How Phil Jackson’s brilliance traces back to the Rockets

Los Angeles Lakers Phil Jackson (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Los Angeles Lakers Phil Jackson (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images) /

Legendary coach Phil Jackson is viewed as one of the greatest coaches in NBA history, as he won 11 titles as a head coach. But his success traces back to the Houston Rockets.

On the most recent episode of the groundbreaking docu-series The Last Dance, the career ascension of Phil Jackson was chronicled. The 11-time NBA champion had several stops in alternate leagues before finally landing onto Doug Collins‘ staff. But when Jackson finally landed his opportunity to be the Chicago Bulls head coach, he adopted a style that was introduced to him by former Houston Rockets coach Tex Winter.

In 1971, Winter got his first NBA head coaching job in the Space City, after spending 20 years at the collegiate level. Winter remained with the Rockets until 1973, and amassed a 51-78 record during his two seasons in Houston.

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Although Winter’s Rockets stint was largely unsuccessful, it set the stage for one of the greatest contributions in the history of the NBA, from a coaching standpoint. Winter brought the triangle offense to the NBA, which led to all 11 of Phil Jackson’s titles, as he utilized this offensive scheme in both of his stops with the Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Winter wanted a less predictable offensive approach than the one that had been in use by Doug Collins, which revolved around Michael Jordan taking essentially every shot. The triangle was based on reading and attacking opportunities within the defensive coverage.

The goal of this scheme was to create space and maintain ball movement between the post, wing, and corner players on the dominant side of the court. The system is viewed as being most effective when there is roughly 15 to 20 feet in between players, as this allows each player to score, in a multitude of different angles.

It’s worth noting that the Bulls never won a title until they adopted Winter’s approach, and Jackson never won a title without having Winter as his lead assistant. After his passing in 2018, Pippen stated that the Bulls wouldn’t have won a championship if it weren’t for Winter, and Jordan echoed the same.

Winter’s triangle offense was even put to use by the Golden State Warriors, which also isn’t surprising considering how Warriors coach Steve Kerr is a Phil Jackson disciple. Although many think about the great players that Phil Jackson coached, such as Jordan, Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant, the only common denominator on all of those championship teams Jackson had was Winter.

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And Winter got his first NBA start with the Houston Rockets.