A Ring on Every Finger

Phil Jackson is the best coach in the history of the NBA, and we didn’t even need this last Lakers title to tell us that.

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Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

With the Los Angeles Lakers 99-86 win over the Orlando Magic on Sunday night, coach Phil Jackson won his tenth NBA title. Ten titles is a staggering number—it means he now has a ring for every finger—but unless you bleed Boston Celtic green, then Jackson already ranked as the best coach in NBA history.

Red Auerbach, the patron saint of Celtic nation won nine titles in 10 years, 1957-‘66. That’s one count that the Boston faithful will hold onto. The knock on Jackson is that he always had a Hall of Fame bound nucleus: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen for six titles in Chicago; Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant for three titles in Los Angeles and Bryant for the latest one. This overlooks a key factor. Auerbach had more Hall of Fame talent than Jackson.

Bill Russell and Bob Cousy, the nucleus of the late ‘50s/early ‘60s Boston powerhouses rank among the top 15 players of all time, and there were six other Celtics who have plaques in Springfield, Mass. Jackson has won titles with Rick Fox, Steve Kerr and Craig Hodges as key role players; I guarantee none of them are going to the Hall of Fame for enshrinement. (Dennis Rodman, who played on three title teams with the Bulls, should make the Hall of Fame; he led the league in rebounding seven times, but his off-court shenanigans may hold him back.)

Another way to gauge Jackson’s impact is to look at what happens to his great players away from his coaching. Shaquille O’Neal won a title with Miami three years ago. Pippen was a big part of a Portland Trail Blazer team that nearly made the finals in 2000. Otherwise, none of Jackson’s Hall of Fame charges won much of anything without him as their coach. Another accomplishment that goes overlooked is what Jackson did without his superstars. Michael Jordan retired for the first time in the summer of 1993; in ’92-’93, the Bulls won 57 games and the NBA title. Without Jordan, the Bulls didn’t win a title, but they won 55 games.

Jackson’s 10 titles are an amazing accomplishment as is his 51-8 record in playoff series. He shouldn’t need a 10th title to confirm his stature as the greatest coach in NBA history.

But now that he has that 10th title, I have to wonder if he continues. He smoked a cigar last night to honor Auerbach, but what’s left to accomplish? From this point forward, he will be shadowboxing against his own legacy. If there was ever a moment where Jackson could ride into the sunset content with his accomplishments, this is it.

The crowning of the Lakers begins what could be one of the most tumultuous off-seasons in recent memory.  Revenues are down in the NBA, which means that the salary cap will be lowered,  perhaps precipitously, and the luxury tax threshold will decline as well. It’s possible that as many as 15 teams could find themselves in a position of needing to shed players to get under the salary cap or pay the luxury tax–the price one pays for exceeding the cap—with money they do not have. Earlier this year, the league took a $200 million line of credit to aid 12 teams in financial trouble. It seems likely that some teams will be jockeying for position in the 2010 lottery even before training camp begins.

Almost every team—even the Lakers and Magic—will have key personnel dilemmas to resolve. For instance, Los Angeles may have to choose between re-signing Lamar Odom or re-signing Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown. Brown is important beyond his paltry minutes in the finals as Derek Fisher will be 35 in August and Jordan Farmar, once the heir apparent, has suffered through bouts of inconsistent play. Orlando has a key reserve, center Marcin Gortat, entering free agency. Gortat made only $700K last season. Even in a tight market, some team will offer him a hefty raise. The Magic will have to be proactive and work quickly on his contract. Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu has an opt-out provision in his contract, but in this market, he might be hard pressed to find an employer who has the cap room and inclination to pay him more than the $7 million he would make by staying with Orlando next season.