's forward Chris Gatling had severely sprained an ankle, but since Chicago had possession, the Heat were unable to call a time-out. With Gatling literally hopping on one leg, the Bulls spread the floor to determine whom he was guarding, which turned out to be Kukoc. The obvious call was to isolate Kukoc on Gatling, a play that started with Kukoc dribbling a few feet beyond the 3-point arc. Whereas a drive hoopward would certainly be the most profitable option, Kukoc suddenly pulled up his dribble and unleashed a long three-pointer—which missed.
As Jackson repeated the play, the Bulls were totally intent on hearing what his eventual comment might be. "That's why," Jackson finally said, "Yugoslavia has never won a war."
The players burst into laughter, and Kukoc was appropriately chagrined without being subjected to searing verbal abuse.
In preparation for playoff series, Jackson would also intersperse his scouting videos with random cuts that likewise compelled his players' rapt attention. Like suddenly switching from an opponent's high screen/roll schemes to a few seconds of Frank Layden, the Utah Jazz's ultra-flabby 350-pound president, wearing a tiny bathing suit while jogging on a beach.
What would Coach do next?
Jackson was pretty much the only NBA coach who spoke to the media without a filter. When Mike Fratello was coaching the Atlanta Hawks he'd often demur from answering post-game questions by saying that he'd have to look at the game tape before commenting. Previous to Mark Jackson's being named coach of the Golden State Warriors, he was a call-it-like-it-is color commentator for NBA telecasts. But when he was interviewed during the NBA draft, the new coach spoke only in platitudes: Whichever player his new employer team drafted would be a terrific addition to the team's mix. The Warriors would definitely make the playoffs. Blah, blah, and blah.
On the other hand, PJ always spoke his mind. When Michael Jordan was a free agent and the media was touting the probability of his signing with the Magic, Jackson scoffed at the very idea, saying that His Airness would never do such a thing because Orlando was "a plastic city." Jackson has also described the screaming-horn-blaring fans in Utah and Portland as being adolescent know-nothings.
Minus Jackson's honest opinions, the remaining inhabitants of the command seats will speak nothing but politically correct coachese.
Consequently, if/when the 2011-12 season commences, the NBA after PJ will lack freshness and creativity, an abiding sense of reality, and differentiated game strategies. The NBA will move forward into the pre-Jacksonian past.