The Phil Jackson coaching tree hasn’t exactly borne a lot of fruit in the NBA. From Jim Cleamons to Frank Hamblen, Bill Cartwright, Kurt Rambis and Brian Shaw, none has a career coaching record above .500, much less matched Jackson’s almost unfathomable amount of success at the highest level of the game. It will be an uphill battle for Derek Fisher to break that pattern, as he is already over 40 games below .500 in his first year as a head coach. If there’s hope for the Zen Master’s disciples in the NBA, it comes from the one guy who turned him down.
When Steve Kerr was looking to break into coaching last year, he was the rare first-time head coach who had the option to choose between multiple jobs. After a long career as a player, broadcaster and GM, Kerr had the benefit of developing relationships with decision-makers across the league. Unlike Shaw, who had to take the first job available to him after years of striking out on the interview circuit as an assistant coach, Kerr had the luxury to be picky. He could have had Fisher’s job with the New York Knicks but he wisely chose to take the same job with Golden State.
On the surface, the Knicks' job looked appealing, as they still had Carmelo Anthony and the core of a team that had won 54 games two seasons ago. However, with so much age on the roster and very little interior size, the Knicks were only a few injuries from falling to the bottom of the NBA. Once Jackson got rid of Tyson Chandler in a draft-night deal, the writing was on the wall. Fisher got a baptism by fire, as Carmelo went down with a knee injury and the goal quickly became to rack up lottery balls.
Kerr, in contrast, got the benefit of walking into a ready made situation. In three seasons under Mark Jackson, the Warriors had gone from 23 wins to 47 and then 51, but there were growing rifts between Jackson and Golden State’s front office and an underlying sense that their coach’s old school philosophy and tactics weren’t a great fit with the roster he had been given. Jackson was their version of Scott Brooks - a former PG who preached a defensive-first system and was beloved by his players but never seemed to have a great grasp on the tactical aspects of the job.
Jackson was the perfect coach for a young team. Few young players are ready to win right away when they get into the leagues so it’s more important to instill a foundation they can build on than maximizing your record over the course of the season. Jackson didn’t just give minutes to lottery picks like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes - he also made sure late first-round picks and second round guys like Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli were given the chance to play through their mistakes and learn on the job.
As it turns out, all he was doing was setting it up for the next guy to reap the fruits of his labors. When Kerr was given the job, he didn’t need to deal with growing pains. Curry and Thompson were coming into the prime of their career - the learning curve was over and they were ready to take the next step. The biggest problem Jackson had was dealing with David Lee, the owner’s favorite player, and even that got solved once Lee went down with an injury in training camp.
For all of Kerr’s successes with X’s and O’s, the biggest reason for the Warriors surge to the top of the Western Conference was switching out Lee with Green. It was one of the biggest victories for the four-out philosophy yet. Instead of having a second post threat who couldn’t shoot the ball or defend out on the perimeter next to Andrew Bogut, the Warriors had a fourth perimeter player who could shoot 3’s, put the ball on the floor and still defend in the box better than Lee.
Nor was this the first time that Golden State had played better without Lee. When he went down with an injury in Game 1 of their first-round series with the Denver Nuggets in 2013, most people assumed that the Warriors would be dead in the water without their only All-Star. Instead, with Harrison Barnes at the 4 instead of Green, Golden State went on a thrilling playoff run that ended in a tough six-game loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round.
With Curry and Thompson having career years with Green at the 4, the Warriors were in a perfect position to become a powerhouse in the Western Conference, regardless of who their coach was. That’s the great irony behind the cult of the head coach that has arisen in the modern NBA - most of the coaches in the league could have had the success Kerr has had with the players he is coaching. In that respect, what happened to Jackson isn’t too different than what happened to Lionel Hollins in Memphis. There’s only so much value a coach can add to a group of NBA veterans once they have reached a certain level of success. All a coach can do is put them in the best position to succeed and hope he has the players to pull it off.
If Jackson had benched Lee before the start of last season, capitalizing on the momentum of their unlikely playoff run with a line-up that featured Barnes/Green at the 4 and Andre Iguodala at the 3, who knows where Golden State would be right now. He may have not been able to bench Lee because of his conflicts with ownership but that’s ultimately why his time with the Warriors was numbered. If a coach can’t convince an owner to play the optimal line-up then there’s no real point in having him in the organization.
At the highest levels of the game, what separates coaches are the players at their disposal. That’s why Pat Riley and Phil Jackson ended up working in management - it was a natural extension of what they already did. There’s a reason those two guys won big at every stop in their coaching careers. If they weren’t associated with the best players in the sport, they made damn sure they would be soon enough. You aren’t going to be able to out X and O guys like Riley and Jackson but they know that’s not what really wins games.
The key for any coach is to make sure he has the necessary talent to win and that’s exactly what Steve Kerr did. He cultivated a personal relationship with the Warriors' owners and when the time was right he maneuvered himself into a situation where he could coach an elite team. It’s the same thing Jason Kidd did in Milwaukee. Once they got the job, they each had a vision for how they wanted their team to look but that vision could only go as far as the pieces that could implement it. That’s why Kidd was looking to get out of Brooklyn and that’s why Kerr had no real reason to sign in New York.
In his first season as a coach of the Warriors, Kerr has raced ahead of the competition, compiling a 66-15 record and getting his name mentioned with some of the best coaches in the history of the NBA. No one calls him a Phil Jackson disciple because he doesn’t run the Triangle but he learned the only lesson you really needed to from Phil. Steve Kerr was the only one of Jackson’s disciples who was actually paying attention.