Has any coach had more success with a smaller sphere of influence than Phil Jackson? Ten rings. Seven MVP awards under his watch. Two dynasties.
By any measure, Jackson has been the dominant NBA coach for the past two decades. Yet, while contemporaries such as Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich and Larry Brown have used their winning ways to mold future star coaches, Jackson has but one former assistant (Kurt Rambis in Minnesota) with a team to call his own.
Jackson's coaching tree is but a mere twig.
Of course, he has always been a bit different, from his holistic approach to the game, to the philosophical bridges he tries to build with his players, illustrated in the books he hand picks for his players each season.
"Well, I came from nowhere," Jackson said. "I was coaching in the minor leagues in Puerto Rico, and [former Bulls GM] Jerry Krause and [coach] Doug Collins hired me on the [Bulls] staff and I didn't have any connection. ... So there was no lineage.
"There were groups that were connected, and they fed on each other from summer camps and the like. Mike Fratello and Hubie Brown -- those guys were in the Five-Star camp. Then there were the North Carolina guys. And there were the Philadelphia guys, and that was Jack Ramsey and Jack McCloskey and a few more. So there was a knowledge of systems and how they play them and their philosophies in basketball, whereas my philosophy came from a college coach, Tex Winter. And a lot of people said his offense wasn't geared to generate in professional basketball."
With almost 1,100 wins on his résumé, Jackson has cleared up any doubts about the effectiveness of the triangle offense. But in winning so much with a system that veers away from the standard pick-and-roll template, Jackson and his teams imbued the triangle with a mythology that has made other front offices hesitant to buy in.
"I think a lot of general managers think that what we run won't be a good for the personnel that they have and they think that's all the basketball we know," said Jim Cleamons, whose 15-plus-year tenure as a Jackson assistant yielded a single two-year stint as the Mavs' head coach. "You have to look at upper management. They have to be open-minded to see what we run can produce and does produce winning basketball. But it takes time to learn if your personnel is amenable, and by amenable I mean they have somewhat of a basketball IQ."
Indeed, the Timberwolves have found the triangle a lot harder to assimilate without a Michael Jordan or a Kobe Bryant around to erase their mistakes, which Rambis has tried to limit by utilizing the system largely in transition. And though Jackson sees progress from afar for a team that has won at Dallas and at Miami this month, the standings still show a team that has lost 44 games already this season, not the best advertisement for Jackson's coaching tree.
"The offense itself isn't difficult," Jackson said. "What's difficult is that the players have to do it themselves in my system; it's not me calling the plays on the sideline, it's on them to read and to become playmakers on their own. There are keys in it, and the players have to understand those keys to make it work and there's a rhythm to it. So that makes it a little more difficult to teach because what you have to instill is confidence in the players and it takes a while. I always talk about it as a musical group: It's a five-man band and you get in rhythm to play together and get in sync, and once you've learned how to harmonize, then you can play."
Like any band leader who finds a sound to his liking, Jackson has generally kept his band tight, employing a combination of elder wise men such as Tex Winter and John Bach and trusted lieutenants such as Cleamons and Frank Hamblen. Promotions from the video room or the scouting ranks are rare and Jackson's adherence to the principles of the triangle doesn't make for many coaches-in-training opportunities.
"There are drills you have to incorporate in order to get the game speed, the timing, the operating spots -- all the different things, the interchangeable parts -- to go," said Jim Stack an assistant, scout and front-office executive with Jackson during his Bulls tenure who is now a scout for Rambis' Wolves. "You create all those things within the practice drills that you use, and Tex had a lot of practice drills that we ran every single day. I don't know that a lot of coaches would utilize those same drills even if they want to run the triangle."
Despite the emphasis on experience, Jackson has made room for the occasional trainee, from John Paxson and Bill Cartwright in Chicago to Brian Shaw and in L.A.
That doesn't quite have the ring of Stan Van Gundy, Mike Brown or even Mike Woodson, but when there is an 11th ring to chase, Jackson admits his focus isn't on his legacy.
"I've always wanted these guys to be their own person," Jackson said. "I didn't care one way or the other whether they use the system or not. But I just want them to have a mentality that incorporates a system of basketball because I think it helps players out."
• Darren Collison. The former UCLA Bruin appears intent on making a late run for Rookie of the Year. He has helped keep the Hornets afloat since Chris Paul went down with a knee injury Jan. 29, averaging 20.6 points and 8.9 assists as a starter in the last 12 games. It may not be enough to save a trip to the playoffs, but Collison's emergence is sure to make Paul's life easier when he returns.
• Charlotte's mastery over the Cavs. Were the playoffs to begin today, the Cavs would be facing a first-round foe they've beaten once in four attempts this season, a team with a defense almost as effective as the Cavs' and a team whose coach knows a thing or two about upsets. Of course, Cleveland won't know its playoff path for quite some time, but the Cavs have thus far struggled with Charlotte's consistent drives to the basket and Gerald Wallace's length and athleticism.
