Phil Jackson is one of the sharpest minds in basketball history, and his resume speaks for itself. He won two championships as a player during his time with the New York Knicks, six as the head coach for the Chicago Bulls and five more with the Los Angeles Lakers. His stint as the GM for the New York Knicks didn’t go as well, but other than that, his career is pretty much flawless.
His most important quality as a coach was that he approached commanding the team in an unorthodox way, never seen before in the NBA. Tex Winter was his assistant, with whom he crafted the ‘Triangle Offense,’ which was from a coaching perspective, one of the biggest reasons for their brilliant execution on offense. He approached every member on the team individually to determine what drives them and what type of personality they have. Jackson wanted to know the players he is coaching on a more personal level to see if he can count on them during games, especially the important ones.
In his book ‘Eleven Rings’, Jackson said his main goal every season was that the team develops a high level of chemistry, that will enable them to play without much coaching from his side aftward. Practices were an essential part of Jackson’s coaching style because that is where the team builds chemistry and learns the flows of the game and how to impose their will on the opposing teams.
This is what I was trying to do with the Bulls. My goal was to act as instinctively as possible to allow the players to lead the team from within. I wanted them to be able to flow with the action, the way a tree bends with the wind. That’s why I put so much emphasis on having tightly structured practices.Phil Jackson
Having a clear vision and setting the team’s goals from the early start in the season was a part of Jackson’s strategy. He would make sure the team understands that, and as the season progresses, Jackson would often let the players coach the game by themselves to a certain degree. The only time he would step in and make certain adjustments if he saw the team was having problems on defense.
I would assert myself forcefully in practice to imbue the players with a strong vision of where we needed to go and what we had to do to get there. But once the game began, I would slip into the background and let the players orchestrate the attack. Occasionally, I would step in to make the defensive adjustment or shift players around if we needed a burst of energy. For the most part, though, I let the players take the lead.Phil Jackson
That type of coaching style is now more frequent among younger coaches in the NBA, and a good example is Steve Kerr. He was fortunate enough to be coached by Phil and Gregg Popovich, but if you saw him interact with players, it’s very similar to Jackson’s coaching style. When it came to basketball, Jackson’s coaching philosophy was that it also contains a spiritual element to it, which his players accepted. All the teams he coached had big ego’s, and the system Jackson put in place with both the Lakers and the Bulls proved it works.