The Lakers had the spectacular players in Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. They also had a number of spectacular playoff failures.
What was a franchise to do?
Bring in a one-time hippie, a noted philosopher and a coach known for doing things the unconventional way, like burning incense in the locker room and having his players meditate.
"I think in looking at this basketball team," Phil Jackson said in June of 1999 after being hired as coach of the Lakers, "this is a team that is talented, it’s young, it’s on the verge."
And with Jackson on the bench, the Lakers moved from postseason busts to NBA champions. Not one, not twice, but five times in 12 seasons.
While his final team, the 2010-11 Lakers, went out in shocking fashion, getting swept in the second round by the Dallas Mavericks, there’s no denying Jackson was the most successful coach in NBA history, if not the greatest.
In 20 seasons as a coach (nine with the Chicago Bulls, 11 with the Lakers), he won 11 championships, two more than Red Auerbach won with the Boston Celtics. His teams never
missed the playoffs. He had the highest winning percentage in the regular season (.704) and postseason (.688).
Jackson’s use of the share-the-ball, triangle offense allowed some of the game’s greatest players to mesh together into champions.
If Jackson’s critics like to point out that anyone could have coached Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, O’Neal and Bryant, Jackson’s backers can say that only O’Neal (with Miami in 2006) won a title without him as their coach.
When Doug Collins was let go as the Bulls’ coach after the 1989 season, the Bulls having failed to reach the NBA Finals again, Jackson, who had been an assistant, took over. In his second year, the Bulls were champions, beating the Lakers in the Finals. The Bulls also won in 1992 and 1993. After Jordan returned from his first retirement, the Bulls won in 1996, 1997 and 1998. The 1996 team won a record 72 games in the regular season, earning Jackson his only coach of the year award.
Even as coach of the Bulls, Jackson — in a power struggle with Chicago General Manager Jerry Kraus — openly contemplated coaching the Lakers. He felt the triangle would be perfect for O’Neal.
The Bulls broke up after ’98, Jordan retiring again and Jackson being replaced by Tim Floyd.
Jackson didn’t coach during the lockout-shortened 1999 season, a year that ended with the Lakers being swept out of the playoffs for the second consecutive time. Soon after Kurt Rambis was out as coach and Jackson was in, complete with a five-year, $30-million deal, the most Lakers owner Jerry Buss had ever paid a coach.
In their first season together, Jackson, O’Neal and Bryant brought the Lakers their first title since 1988. O’Neal won his only MVP award. The Lakers won again in 2001 and 2002.
All seemed well, until the Lakers lost in the second round in 2003 and then were upset in the 2004 Finals by Detroit. O’Neal, who had been openly feuding with Bryant, demanded a trade and was sent to Miami. Bryant nearly signed with the Clippers. And Buss decided not to bring Jackson back.
But after a 2005 season in which Rudy Tomjanovich lasted only 41 games as Lakers coach before quitting from stress and the team missed the playoffs, Buss hired Jackson again.
Jackson signed a three-year deal worth $10 million a season. He told Lakers fans not to expect another title during the length of the contract.
"It’s all about taking the first step. It’s not about a 10th championship," he said. "It’s just about coming back here and reestablishing a team that is competitive, that fans here can be proud to watch."
Jackson was right in that the Lakers didn’t win a title in his first three seasons back. But Jackson got them back to championship level, leading them to the Finals in 2008, where they lost to Boston in six games.
Then came 2009 and the Lakers won again. They repeated in 2010, beating the Celtics in classic Game 7.
Jackson announced before the 2010-11 season that it would be his final year as coach. The Lakers tried to give Jackson his fourth three-peat, but wound up losing to the Mavericks, who went on to win their first NBA title.
"It’s tough to put into words what he’s meant to me," Bryant said after Jackson’s last game. "I grew up under him. The way I approach things, the way I think about things – not only in basketball but in life in general -- a lot of it comes from him. It’s a little weird for me to think about how next year’s going to be."