• Washington's effort. After clearing out three starters at the trade deadline, the Wizards appeared destined for a fall deep into lottery heaven. Someone must not have told Flip Saunders,though, as he's guided the team to three wins in the five games since the roster was flipped, including victories over the Nuggets and Bulls. Andray Blatche has averaged 24.8 points and 9.8 rebounds in the new-look lineup.
• Kobe's signature on a new Lakers contract. Despite a standing max offer from the Lakers that would keep him in L.A. through the 2013-14 season, Kobe has yet to seal the deal. One theory is that Bryant is waiting for Phil Jackson to decide if he'll return first. But what about the possibility that Bryant is dragging his feet on signing a new deal so he can opt out after the season and join in the free-agent media circus that has enveloped the likes of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade? Just a subtle reminder that the aging sheriff is still in town and just as capable of saving a franchise.
• Baron Davis. With the Clippers essentially cashing in this season after getting rid of coach Mike Dunleavy and trading Marcus Camby for something akin to a sack of potatoes, Davis has all but left for vacation. After averaging more than 16 points on about 40 percent shooting for the season's first three months, Davis has eked out 9.9 points on 34.8 percent shooting and has turned the ball over 4.1. times this month. Just a few reasons why the Clippers are 3-6 in February.
• The Kings. We were as guilty as anyone in believing the Kings' surprisingly competent start portended a much better season than what has come to pass. But how could anyone reasonably think a team that was 14-17 through December would win only four more games since then? With Rookie of the Year front-runner Tyreke Evans in the lineup and a promising young frontcourt of Omri Casspi, Jason Thompson and Spencer Hawes? Maybe things will improve with the trade of Kevin Martin, with whom the Kings went 4-17 this season.
• "I was out of money and I needed some cash so I took the young guys out and shot a little shuffleboard with them in the afternoon. And took their money."-- Warriors coach Don Nelson jokes about taking Stephen Curry, Anthony Morrow and Anthony Tolliver, as well as a few assistant coaches, to Smitty's, an Oakland, Calif., bar for some team bonding.
• "I didn't want to be a hero in my first game back"-- Tracy McGrady explains why his lack of energy in his first game for the Knicks prompted him to sit most of OT in a three-point loss to the Thunder.
• "The guy's Russian, right? You think he'd hire a Polish guy? No one's contacted me. If they do, I think 'nyet' would be easy for me to say."-- Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski on reports that Nets prospective owner Mikhail Prokhorov would try to entice Coach K to the NBA with a massive offer.
• "They have to prove it themselves. It's going to be tough. They got Orlando. They got Atlanta. They've struggled against Atlanta this year and got swept there. They got Cleveland, of course. You can make your own conclusions there."-- Pau Gasol wonders if the Celtics are title contenders.
• "I didn't see any life there. I'm tired of not seeing any life. I'm very disappointed. This isn't the first time we haven't seen a light on."-- The Warriors' Nelson explains why he benched Andris Biedrins less than halfway into the second quarter of a 110-102 loss to the Sixers.
•The Star-Ledger: Few are better on the NBA beat than Dave D'Alessandro, which makes his ultimately fruitless attempts to speak with Prokhorov about his impending purchase of the Nets a fascinating read.
•SLAM: Without Holger Geschwindner, there would be no Dirk Nowitzki --not in the NBA, at least.
•The SunBreak: The NBA may have abandoned Seattle, but the city hasn't abandoned the league. Or so says a writer who discovered Jet City is the leading pipeline of NBA talent in the country.
•Basketball Prospectus: Does anyone outside of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh deserve a max deal this summer. Kevin Pelton breaks down the future value of this summer's free-agent class.
•Off The Dribble: Salary-cap guru Larry Coon analyzes the potential landing places for LeBron.
1. The verbal back-and-forth between the players' union and David Stern during All-Star weekend was ominous enough for the upcoming collective bargaining talks. Now we have Mavericks owner Mark Cuban blogging that "when the index [of franchises] depreciates, the amount available to players should be reduced as well. The bottom line of the bottom line is that it's time for a new model for professional sports." This from someone who spends big to acquire or retain talent. In other words, Cuban wasn't supposed to be one of the hard-line owners pushing for lower costs. If his sentiment is indicative of how widespread the desire is to wrestle financial concessions out of the players, the game's prospects after next season are grim.
2. This stat is always worth noting: Shaquille O'Neal has one MVP award to his credit. One! How can it be that the most dominant player of the last 15 years has been named the NBA's best only once? Yes, we can debate whether he tapped into the deepest reservoir of his talent or why he never learned to show up in shape at the start of each season, but no player has destroyed opponents' game plans more than Shaq. Consider: Steve Nash has two MVPs. When we look back on today's generation, could anyone actually argue that Nash has had a greater impact on his team than Shaq? I think not.
3. Nice work by the Timberwolves in dropping 2010-11 season ticket prices by up to 50 percent for the month of March. As the economy hobbles along, the Wolves show that at least one team isn't without compassion. And for a fan base that has watched its front office make questionable move after questionable move over the last half decade, the discount is well-deserved.