When you mention Phil Jackson's name in NBA circles, we all know him as quite possibly the greatest coach in basketball history. And with sound reasoning. Phil's resume of eleven championship rings with the Bulls and the Lakers is imposing and enough to put him at the top of any list. But what often gets overlooked when talking about Phil is his playing career.
Phil Jackson was selected with the 17th overall pick by the New York Knicks in the 1967 NBA Draft. At the time, the Knicks were a losing team, but with some promise on the horizon. Coming into the NBA, Phil wasn't much of an offensive threat, but at 6'8'' with long arms, Jackson presented a challenge on the defensive end of the floor. He would end his rookie season averaging 6.2 ppg and 4.7 rpg on some limited minutes. Still, it would be enough to make the All-Rookie team.
The potential to improve was there, but the chronic back injuries that followed Phil throughout his career and life made him play only 47 games the following season and miss the entire third season. This was almost the end of Jackson's career, but fortunately, the Knicks never gave up on him and got rewarded.
The prime years
Despite Phil missing the 1970 season, the Knicks would still have a great year and go all the way. When Phil returned to the lineup, he found a perfect role alongside some NBA legends like Willis Reed and Walt Frazier, who were ready to keep winning championships.
Jackson would steadily improve his skills year in and year out, adding a mid-range jumper to what was already a great defensive game. That would eventually push him into the starting lineup, where he had a vast contribution. Averaging 8.1 ppg and 4.3 rpg, while holding down the defensive side of the floor with his energy, Jackson helped the Knicks win the 1973 championship and get Phil his second ring.
It was definitely the peak of Phil's career when it came to team success, but his best individual year would be in 1975, averaging 10.8 ppg and 7.7 rpg on good efficiency. The decline would begin from that point on, and the numbers would slowly drop in his 30s before eventually retiring at 34 years old after two seasons with the Nets. Phil was far from the most talented player, and he wouldn't get consideration for the Hall-of-Fame if not for his coaching career, but he still played an important role on some great Knicks teams from the 1970s'.
Interestingly, one of the greatest coaches in NBA history embodied the perfect player for all coaches universally. Team oriented, excellent on defense, and giving it his all every time on the floor. So much so we saw comparisons in The Last Dance to Dennis Rodman regarding their mentality on the floor. They were not the most talented scorers but guys who poured their hearts out on the floor while doing the small things necessary to win. That's why Phil eventually greatly transitioned to being a head coach and became a legend of the game.