The fantastic Seth Rosenthal over at Posting & Toasting, the Knicks blog for SBNation, had a short piece the other day about Jim Cleamons, one of Phil Jackson's longtime lieutenants, being hired to bolster new coach Derek Fisher's bench. It got me to thinking that it's about time for us to revisit the Phil Jackson vs. Gregg Popovich debate. After all, Pop won his fifth ring recently, so I have to think it gets him into the conversation for best coach ever, particularly when you consider that Jackson had four of the league's all-time 50 best players in their respective primes, first with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago and then Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in L.A. Pop only had one such all-time great in Tim Duncan, though he did also have the services of David Robinson the last few seasons of his career and of course two future "lower-tier" Hall of Famers in Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
So let's break this down, category by category:
Regular Season Record:
Jackson: 1,155-485 (.704)
Popovich: 967-443 (.686)
I've long maintained that Pop is the greatest regular season coach in NBA history for the way he expertly navigates the 82-game marathon, dealing with injuries and various adversities, while always focusing on the big picture. The only goal is building toward the playoffs, to improve steadily and to get everyone to the finish line as healthy and rested as possible. At times Pop sacrifices regular-season games to rest his older veterans. He keeps minutes down, which also costs him a few games every year. But Pop's true genius is that he treats every man on the roster, No. 1 through 15, like a professional who's expected to contribute, drilling them in practice and giving them as many minutes as possible even when everyone's healthy. It's made clear to everyone who signs with the Spurs that they're expected to know the plays, to prepare like a starter who's going to play 40 minutes, and to give it their all on the court regardless of score or circumstance. Anyone expecting to just collect paychecks on the bench is not welcome.
As a result, every season the team wins a handful of games while resting two or three of their Hall-of-Famers -- games they have no business winning. I swear, when the Big Three are all out, it's Pop's favorite time to coach. He gets way into it, and the longer the skeleton crew hangs in, the more intensely he coaches. It's like a playoff game for him. Pop never buys into the "scheduled loss," philosophy. He expects whoever he has to compete and to fight, and because he respects every man on the roster, which is why he gets more out of them than other teams get from their scrubs.
But it's hard to ignore Jackson's record. He has his own ways of getting teams to bond, whether it be incense-fueled meditation breaks, personalized book recommendations or his well-documented editorial splicing to break up the monotony of film sessions. Like Popovich, Jackson has enjoyed the benefit of coaching teams who have extended road trips built into the schedule every year because their arena hosts an annual event. The Spurs have the Rodeo Road Trip, of course, while the Bulls have their "Circus Road Trip" when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is in town and the Lakers have their "Grammy Road Trip," when they vacate the Staples Center so that the Grammy Award stage can be built, used, and broken back down.
Where they differ is that Jackson coached a pair of megalomaniacs in Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant that weren't just tireless but also relentlessly driven, even in the regular season. They wanted to play all the minutes, take all the shots and win all the games they could. Jackson never had to worry about pushing them too hard -- they couldn't be. Pop didn't have the same issues, for better or worse, with Duncan. He too had that internal motivation to win, but didn't care for the politics of having to score the most or having the top shoe deal or any of that. He could be coerced to sit on the bench more, as long as the team was still successful. He was more malleable. He lets Pop bawl him out, which keeps everyone else in line. Jackson didn't quite have that level of privilege with his alpha dogs, so different guys had different rights.
Jackson: 229-104 (.688), 11 Championships, 13 Finals appearances
Popovich: 149-90 (.623), 5 Championships, 6 Finals appearances
Here Jackson is without peer, even Pop. Jackson's teams were unparalleled at winning series in which they gained an early edge. If the Bulls or the Lakers ever got the series lead, man it was over. In fact, if you dropped the first game to Phil Jax, you might as well just go home. His squads were a perfect 48-0 when they won Game 1, compared to 27-4 for Pop's Spurs.
