It’s difficult to pinpoint the influence of an NBA coach on their team’s success without talking of winning percentage and titles. Even with that quantitative data, there’s no way to award one coach more props for leading his team to a title than another. Doing so is what Bill Russell would say was like “comparing ghosts.”
Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich are the two best coaches of the millennium. They’re also two of the greatest to ever prowl the sidelines during an NBA game, regardless of the generation. We gave you the top 10 players of this century, but these two have combined to win nine of the last 13 titles from their perch on the sidelines, and that’s before we take into account Jackson’s six titles with the G.O.A.T. Currently, Jackson is living in Wyoming while Popovich tries to lead the Spurs to their fifth title. Rather than spend time arguing the merits of a pair of guys that coached Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Kobe Bryant during their Hall of Fame careers, we thought we’d attempt to differentiate them using different metrics altogether.
So let’s compare Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich in seven separate contexts and we’ll see if we can come up with a decidedly unscientific and fictional answer to the question of who you would rather take as your NBA coach. This method is about the same as doing so under the pretense of objectivity.
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1. SIDELINE INTERVIEWS
Both men are a thorn in the side of Ric Bucher, Craig Sager, Lisa Salters, or anyone unlucky enough to thrust a microphone in their face in the middle of the action. The NBA’s policy of interviewing coaches on the sidelines before the start of the second and fourth quarters always seemed peculiar, especially when you consider the prickly nature of coaching itself, but these two made an art out of showing their contempt for the practice and their thinly-veiled – or outright overt – antipathy to the questions has reached an apogee as the NBA has stuck to the rule.
Fans catching a San Antonio game on television are always treated to a curt reply from Popovich that leaves the interviewer busy scrambling to come up with another question while a fan uselessly tries to discern whether Popovich told us anything. Answering the question, for Popovich, is as simple as “We need to play better defense,” it’s pithiness a tacit acknowledgement to the interviewer that he’d rather be anywhere but answering these questions.
Jackson, in particular, takes special delight in antagonizing the men and women assigned to ask the trivial questions he used to hear as the Lakers’ head coach. Supercilious answers were the norm when Jackson was with the purple and gold, but it’s Jackson’s practiced Zen that can make him appear aloof and judgmental of even the simplest of questions. Popovich might give an exasperated sigh before intoning some pithy statement about working harder, but the Zen Master puts on a devious smile, and just oozes irony with every answer. It’s almost as if he’s impishly evoking Camus’ absurdist existentialism to show us all how ridiculous the sideline interview really is. It’s a wonder the sideline reporters even bother with either of these gentleman when they’re coaching their teams.
Jackson’s just making fun of the reporters and sideline reports. They’re both a delight for the hoops junkies that realize how informationally devoid the whole idea of sideline reporting is, but Jackson took the ordeal and turned it on it’s head, so it’s mildly interesting, if only to see how uncomfortable Jackson makes his inquisitor.
Edge: Jackson, but only slightly.
2. WILDIN’ OUT
Gregg Popovich is many things, but a Jim Morrison-backing bandmate from Southern Cali, is not one of them. The only Lizard King Pop knows about is probably an emcee alias of Stephen Jackson. Pop’s pallor has improved since his yearly winter in San Antonio commenced more than a decade ago, but sand still gets into all his crevices and he’s not really a fan of hash as much as he’s a fan of pounding the glass, so drugs are a big no-no.
Conversely, Phil Jackson once corrected Rick Carlisle by saying, “you don’t smoke peyote.” Jax, an abashed experimenter with ganja and LSD, has been kicking it in Wyoming since he retired from the Lakers after being eliminated from the 2011 Playoffs, and while Wyoming is excellent for fish wrangling and avoiding the prying eyes of paparazzi, it’s also pretty square. So we’d think Jackson could do for a little more flamboyant R & R.
Edge: Jackson, by a landslide.
3. DRAWING UP A LAST-MINUTE PLAY
Both men are winners, but Pop is the only one whose success is largely tied to his penultimate understanding of the Xs and Os from Larry Brown’s wet dreams. Sure, Jackson and Tex Winter must give a crash course on the Triangle every time they ride into town, but Jackson’s true brilliance lies more with his interpersonal skills than it does with the way he can design a backdoor screen flare for a wide-open three. Plus, with Kobe, Shaq, Pippen and MJ, Jackson usually had a player capable of answering the call when the game was on the line. Then again, there was that one time Toni Kukoc took over Scottie’s place, so he can design plays for complementary players, too.
While it’s true that Duncan, Manu and Tony have hit some game-winners in their own right, Popovich’s mastery of the NBA offensive and defensive minutiae means everyone is a threat to hit a late-game dagger. He’s capable of rankling even the most defensive-minded opponents because his teams are all so well-balanced. There’s no way to cheat off an opposing Spurs player. When it comes down to it, Popovich is the one you want with the black pen and dry erase board. Jackson is who you want recommending books to his players. Different approaches, but with the same results.
Edge: Popovich, but only slightly
4) CHOOSING A RESTAURANT
He’s a freakin’ sommelier, so Popovich wins this even as I’m sure Jackson knows where to get some really juicy venison in Wyoming. Choosing a restaurant doesn’t only boil down to which years have the best vintage. When you’re well-versed in the wine choices, you’re generally an expert of the palette – which wines go with which courses is the natural extension of all that.
We’re sure Jackson can be a hoot to eat with, but he never had a problem remaining calm (he is the Zen Master). For Popovich, food and the wine that comes with it, might be one of his only ways to just relax. Plus, he knows what’s nasty.