When it comes to the GOAT of coaching, a handful of analysts and fans would immediately point to Phil Jackson. The Zen Master has 11 NBA title rings as a coach — the most in NBA history. As always, not everyone will agree that just because Jackson has the most title wins, he is immediately the greatest coach of all time. According to Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, trying his best to remove his bias, Red Auerbach was a better coach than Jackson.
Familiarity breeds contempt
In his 2009 book “Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend,” Russell shared his side on the debate on who is the GOAT of coaching. During that time, Jackson and Auerbach were on top of the ladder with nine title rings apiece. There was this anticipation if Jackson could win one more to surpass the Celtics legend to become the all-time leader. In his memoir, he had an interesting argument as to why Auerbach is better than Jackson.
“Some people have asked me, ‘What’s the difference between Phil Jackson winning nine championships and Red Auerbach winning nine championships?’ Trying to put my bias aside—and there’s a great deal of it—I think Red’s achievement is superior because he got the same team to listen to him for ten straight years, and not just win a lot of games, but, at one stage, eight consecutive championships. What does a coach say to a player, ten years into their relationship, that he hasn’t heard a hundred times? There’s a cliché, ‘Familiarity breeds contempt.’ Well, with Red and us, it worked just the opposite. To me, that took more than just a great coach. It took a mastermind. It took, in fact, exactly what you also want in a true friend: someone big enough to consider his friend’s needs first and find the right ways to help enhance his existence.”
For some context, out of Russell’s 11 title rings, 9 of them were won with Auerbach on the sidelines. And as he noted, the Celtics won 8 straight titles from 1959 to 1966. With this in mind, it is not easy to believe that this is a purely objective take from Russell.
But if we take it for what it is, it is indeed an interesting argument. Looking into Russell’s statement, he raises a critical nuance in coaching. While there is an inherent difficulty guiding a team with fresh faces every tenure, there are also many complexities in coaching a team that has not undergone a significant tweak for over a decade. Players and coaches can tire out from one another, just like how a rock band deems nothing productive is coming out from its members after several years together. And then there's always Pat Riley's famous "disease of more."
In the past, teams — even those who had just won a title — tended to mix their roster up. A good example would be the Golden State Warriors, who continuously added players, sensing the need to get better and better. They did not fear the possibility that new players could mix up the chemistry. They do not subscribe to the adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They know that opposing teams will one day figure them out. And so, the goal is to keep everyone guessing.
One more thing
Russell did not raise it in his argument, but some fans and analysts have also pointed out that Jackson had the privilege of working with two of the best duos in NBA history: Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen and Kobe Bryant/Shaquille O’Neal. Some even say that Jordan was the actual coach of the Chicago Bulls as he was the one who pushed his teammates to the limit.
Whatever the case may be, we should take Russell’s logic as another way to understand the sport. These GOAT debates should not turn fellow fans into mortal enemies. Instead, these arguments should serve as entry points into a deeper discussion of the sport we all love.