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Red Auerbach or Phil Jackson: Who’s the best NBA coach ever?

By Julian Bonte-Friedheim
 Getty / r. Martinez / Public
The NBA has had many memorable coaches since it started in 1946. Comparing these talents over different eras and an evolving sport is hard, but two special names are mentioned more than the rest. Red Auerbach cemented an immense legacy as the sport emerged, and Phil Jackson has 11 NBA rings to his name, more than any other. These two great coaches shaped the way the sport is played today.
Here are three points for either being the best:


Big Red is the best


Brilliant tactics

Red Auerbach’s creative understanding of the game allowed him to revolutionize it tactically. His touch turned the flailing Boston Celtics into a real fighting force, the only team to ever win eight consecutive NBA championships. He valued defense over offense. By focusing on breaking up the opposition’s plays, his teams punished them with counterattacks. Auerbach emphasized teamwork, drilling his players to form a cohesive unit that dominated other teams all over the court. He also invented the sixth man, which is a tactic that entails having one of the stronger non-starting players come off the bench to make a bigger impact when the game is already in full-swing.



Beyond tactics, Auerbach transformed the NBA by accelerating its embrace of previously shunned black athletes. He drafted the first-ever black player, Chuck Cooper, in 1950. Fourteen years later, he sent out the first-ever all-black starting five. Auerbach was also the first to hire a black head coach in 1966, Bill Russell. He prioritized talent over skin color at a time when Jim Crow laws were still being applied in the US. Black players rewarded him with successes, playing a big part in the Boston Celtics’ eight-year championship run.


Finding young talent

Auerbach had a special eye for discovering rising stars and building a winning team out of them. He pushed hard for Bill Russell in the 1956 NBA draft, seeing huge potential in his defensive qualities. Russell became a key part in the team’s ability to stop opposition advances and then start their own counterattacks. Molding young players in the ways he saw fit, Auerbach offered a springboard to players like John Havlicek, who then became the engine behind many of the championships they won together. In 1978, it was Auerbach’s vision that drove the Celtics to draft Larry Bird, who was still relatively unknown. He turned out to be one of the greatest players the NBA has ever seen. Auerbach’s negotiation skills were key here as they gave him an edge in getting the players he wanted.


Phil Jackson stands above all


Numbers don’t lie

Phil Jackson is the best of all time because he won an unequalled 11 NBA rings, six with the Chicago Bulls and three with the LA Lakers. He bested some tough opposition to achieve this, especially when compared to Auerbach, who played when the league was smaller and less competitive. Jackson has the highest winning percentage of any hall-of-famer or coach that oversaw 500 or more games. He won three ‘three-peats,’ meaning winning three championships in a row, even getting close to achieving a fourth one during his last season with the Lakers. Between 1991 and 2011, he went to a conference final 14 out of 20 times.


Taking the game to the next level

Jackson was great at thinking of new ways to play basketball. He came up with the Triangle Offense, which Chuck Klosermann called “the single most dominant offensive attack of the past 20 years.” It entails a team forming a triangle with the post, wing and corner players. Being disciplined about staying in formation, switching positions and smart passing make it incredibly hard to defend against. The Triangle Offense became legendary because of its effectiveness and how hard it was to pull off. Others tried to imitate it, but none could coach it like Jackson did.


Managing egos

Jackson won so much because he had the ability to help his players grow in ways that others couldn’t. A big part of this was mentality; he taught big egos, like Michael Jordan, to be more team-oriented. He also managed to convince great talents, like Scottie Pippen, to play second-fiddle to greater ones, like Jordan. Similarly, it was a huge achievement of his to get Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal to form such a deadly on-field partnership, given their many disagreements, which have their own wikipedia page. Jackson had a unique style of coaching, inspired by Zen Buddhism and earning him the nickname “the Zen Master.” Perhaps it was this mindfulness that allowed him to calm and manage hot tempers. Some of these men were molded by Jackson into the winners we know them as.


Bottom Lines Both Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson are titans of basketball. They each dominated their eras like no other, enhancing the sport with impactful tactics and progressive coaching styles. If you were an NBA player, who would you rather have as your coach, the visionary Auerbach or the philosophical Jackson?

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