Thursday, February 9, 2017

Gregg Popovich vs. Phil Jackson

By Kevin Beane

Last week, Gregg Popovich set the all-time NBA record for victories with one team after he notched his 1,128th win as Spurs coach. He is the dean of American major pro sports coaches, having been the Spurs coach since 1996.

One record he does not have, however, is most consecutive winning seasons (Phil Jackson has him pipped by one season) and while Popovich will almost certainly eclipse Jackson there in the next two seasons (and all of Popovich's winning seasons have been to the tune of 50 wins or more, unlike Jackson), it is highly unlikely he will approach Jackson's 11 NBA titles.

Popovich and Jackson both have vaguely similar approaches to the game. They're both cerebral, non-bombastic, and decidedly not cut from the Bobby Knight/Mike Krzyzewski school of cruel taskmasters. Jackson, of course, is the zen master, and Popovich is an Air Force egghead who nearly went into a career in intelligence.

All of this got me wondering: who is the better coach?

They both started their coaching careers in pretty favorable spots. Phil Jackson took over the Bulls from Doug Collins, who had already led them to back-to-back winning seasons. Ditto for Popovich, who had to endure a rough first season with David Robinson out with an injury, but the Spurs were successful with Robinson before Popovich took over and resumed being successful when he came back.

They both have done some decidedly un-zenlike things. Bob Hill, Popovich's predecessor at San Antonio, was fired by ... general manager Gregg Popovich, who named himself as his successor. Just as a general rule, I cannot stand it when presidents, GMs, etc. fire a head coach and name themselves as replacements. In the CFL, Jim Popp did that several times with the Montreal Alouettes, and it rarely went well. Secondly, Hill's record the prior two seasons before being fired 18 games into the 96-97 season (where he was 3-15) was 62-20 and 59-23. You have to get more than 18 games off of that resume, don't you? Especially with David Robinson injured.

Then again, the un-zenlike things Phil Jackson has done have been pretty numerous. No. 1 is his apparent lack of interest in anything approaching a challenge. After his tenure with the Bulls, he made it known he would only take coaching jobs with teams ready-built for an immediate championship run. I love the triangle offense, but I'd also love to see how it can turn, say, the Brooklyn Nets into winners. Jackson won't give us the opportunity to see what he can do in that sort of situation.

Secondly, and more distressingly, is his penchant for calling out his players in the media and in his books. His treatment of the 2003-04 Lakers in his book The Last Season trashed Kobe, and now he's doing it again, as president of the Knicks, with Carmelo Anthony.

Are Bryant and Anthony worthy of criticism? Oh hell yes. I just don't see the point of being so public about it. If it's a motivation tool, the results are unclear to say the least. I know a thing or two about Eastern philosophy, and pillorying your subordinates is a chapter I can't find anywhere.

Which is why I am giving the nod to Popovich. Not only does he largely refrain from using the media to wage longstanding wars against his own players, he has demonstrated he can win with multiple casts of players that were not put together with a bow tied around them for his arrival. He won it all in 1999 behind David Robinson. He won it all again 15 years later behind Kawhi Leonard. He won three titles in between, too. Of course, Tim Duncan is the thread that runs through all of those seasons, but a) no one is mentioning Tim Duncan in the same breath as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, or LeBron James, and b) now that Duncan is gone, the Spurs are 39-12 as of this writing.

Popovich builds and rebuilds and rebuilds winners. If he isn't remembered as well as Jackson 50 years from now, it will be a shame.

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