At first glance, it is hard to look at anyone but the star players of the NBA as responsible for success. Yet it is always, if not very often, the coaches whose impact is the true genius behind championships and dynasties. Here’s a look at the greatest coaches to have ever graced the NBA courts, and left the league with finger prints smeared on the game’s rich history.
-Larry Brown – Accumulated 1,500 victories while coaching in the NBA, ABA and NCAA, and one of a few coaches to have won titles in the NBA and NCAA. Brown was a perfectionist, and always seemed to improve teams he coached.
-John Kundla – The father of the NBA’s first dynasty, Kundla coached the Minneapolis Lakers to five titles in six seasons and gained an impressive 0.679 winning percentage.
-Jerry Sloan – The greatest coach to have never won a title, Sloan was in Utah for 23 seasons where he made 20 playoff appearances and won an impressive 1,221 games during his career.
-Red Holzman – Holzman coached the Knicks during the 70s, where he won the franchise’s only two titles in 1970 and 1973. During that time, he revolutionised the idea of team basketball and was a big influence on Phil Jackson’s coaching career.
5) Chuck Daly – 2x NBA Champion (1989-1990), NBA All-Star game head coach (1990)
Daly’s heyday came during his tenure with the Pistons from 1983-1992 where he won two titles and created the infamous ‘Bad Boy Pistons’ team, led by guard Isiah Thomas.
What’s important to understand about Daly is how he managed to get two titles out of a team that featured Dennis Rodman, Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn, some of the biggest personalities in the game at the time, who together seemed destined for chaos on the court.
The Pistons quickly became the most hated team in the league, and many believed the spiralling emotions of teammates as well as an unknown over whether they could actually win, kept them in the backseat of people’s minds for much of the late 80s. This however is where the skill of Daly as a coach showed through, as his exceptional people skills and leadership were able to isolate any negativity created within the team and turn that energy into chemistry. Daly kept them in check for five straight trips to the Conference finals.
Detroit went into the ’88 finals as underdogs but in every right believed they had a shot at winning the series. A game seven dominated by James Worthy, and questionable refereeing filtered throughout meant Detroit’s maiden title would have to wait. Funnily enough that wait was only one year, and sweeping the Lakers in ‘89 showed the legitimacy of the team. Daly finished with 11 of his 13 teams making the playoffs, and an overall record of 638-437.
His next big job was with the 1992 USA Olympic ‘Dream Team’, who had the most polarizing roster of superstars in all of sport, ever. He also had stints with the New Jersey Nets and Orlando Magic, but nothing notable came of such jobs.
4) Pat Riley – 5x NBA Champion (1982, 1985, 1987-1988, 2006), 3x NBA Coach of the Year (1990, 1993, 1997), 9x NBA All-Star game head coach (1982, 1983, 1985-1990, 1993)
Pat Riley was an assistant under Paul Westhead for the Lakers before being handed the head coaching role, after Westhead was fired due to disagreements with the team, particularly with Magic Johnson.
Not many thought that Riley had the skill to continue Westhead’ success, but with his stylish suits, slick hair and attractive offensive style, he was able to reform the 80’s Lakers into one of the best teams of all time.
The Lakers won the championship in Riley’s first year and would win three more in 1985, 1987 and 1988. Riley had a unique way of getting the best out of his players, with his CBE system used to drive the players to improve on their own numbers, and even getting the team to turn on him in order to develop their chemistry. The most memorable part of Riley’s success with the Lakers were their 1985 and ’87 finals wins over the Celtics, the first time in franchise history they had beaten their bitter rivals in the title decider.
Overall Riley won 73.3 per cent of his games as coach of the Lakers, as well as a coach of the year award in 1990.
After his Laker days, Riley took over the New York Knicks in 1991, looking to implement his fast-paced showtime style with All-Star Patrick Ewing, along with Charles Oakley and John Starks on the roster. However he was unsuccessful in breaking an 18 year championship drought for the franchise, only managing a finals appearance and 51 or more wins in all four years.
Riley then took over the Miami Heat in 1995 as head coach and president. After stepping down from the coaching role in 2003, he reappointed himself in 2005 and led the Heat to their first title in 2006, giving him five overall in seven tries as a coach.
3) Red Auerbach – 9x NBA Champion (1957, 1959-1966), NBA Coach of the Year (1965), 11x All-Star game coach (1957-1967)
The idea of a dynasty at the time of Red Auerbach’s arrival was held by John Kundla, who had made the George Mikan Lakers of Minneapolis a formidable opponent. However, Auerbach took this to a new level.
