Phil Jackson has a total of 11 NBA Championship rings to his name. The Zen Master made winning look so easy, probably frustrating numerous highly regarded players and coaches who have only managed to snag one title in their career. Some have even gone on to retire without a title in their resume.
But the reality is, winning a title takes so much out of you. Managing a team, its players, and their egos isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Jackson had the benefit of coaching Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant — two players who did not need external motivation as it is written in their DNA to strive to be the greatest. However, Jordan and Bryant formed just one piece of the 15-man roster. Other pieces have to work well for the machinery to operate at its full capacity.
Not the greatest team
With this reality in mind, Jackson reflected on all his 11 rings and chose the one he’s most proud of. It could be as difficult as choosing your favorite child. But the Zen Master had a firm answer: his fourth title ring with Kobe Bryant, Jackson's 10th overall.
"I think rebuilding that championship in LA was a process that, you know, [was] arduous. Coming back and coaching teams that were barely over .500, and Kobe being upset, and wanting to get himself a championship, and threatening to leave, and working with him and the organization. Bringing in Pau Gasol then turning it around, and getting two championships. That is probably one of the best moments. Not the greatest team but a good moment," Jackson said via the Dan Patrick Show.
The long and winding road
After the Lakers’ infamous NBA Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons in 2004, Jackson walked away from the team. For some context, rumors during that time speculated he had some brewing tension with Kobe and that the whole organization sided with the Black Mamba. Whatever the real story is, the Lakers were on crutches without Jackson. They failed to make the playoffs that following season without the Zen Master.
Due to luck and some masterful negotiation, Jackson eventually returned to the sidelines after just one year. As he pointed out, it wasn’t as simple as laying out his vaunted triangle offense and asking his players to follow his orders. A solid example of the Lakers’ struggles was the night Kobe scored 81 points. Yes, it was an amazing basketball feat. But if decent teammates surrounded Kobe, he wouldn’t have had to carry the scoring chores by that much.
The organization had acquired the likes of Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, and a whole slew of other high-IQ ballers to continue their quixotic quest for the title. In his first two years back as the Purple and Gold’s coach, Jackson guided the team to two consecutive playoff appearances — both of which were cut short by the Mike D’Antoni and Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns. Clearly, the Lakers were still missing that final piece.
The end of Jackson’s agony came in the summer of 2007 and midway through the 2007-08 season. They were able to get Derek Fisher back as the trusted guard also left the Lakers in 2004. This gave the Lakers another player apart from Bryant, who knows the triangle offense like the back of his hand.
The Lakers’ fortunes would not stop there. In what’s known as the “Pau Gasol Donation,” they got the Spanish center (plus a second-round draft pick in 2010) for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, the draft rights to his brother Marc Gasol, and two first-round draft picks (2008 and 2010). Analysts and fans deemed the trade ridiculous, and they were right. From a good team, the Lakers turned into a legitimate contender with Gasol in the fold. They went 22-5 with the Spaniard in the lineup.
The Lakers made it all the way to the NBA Finals that season. However, it was not their time yet as the big three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce eclipsed them in six games. With the benefit of hindsight, that loss might have been pre-written by the universe. After all, the Celtics trio was crafting one of the best narratives of the sport. It would have been one of the most heartbreaking scenes in basketball to see three of the best players of history never win a ring.
But the universe made sure to reward the Lakers, Jackson, and Kobe for their perseverance in sticking with it. They made it back to the NBA Finals with relative ease (the Ron Artest and Yao Min-led Rockets were the only ones who gave them a difficult time). They dominated the inexperienced Orlando Magic in just five games. Jackson claimed his 10th title ring — for him, the sweetest of them all.