LOS ANGELES -- The Phil Jackson coaching tree isn’t exactly one of those majestic Norway spruces you see in Rockefeller Center every December. It’s more like the sapling in "A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
It’s a mystery that in sports, where imitation is usually the sincerest form of imitation, that the most accomplished coach in the NBA’s history hasn’t spawned a new flock of mentees around the league. Instead, the number of Phil Jackson descendants currently holding a head coaching job is one. Solamente uno. Brian Shaw of the Denver Nuggets.
From an offense that’s out of favor to a style that’s just ... out there, there are just too many elements to Jackson that did not inspire owners around the league to raid his staffs. Shaw, who played on three of Jackson’s championship teams and was alongside him as an assistant coach for two others in Los Angeles, interviewed with 12 different teams before he landed the Nuggets job.
“As I was interviewing for jobs, all the way through, I would call [Jackson] up and say that I felt he was always going to be my biggest asset in terms of being able to be affiliated and associated with him and mention his name and what we did to achieve the success that we had,” Shaw said. “And [he] jokingly said it actually was the biggest liability for me.”
It even hurt him in Los Angeles, where the Lakers purged pretty much everyone associated with Jackson after he left in 2011. (Girlfriend Jeanie Buss stayed, however. It helped that she was a team president.)
Jackson’s only other footholds are with assistant coaches Jim Cleamons on the Milwaukee Bucks and Kurt Rambis on the Los Angeles Lakers. Cleamons and Rambis also had head coaching turns in the league after working with Jackson. Cleamons was with the Dallas Mavericks and Rambis with the Minnesota Timberwolves; neither lasted past their second seasons and both wound up back on the bench next to Jackson.
“His coaches that have gone on to coach, from Jim Cleamons and Kurt Rambis, people say, ‘They didn’t have any success,'" Shaw said. “Well, it’s tough to teach the triangle when Phil had all of the coaches and players that played in the system.
“Even when Kurt went to Minnesota, the assistant coaches that he had didn’t have any experience in the triangle to teach it or answer any questions about it.”
Shaw thinks the offense is too complicated to ask the head coach to teach it by himself, so without players who know it or a staff to help with the instructions he hasn’t bothered to fully install it in Denver. He runs elements of the triangle, just as he worked to incorporate pieces into the offense of the Indiana Pacers when he was an assistant coach there. He wanted to have some structure, not be as dependent on transition baskets as previous Denver teams have been because he doesn’t believe that style will lead to success in the playoffs. (The eight first-round exits in nine playoff appearances under predecessor George Karl back up that assertion).
“I’m running more generic versions of offense that every team in the league runs, because I don’t have personnel with me or staff with me that has experience with running the triangle,” Shaw said.
One NBA scout described Denver’s offense as “Very limited. Basic.”
True triangle mavens are a lost breed from another era, like the Jedi knights in the original “Star Wars.” One problem is that Jackson himself was the apprentice even when he was the head coach. The triangle offense was the creation of Jackson’s elder and coaching mentor, Tex Winter (who dubbed it the triple-post offense). Their presence is felt more in Springfield, Mass., than NBA arenas these days. What does it say when there are more triangle offense disciples in the Hall of Fame than current practitioners in the NBA?
Another issue that Kobe Bryant brought up is that it’s not just the system, it’s the style ... the way of life, even.
“Phil’s philosophies are different, to say the least, in terms of how he teaches the game and how he coaches the game,” Bryant said. “There’s some X’s and O’s to it, obviously. But he teaches players, he teaches guys how to play. He teaches from a place of Zen, he teaches from a place of emotional balance. And it’s hard to duplicate that. It’s hard to replicate that. It has to be something that’s a part of you. His philosophies and beliefs, the meditation and all that, it’s very, very hard to duplicate that.
“The system is predicated on the spirituality of the game. In terms of being in the moment and reacting to situations, balance. How [Jackson] teaches the system comes directly from his beliefs and his philosophies spiritually. That’s why you see the teams that go out there and try to run it in the past, they don’t have the same level of success.”
Shaw admitted he doesn’t even bother to try some of Jackson’s tricks, such as burning sage in the locker room to cleanse it of bad vibes during a losing streak.
“It wouldn’t go over if I tried to do something like that,” Shaw said.
That’s because it wouldn’t be a reflection of who he is. Shaw is from Oakland in the 1970s and '80s, not a kid from the prairies who lived in Greenwich Village in the '60s.
Yes, part of the tree’s paucity is that Jackson was so unique that people realize he’s impossible to duplicate.
Part of it is because of Jackson’s aloof nature. Jackson didn’t make many friends at league headquarters because he rarely acquiesced to the NBA’s demands/requests.
He wasn’t big on schmoozing. (One time he blew off a respectful Mike Krzyzewski, the modern college equivalent of Jackson, and left Coach K fuming.) You didn’t see him chatting down by the other bench before or after games. He purposefully mispronounced other coaches' names.
“Phil stayed purposefully disconnected from people around the league,” Shaw said. “That was his thing: Keep everybody at bay, because he wanted to have an edge. He wasn’t part of any coach’s clique or anything like that. There’s other coaches around the league that anything they touch turns to gold. If they anoint this guy he’s going to be coach or a GM.”
Sure seems that way for Gregg Popovich. The San Antonio Spurs’ web spreads from coast to coast, with coaches Brett Brown (Philadelphia) Mike Brown (Cleveland), Jacque Vaughn (Orlando), Mike Budenholzer (Atlanta), Monty Williams (New Orleans) and Doc Rivers (Los Angeles Clippers), along with front office executives Danny Ferry (Atlanta), Sam Presti (Oklahoma City), Dell Demps (New Orleans), Kevin Pritchard (Indiana) and Rob Hennigan (Orlando).
One reason for the proliferation of Pop people was told to me when I examined the phenomenon last year: there’s a belief that the Popovich way can work in small markets with smaller budgets, and not just in L.A. or Chicago with Kobe, Shaq or Michael Jordan. Of course, we have yet to see any of the Spurs’ spawns achieve San Antonio’s success. It might be too much to ask of the Spurs themselves once Tim Duncan is gone.
That hasn’t stopped franchise after franchise from trying to get themselves a piece of what Pop’s done in San Antonio. Meanwhile, Shaw goes at it alone, the only head coach who’s an associate of the best that ever did it.
“I feel blessed and fortunate to have coached and been around Phil and learned everything that I learned under him,” Shaw said. “I would never deny what it’s done for me. I’m proud to be from his coaching tree, even if I’m the trunk, the branches the leaves and everything all by myself.”