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Will Another Coach Ever Win 10 Titles?

Jun 15, 2009 – 8:40 AM
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Tom Ziller

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Phil JacksonRed Auerbach's record of nine NBA championships as a head coach -- a mark the Celtics legend has shared with Lakers boss Phil Jackson since 2002 -- finally fell Sunday night. I'm sure when Auerbach stepped aside to let Bill Russell take his title many thought Red's record would never be caught. That it took three threepeats and then some to get Jackson over the hump tells you how much fate plays a role here.

Will we ever see another coach surpass Jackson's new record (assuming Jackson doesn't add on in the coming years)? It seems really unlikely, given modern circumstances.

Jackson is an amazing specimen in the coaching world, in that he has endeared uncommon loyalty from not just his players, but from his stars. Following Doug Collins in Chicago, a young coach Michael Jordan adored, Jackson was able to straddle the line between the taskmaster disciplinarian his history as a tough-nosed NBA defensive roleplayer had ordained, and hands-off players' coach, a style employed (to a degree) by Jackson mentor Red Holzman. On those halycon Bulls teams, capturing Jordan's attention was the obvious key. Jackson succeeded, and he ended up with six titles.

Those six titles obviously paved the way for the next four. Jackson had instant success in Los Angeles, winning the title during the first three seasons of his tenure. After that threepeat, no team would have fired Jackson for losing in the Western Conference Finals in 2003 and the NBA Finals in 2004. As it is, Jackson quit when Shaquille O'Neal was traded. When he returned a year later, he was met with a stunted talent level -- Lamar Odom was now the No. 2, and that's not good enough, as the 45-37 record came to prove.

But without those first six titles in Chicago, how long would Jackson have lasted in the return to L.A.? The Lakers regressed in 2007, winning just 42 games and sparking Kobe Bryant's summer of outrage. Is it fair to say most coaches would have at least visited the hot seat during this summer, even with the three rings in town?

And that's why no coach will win 10 rings in today's NBA: we're too impatient for all of that.

Avery Johnson got run out of town two years after taking his team to the Finals as a (basically) rookie head coach. Stan Van Gundy was rumored to be on the chopping block weeks ago ... before taking his team to the Finals. Mike Brown had heat of unknown veracity despite 66 wins. The list goes on. Winning isn't the ultimate resumé builder any more. You have to win at critical points in your career, you have to please the resident superstar and the current ownership, and you have to be exceedingly lucky.

Phil JacksonAmong current head coaches, only Gregg Popovich has multiple titles and a completely safe job. Pop has four rings with San Antonio, and he turned 60 years old this season. (Jackson turns 64 in September.) Could Popovich reach 10? He'd need six more rings ... at a time when his dynasty is finally falling apart. Tim Duncan is 32, Manu Ginobili 31. Tony Parker is young and the Spurs could rebuild around him while Duncan continues to age gracefully. But how long can Popovich last before his other interests become more of a priority? Popovich has coached 12 full seasons to get his four rings -- can he actually last into his late 70s or early 80s if 10 is on the line? Probably not.

The only other current head coaches with so many as one championship are Larry Brown (age 68) and Doc Rivers (age 48). The retired Pat Riley (age 64) has five rings -- could he make a comeback with a new dynasty? Perhaps, but unlikely. Rivers could run off a threepeat if Danny Ainge reloads his team on the fly. No one believes Nate McMillan has reached his peak as a coach as of yet -- only 44 years old with a talented roster, he could be a threat if he lasts long enough. (Van Gundy could be placed in a similar boat, though he turns 50 in a few months. SVG also would seem to have a greater likelihood of burning out early.)

But this is such a stretch -- the two current guys you'd pin as having the greatest chance to catch Jackson are a retired 64-year-old and a fellow who has never taken his team to even the conference finals. Which is to say Jackson's record is safe for a while. A long, long while.

(Mike Brown omitted from discussion for a reason.)
Filed under: Sports

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