Why Phil Jackson Would Be a Better Coach for the Miami Heat Than Pat Riley

It is All About the Zen

(This blog was originally posted on the Yahoo Contributor Network on June 16th, 2011. As of 7/31/14 YCN has taken down all of its content)

With respect to current Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, after the Heat loss in the NBA Finals, there are calls in the media for Pat Riley to take back the coaching reins. If Spoelstra is going to be replaced, Riley should stay where he is and he should do whatever it takes to bring in the Zen Master.

For years many critics of Phil Jackson pointed to the fact that he coached great players such as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant and used that to minimize his accomplishments as a coach and question how good he was. Pat Riley coached a few good players himself in Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, James Worthy, Dwyane Wade and Patrick Ewing and yet Riley seemed to dodge the, “you were successful because of who you coached charge” to the level extolled upon Jackson.

Upon further review we see that whereas none of Jackson’s players won a title prior to his arrival, (talked about in more detail here), it was Riley’s Lakers who had won a championship before he arrived. Further, Riley lost in the playoffs to lower seeds several years in a row as head coach of the Miami Heat, including losing as a number one seed to a number eight, before he quit just before the 2003-4 season.

If a superstar player had a stretch that bad in the playoffs the media would suggest that it is and should be an indelible part of the player’s legacy. And so it should be with coach Riley.

However, many in the media have always liked Riley more than Jackson. Further, they conveniently leave out certain facts about the 2006 Miami Heat championship team that Riley coached after the Machiavellian maneuver he employed to replace coach Stan Van Gundy.

Riley lovers such ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser and Skip Bayless have repeatedly stated that Riley brought that Heat team over the top and that Stan Van could not have coached the team to a championship. Lets remember that Van Gundy brought the Heat to the conference finals in 2005.

What Bayless and Kornheiser leave out when they say Riley made the difference between the Heat losing in game seven of the conference finals in 05 and winning in 06 are two key facts.

  • One, Shaq was healthier in 06 than he was in 05. Maybe you can dismiss that one as “The Daddy” was already past his prime and it was D. Wade’s team.
  • Two, Bayless fawns over Wade’s game. Understandable, the man has skills and is clutch. Okay, in that 2005 conference finals, Wade got hurt and missed game 6, and played hobbled in game 7, and they still almost won this series!

When comparing Riley to Van Gundy and who could have done what with which team, don’t you think its fair to bring up those little tidbits? With a healthy Wade (and Shaq) the Heat beat Detroit, without a healthy Wade, the Heat do not win in 2006.

Back to the present. The biggest issue facing today’s Heat is the mind of Lebron James. Clearly he has the talent. Since the end of this year’s finals on Sunday there have been fair comparisons of Lebron to baseball’s Alex Rodriguez and what he went through trying to win a World Series with the New York Yankees.

Further, the calls for Lebron to see a sports psychologist, I think is a good idea. Despite what I said about Riley above, I do think he is a great coach, but he requires players with a thick skin who are on the same page and can withstand and thrive under his intensity. Riley is old school and I don’t think he is the man for the psychological mess Lebron appears to be. Further, James already gets fast break, “showtime” style basketball. It is when the game slows down and is in the half court that he needs help.

Contrary to Riley, the Zen Master, with his books, movies, meditations and alternative approach is what might help heal Lebron off the court and Jackson’s triangle, share and move without the ball offense, might be the thing that redeems him on it.

Jackson has led tormented superstars to the promised land three times. Jordan, Shaq, Kobe, and Kobe a second time after Shaq and Jackson left the Lakers and they fell off the map and failed to make the playoffs. It is a road Jackson has traveled and succeeded on over and over again, more so than Riley.

When they win, Pat still gets the credit for being the executive that brought all the talent together and for having the ego strength to bring in Jackson. For all the unrest in Heat land right now, imagine the instant calm that would ensue if it were announced that Phil Jackson was putting his fishing rod down and taking his Zen to South Beach.

Published by Jeff Schubert

Jeff Schubert is the Host/Executive Producer of the show Filmnut that airs on thestream.tv. Each webisode provides an in-depth interview about the making, marketing, or distribution of film, TV or new media…

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