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Phil Jackson Vs. Gregg Popovich: Compare and Contrast: Part 2

A look at the relationships the two men formed.

Kevork Djansezian

If you missed part 1, here it is, now on to part 2...


A part of the reason Phil Jackson was so successful during his coaching career was his ability to form relationships with his players, particularly his stars, and manage their considerable egos and various agendas. He knew what buttons to push for each guy, a quality that's mandatory for all good coaches. He has a "players coach" label only because he was decidedly anti-management, and time and again he manipulated his locker rooms into an "us vs. them," mentality, with tremendous results. If a player felt underpaid, Jackson goaded him on, using that as fuel to get the player to go harder on the court, to use his minutes on the court not just as a stage to showcase his worth but also a sanctuary to take out his frustrations with management. A few times Jackson even campaigned in the press for his guys to get better deals, which most coaches don't do.

Not surprisingly, this led to considerable friction with the front office. Almost from the beginning of his head coaching tenure in Chicago, Jackson realized he wasn't going to get along well with General Manager Jerry Krause. When he discovered that his stars Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen didn't care for Krause either (to put it kindly), Jackson fed into that to get closer to them. Jackson clashed with Krause and skinflint owner Jerry Reinsdorf repeatedly, but once he had almost immediate success, winning the franchise's first championship in just his second season on the job and then the second and third in the following seasons, the organization was swimming in profits and the "Jerrys" had to swallow their pride and give Jackson considerable sway. The coach had leverage and all three of them knew it.

Popovich, on the other hand, didn't have to fight for power. He was hired as the Spurs' general manager and appointed himself coach not long after. He promoted his head scout, R.C. Buford, first to assistant general manager and then to full-time GM, and the two have enjoyed a tremendous working and personal relationship stretching back two decades. It works because both men know who's in charge, what their roles are and what their strengths and weaknesses are. Buford doesn't crave more power or prestige, though he certainly deserves it.

The only time Pop ever expressed public frustration at owner Peter Holt's mandate to not go over the luxury tax was when the team couldn't afford to pay draft pick Luis Scola's expensive buyout with his club team in Spain, which forced a pennies-on-the-dollar trade for his rights to Houston. Otherwise though, the team has operated through one unified voice.

In Chicago, Krause had his own longtime foreign passion project in Toni Kukoc, a fascination which irked Joprdan but infuriated Pippen, who felt unappreciated by the GM. Whereas Scola would've been welcomed warmly by the Spurs had they been able to sign him, no one on the all-American Chicago roster from the early 90's expressed much if any enthusiasm for his services. Jordan refused to go out of his way to recruit the Croatian (eerily reminiscent of a current Bulls star) and Pippen hounded him mercilessly during the 1992 Olympics, making Kukoc his personal nemesis even though Kukoc had no idea why there was any animosity at all. When Kukoc finally did come over in 1994, during Jordan's baseball sabbatical, he was paid more from the start than Pippen, which drove the latter batty. Jackson used that to push his star harder and the Bulls surprised everyone by finishing 55-27 even without Jordan. They might have even upset the Knicks in the second round if not for a bad call late in Game 5 against Pippen.

It's unclear whether Jackson figured out right away that Kukoc was a player that needed to be pushed, or he did it out of some personal bias or as a way of bonding further with his stars, but he rode Kukoc from the beginning, in games, practices and in the press. Kukoc never developed into a full-fledged star, but Jackson never quite broke him, and the Croatian was a big contributor to the Bulls second three-peat from 1996-1998. Jackson always had one "whipping boy" on his teams, and before Kukoc there was Horace Grant, who felt so bullied that he almost charged at Jackson late in the 1991 season. It's no wonder that Grant took particular satisfaction in helping Orlando beat Chicago in the playoffs in 1995. The two later reconciled and Grant won another ring with the Lakers in 2000-01 and returned for his final season in 2003-04.

It's no secret that Pop thought most of the Spurs players were "soft," when he took over as GM in the mid 90's and he set to rebuild the team as he saw fit, piece by piece. He sought out players who had the "fiber" to compete and those who could withstand being coached hard without taking it personally. Buford assisted him in finding those types, scouring all over the globe. Pop's battles with Tony Parker, all of 19 when he came to the Spurs from France, are legendary, and to Parker's everlasting credit, he took all the tongue-lashings in stride, even when they were contradictory. Parker's Hall-of-Fame career was built on his coach screaming at him to pass more when he shot too much and to shoot more when he passed too much. Parker's backcourt mate Manu Ginobili also had his share of clashes with Popovich over his reckless nature, and the two eventually came to some kind of understanding. Once Parker and Ginobili finally gained some form of stasis with their coach, the next target has been Danny Green, especially after the way Game 6 of the 2013 Finals ended, with Green leaking out to half court after a missed shot instead of sticking close to LeBron James. Green took Pop's abuse the whole following season, and came back stronger than ever.