They were both a bit under .500 when they lost Game 1 (8-9 for Jackson, 6-8 for Popovich), but Jackson had the edge in Game 7s too, finishing 6-2 to Pop's 3-2 so far.
Head-to-head, the numbers get even uglier. Jackson is 4-1 vs. Pop in the playoffs, with a 18-8 record overall. The Spurs even dropped a series to the Lakers in 2004 when they were up 2-0. How'd that happen?
Oh, right. Now I remember.
It needs to be mentioned that Jackson also found a way to motivate his teams to repeat (actually three-peat) um ... repeatedly ... whereas Pop has never found that formula. The closest the Spurs have actually gotten was this past season. If you want to get fuzzy with history and work backwards, the record shows that San Antonio was five seconds away from winning two in a row.
The bottom line is Jackson coached for 20 seasons and led his team to a title in over half of them and to a Finals appearance at least in 65% of them. That's remarkable.
Major edge: Jackson
Jackson was infamous for manipulating the media to deliver critiques of the officiating whenever he thought the opponent was getting away with being too physical, or if there was some other disparity, real or imagined. He wasn't afraid to get fined for the cause when he felt the need. He could be short, flip, sarcastic or (most often) arrogant with the press, and his attitude changed for the worse the more the years wore on and the more success he had. He used the press as a weapon, whether it was to deliver a message to a player or to curry favor. He played favorites among the journalists, the same as with his players. He had plenty of sycophants and lackeys and he knew how to utilize them. He had detractors too, but they were usually rival coaches whom he'd vanquished into broadcasting careers.
Jackson may have started as a counter-culture iconoclast, but he sold out pretty quickly once he gained fame, which he used to sell books (seven so far), to book corporate speaking engagements and various endorsement deals. He wasn't above slamming his players in his books to make a buck. He constantly used his leverage to push for the top salary in his field when he was with the Lakers and signed on last season for $12 million a year to be the president of the Knicks. That's double Pop's salary with the Spurs.
Popovich's media profile is decidedly different. He doesn't have endorsements. He doesn't write books; he's too busy reading them. He doesn't angle for more money or exposure and would likely prefer to spend far less time in front of cameras. He's come to grudgingly accept he's very good at what he does, but still hasn't come to terms with that being important to strangers. Being a public figure is not appealing to him at all.
As for the games, Pop will never, ever use officiating as an excuse -- publicly. Behind the scenes the Spurs complain about calls and file reports and send tapes to the league with their complaints the same as everyone else, but when speaking publicly, a loss always has to do with what his guys did wrong and what the other team did well, and nine out of 10 times it's about aggression and effort and being sloppy mentally or physically. Pop will not campaign for future calls through the press but has a well-deserved reputation for working the refs during games.
Pop has gained unwanted infamy for his brusque demeanor in interviews, especially with sideline reporters between quarters, but ironically he treats most of them a lot better than the way he answers questions in postgame sessions or during shootarounds. While his style isn't to be arrogant or boastful of himself or his players in relation to anyone else in the league, he makes it clear -- oh, does he make it clear -- that he doesn't respect the basketball knowledge of the general press, regardless of how many years some of them have covered games.
Though Pop is well-known for revealing almost nothing of significance in interviews, Jackson hasn't been too different in that regard, except for a few nuggets here and there in his books well after the fact. And it was Jackson who started the now-common tactic of closing off practice to the media all the way back to his early days with the Bulls.
Oddly enough, Pop's reputation is a lot better with the people he's abused. Everyone loves him. By all accounts his personality flips totally once the cameras and microphones are off and people are just shooting the breeze and asking about each other's families. Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express News described the press' response as "Stockholm Syndrome," in Jack McCallum's Sports Illustrated profile on Pop. A piece with which the coach stubbornly refused to participate until the bitter end, and after a week of the writer's snooping around the periphery.
Edge: Jackson by default because Pop refuses to play the game.