Is Pat Riley a Better Coach Than Phil Jackson?

In many ways, Phil Jackson and Pat Riley are comparable characters. Both presided over some of the most stacked rosters in the NBA, both did it with the Lakers, and both are part of a rare group of coaches to coach multiple teams to an NBA Championships. Despite this, Jackson is often elevated to a level that Pat Riley isn’t, largely due to the fact that Jackson has 11 rings to Riley’s five.

Despite this, Jackson is often elevated to a level that Pat Riley isn’t, largely due to the fact that Jackson has 11 rings to Riley’s five.

However, even if Jackson is the better coach, there is a valid argument that Riley is just as deserving to be on Jackson’s tier, and while the rings are vastly different, the coaches’ journeys are similar.

The case for Phil Jackson

The story of Jackson’s career can be summed up in three parts. The Bulls, the Lakers three-peat, and the ensuing Lakers’ repeat. He’s never shy about the fact that he won 11 rings throughout his tenure He even named his book that very thing. He accomplished something most coaches can’t dream of, a three-peat, and he did so on three separate occasions. 

Not only did he have a knack for leading teams, but he also had a knack for leading teams that were stacked with lots of egos. Michael Jordan is notoriously hot-headed, and tales of his behind the scenes antics have leaked out since the years that he stopped playing.

He also presided over the volatile Kobe and Shaq years, which were notoriously heated. Despite talking publicly about Kobe’s difficult nature, he also came back and coached him to two more titles. 

The case against Phil Jackson

It’s hard to argue with his results, but there are valid criticisms. Jackson had a knack for sliding in and out of the job when he saw things going downhill.

In a league where Gregg Popovich has built a career reinventing himself, detractors could see Jackson’s departures right at the downturn of all three teams’ demises and his marriage to the Triangle Offense as an inability to actually rebuild, although he did return in one case only one year later.

Although not coaching, one might also turn to Jackson’s tenure with the Knicks as a president when comparing it to Riley’s successful run with the Heat.

The case for Pat Riley

Even if Jackson is often placed in a seat above Riley, Riley is inarguably one of the greatest coaches in his own right. He coached three different franchises to the NBA Finals, winning with two of them. He also coached the Lakers through much of their Showtime years, and like Jackson, coached many egos along the way. 

While Jackson may have a knack for leaving at the right time, Riley often showed an ability to rebuild on the fly, turning around multiple teams who appeared to be on the downturn rather than walking away.

During the year of his last championship, he even took over midseason after a couple of years off, and he still managed to win the Finals that year. He has since made a career as a successful front office executive, something Jackson notoriously failed at. 

The case against Pat Riley

Jackson may be criticized for being rather opportunistic, but it doesn’t mean that he didn’t get results. He never coached a team below .500, and Riley cannot say the same.

While Jackson went out on a 57-win season, Riley went out on a 15-win one. He missed the playoffs multiple times, had a tendency of burning bridges, and can be set in his ways. 


Like most non-statistical aspects of sports, there aren’t right answers. If you go accolades, Jackson will get the vote, but Riley did stick through some hard times, built teams up from the ground, and still achieved a Hall of Fame career. We can never know for sure who was better, but the discussion is a fun and valid one to have.