In Chicago, fresh off their second three-peat in 1998, Jordan, Pippen and Jackson all decided they had enough of the Bulls' management --the strike gave the former a forum to retire for the second time-- the coach made his way to another star-studded team in the Lakers after taking a year off. Again, almost from the beginning he set out to alienate the incumbent general manager, who just happened to be Jerry West, who, unlike Krause, was an icon not only for his legendary playing career but also for his accomplishments as an executive, which were instrumental for five Lakers championships in the 80's. It was West who drafted Kobe Bryant and convinced Shaquille O'Neal to leave Orlando for L.A. Jackson felt West threatened his authority and disrespected him from the onset, and his budding romance with team executive Jeannie Buss,w daughter of owner Dr. Jerry Buss, further helped drive a wedge between West and the organization. West resigned after 2000, Jackson's first year on the job.

With the Lakers Jackson again had tremendous success right away, winning three straight titles before finally being toppled by Pop's Spurs during David Robinson's swan song (and Ginobili's rookie campaign) in 2002-03. He managed O'Neal and Bryant's monster egos as best he could, usually taking the former's side because the alternate action would've led to chaos, as the older O'Neal who was viewed as the "veteran leader" was actually more immature and insecure than the headstrong and self-assured loner Bryant. Jackson laid out his frustrations with Bryant in a book released after that season, and he left the Lakers once the young superstar pushed O'Neal out the door. However, after the pressures of the job proved too much for successor Rudy Tomjanovich, Jackson was welcomed back with open arms by the organization in 2005-06 and he and Bryant formed a closer relationship. The Lakers flounder for a while until General Manager Mitch Kupchak landed Pau Gasol in a trade with Memphis and that move, along with acquiring Lamar Odom and drafting Andrew Bynum, proved to be the springboard for two more titles in 2008-09 and 2009-10. Gasol immediately became the guy that Jackson had to push, and for the most part it worked. Jackson retired after the 2010-11 season but considered coming back to the Lakers once more, but was passed over by new owner Jim Buss (son of Jerry Buss, who passed away in 2013) in favor of Mike D'Antoni. Friction with Buss also made it impossible for Jackson to take an executive position with the Lakers like the one he wound up getting in New York.

Though Popovich is close to many members of the coaching fraternity, he and Jackson have always been somewhat cool toward one another. Jackson once labeled Pop and his staff a "simulator crew" because none of the coaches had NBA playing careers, an insult that's ridiculous on the surface. Red Auerbach never played in the NBA and he did okay. So did Chuck Daly and Erik Spoelstra. Jackson's mentor on the Knicks Red Holzman averaged six points and two assists as a backup point guard in his six-year NBA career, at a time when the league didn't even have any black or foreign players and shot a whopping 31.7 percent for his career. What, Popovich, who averaged 14.3 points and shot 55 percent as a senior at Air Force and got a tryout for the Olympic team couldn't shoot 31 percent if he was a bench scrub in the NBA? Both Jackson and Pat Riley were middling players as pros, as was Rick Carlisle. The best coaches who were also great pros were Billy Cunningham, Tommy Heinsohn and probably Larry Bird, and he had Carlisle on his bench.

Jackson also argued that the Spurs first title in 1999 should have an asterisk by it because it came during a lockout-shortened 50-game season.

Popovich, meanwhile, who's always so classy and complimentary of his peers, lashed out one time at Jackson's Lakers for engineering the Gasol trade. Years later, when it turned out that Marc Gasol, the draft pick whom the Lakers shipped to Memphis, was an excellent player in his own right, Pop sheepishly admitted it was professional jealousy talking and he was wrong. He was the first to congratulate Pat Riley in 2010 for his coup in landing James and Chris Bosh at Miami.

Both men were able to form some close ties with their assistants and their success naturally led to those assistants being hot commodities for head jobs elsewhere. As we shall see in Part III, the proverbial apple has fallen far from the tree more often than not.

Edge: Popovich

Continued in Part 3 and Part 4.