Monday, June 15, 2009

The Greatest

No, this article is not about the Cat Power album "The Greatest", although I did listen to that yesterday (and was disappointed at how boring it seemed from when I liked it a year or so ago). Rather, this article is about two of the greatest people to be involved in the NBA. I'll talk about the obvious one first, Phil Jackson.

Jackson just won his tenth championship, passing Celtic legend Red Auerbach's nine. I grew up watching Jackson lead the Bulls to championships and his move to the Lakers made me partially a Lakers fan. To me, he was the most dominant coach of my generation, someone who had no equal - who else had won more championships (in this generation)? I read an article where Red Auerbach's repeated mantra was that Phil Jackson never had to "coach" talent, he just had to coach stars. Before delving into the debate over coaching/teaching vs managing stars I think its important to point out how flawed that statement is.

Yes Phil inherited Michael Jordan, the best player to play the game, but the players around them were almost entirely drafted by that franchise and coached by Phil Jackson. Jackson was an assistant for two years with the Bulls working and teaching players that would win rings for him. In 1987 the Bulls drafted Horace Grant and traded for the other rookie, Scottie Pippen. In 1988 the Bulls drafted Will Perdue and in 1989 the Bulls drafted BJ Armstrong. All of these players were the major factors in the first three championships. And the second three were on the backs of Pippen and Jordan along with Ron Harper and Tony Kukoc (two other players drafted by the Bulls). Rather than inheriting those first six championships, it seems like Phil had to scrape them out amid the Bad Boy Pistons, Larry Bird Lakers, Pat Ewing Knicks, Pat Riley Heat and other powerful Eastern Conference competitors not to mention beating Magic's Lakers, Clyde's Blazers, Barkley's Suns, the Payton/Kemp Sonics and the Malone/Stockton Jazz.

Yes Phil inherited Kobe Bryant, probably the best player to follow MJ, as well as Shaquille O'Neal in his prime when he was dominant, but he acquired a team that hadn't changed much in two years that hadn't had serious playoff success without Phil. The major change to their roster was Ron Harper who was probably influenced by the Lakers' decision to hire his former coach. Then he had to defeat Reggie's Pacers, AI's Sixers and Kidd's Nets. Sure at the end (for one season) Phil got Malone and Payton to join the fold but 1) he was probably one of the reasons they came and 2) they didn't even win that year so his "star power" shouldn't take away from his championship credentials. I'm too lazy to go into the players Phil developed with the Lakers (Odom and Bynum and the entire Lakers' bench).

Now. Let's be real. How many coaches could convince MJ to come back after the way he left (the shock over the death of his father)? How many coaches could control Kobe's ego for three seasons? How many coaches could reconcile their relationship with Kobe after calling him "uncoachable"? Just one, just Phil Jackson. That's all I'm going to say on why coaching stars is no easy feat.

When it comes down to it, look at the math - Phil Jackson has the most rings (with the two he has as a player, he has TWELVE total).

The second person I want to talk about is Michael Jordan. I'm afraid that in this shuffle of Kobe vs LeBron and the never ending SportsCenter love-fest of LeBron highlights that people are starting to lose sight of the greatest player to play the game. That even in this era players pale in comparison is remarkable. Let me throw some numbers at you. 6 NBA Championships, 6 NBA Finals MVP Awards (one for every time he played), 5 NBA MVP Awards, 14 NBA All-Star Nominations, 3 NBA All-Star MVP Awards, 2 NBA Slam-Dunk Championships, 10 NBA First Team Nominations, 9 NBA All-Defensive Team Nominations, and of course, Rookie of the Year (1985). Oh yeah and he has an NCAA Championship too.

How do you judge the best? So many talk about legacies being tied to championships - how Kobe needed Shaq and all that BS. Fine, lets look at the championships. If you look at all the championships and the MVP's as a telling factor for who dominated those series, no one else comes close. MJ has one for EVERY Time he played in the game. Shaq, Duncan and Magic have 3 MVP awards and 4 championships. Their math is close but not clear. Shaq was a body, Duncan an athlete and Magic a phenom but MJ was the greatest. He didn't have the physical advantages of Shaq and Duncan in terms of being imposing physical forces. Nor did he have the shear opportunities Magic had (7 finals appearances, 2 loses, 2 times losing the MVP award). I didn't want to get into this but Magic played with two of the players whose names are up there in discussions for the top ten players of all time. While Scottie Pippen was great and vastly underrated, he was no Kareem. MJ also was far and away the leading scorer in the playoffs of anyone.

The reason I wanted to write this article - beyond proving Phil's teaching prowess was what I believed to be the greatest sports tragedy of our generation. Personally I will forget the steroids blip but I will never forget the championships and the games we lost that MJ could have given us. Three issues to consider, 1) the "retirement" where he played baseball for two seasons, 2) the lockout/Krause force-out, and 3) the Wizard years.

The retirement robbed the Bulls - and MJ of two more championships. MJ was nearing his peak and any losses in free agency" would have been easily absorbed by MJ. Despite returning at half-speed, MJ almost led the Bulls over the Magic in 1995 but the Bulls were too rusty and didn't gell yet. The lockout forced MJ to make a decision he might not of made - retirement. Sure in his book he says that he considered it way back in 1992. But come on, if you're going to come back and play for a team like the Washington Wizards you don't want to retire - you clearly love the game too much. So lets talk about the Wizards. As an aside, what were you thinking MJ? You could have probably played for anyone and you picked a terrible team with little shot of contention for what, to "help" the team you had been GM of? Weak. But at the age of forty MJ was averaging 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 1+ steals, and 20+ points. AVERAGING - he still dropped 40 a game from time to time. This is a forty year old man! If he could do that in 2003, just think what he would have been if played from 1985-2003? Or even just until 2000?

Did I mention his Olympic gold medals?

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