Auerbach took over as head coach of the Celtics in 1950, with the Boston franchise in dire need of a turnaround. His first big move came by drafting Chuck Cooper, the first African-American professional basketball player and effectively breaking the racial barrier in the sport, as well as picking up Bob Cousy who refused to report to the team that drafted him. Auerbach had an immediate impact with his fast-paced style, getting the Celtics to the playoffs for six straight seasons.
The start of the 1956-57 season saw Auerbach pull off a trade that would see the Celtics draft Bill Russell, and manage to pick up K.C. Jones and Tom Heinsohn as well. They joined Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, who all together helped emphasise Auerbach’s mentality of defence first, offence second, and forcing the opposition to take ill-advised outside shots. The style made them a formidable opponent, and the most dominant team of that era.
The Celtics would win their first title under Red Auerbach that year, and then eight more in the next nine years, becoming the most dominant team in American sports history. The NBA at the time was nowhere near as competitive as it is today, but it was hard not to stand in awe of what Auerbach and the Celtics were achieving. Bill Russell, who became the greatest of all time at that stage, used his leadership skills to become a player-coach for the Celtics and taking over from Auerbach, winning the 1968 and 1969 finals.
Auerbach’s success continued into the front office of the Celtics, as he became the General Manger of the team and was responsible for a lot of their success during the 80s during the tenure of Larry Bird.
2) Phil Jackson – 11x NBA Champion (1991-1993, 1996-1998, 2000-2002, 2009-2010), NBA Coach of the Year (1996), 4x NBA All-Star game head coach (1992, 1996, 2000, 2009)
Phil Jackson’s succeses sit above any other coach in NBA history. He may have damaged his reputation with his recent stint as president of the New York Knicks, but that can’t fully overshadow what he achieved as a coach.
It all started in 1989 when Doug Collins was let go as the coach of the Bulls, failing to take the Bulls far in the post season. Jackson, who was an assistant under Collins, was promoted to the head coaching role, and implemented the triangle offence into the Bulls system. It worked wonders to say the least, and the Bulls in their second season under Jackson won 61 games and took down an aging Showtime Lakers team to win the franchise’s first title.
That was the birth of a three-peat, winning 75.2 per cent of their games over the next three years and Michael Jordan cementing his status as one of the greatest ever. When Jordan departed in 1993, and returned at the back end of the 1994-95 season, Jackson still coached the Bulls to 55-27 and 47-35 record season, before winning three more titles between 1996 and 1998, highlighted by a record-setting 72-10 season in ’96.
From there Jackson went on to coach the Lakers in 1999, with the recent additions of Shaquille O’Neal through free agency and Kobe Bryant through the draft forming a promising near-future. That trio of stars would turn the Lakers around into a 67 win team in 2000, winning three more titles in succession for the coveted franchise from 2000 to 2002. Jackson departed the Lakers in 2004 along with Shaquille O’Neal due to Shaq’s drama with Kobe, but returned a year later and won his final two titles in 2009 and 2010, bringing the rings total to 11.
Overall the numbers say it all, 70.4 game winning percentage with 11 championships, and the privilege to not only coach but develop three of the greatest players ever is special.
1) Gregg Popovich – 5x NBA Champion (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014), 3x NBA Coach of the Year (2003, 2012, 2014), 4x NBA All-Star game head coach (2005, 2011, 2013, 2016)
One and two on this list are interchangible to a degree. Jackson may very well have the numbers, though his player relations ability is suspect given how tarnished his image has become from his role with the Knicks. As well as that, his coaching style wasn’t able to transcend time and remain effective with the Knicks in 2016-17, effectively making him obsolete now.
Both put Gregg Popovich ahead of Jackson as he has been able to remain successful as the game has changed, as well as being well-regarded by almsot everyone involved in the NBA.
Pop was the general manager of the Spurs in 1996 when he appointed himself as their new head coach, firing Bob Hill early on in the season. After a rough year with a 20-62 record, he drafted Tim Duncan heading into his first full season of coaching. Veteran David Robinson returned from injury, and his combination with Duncan proved formidable as the Spurs went 56-26, winning the franchise’s first title a year later.
Since, Pop has won another four championships, along with three coach of the year awards and four All-Star game head coaching honours. Most importantly, his Spurs went 18 straight seasons with 50+ wins, during the Western Conference’s most competitive era, and all with a continually changing roster with only four to five pieces remaining constant. Such a streak came to an end recently when the Spurs went 47-35 in the 2017-18 season, which ended up being a tumultuous one thanks to Kawhi Leonard.
Something other than basketball skill that has been a pillar in the Spurs success is the relationship between everyone in the organisation, to which Pop has been a curator of with his love for food and wine. The big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili have always spoken highly of him and the one most notably who didn’t, Kawhi Leonard, was ridiculed by his teammates for his general behaviour before being traded. Pop’s relationship with players outside the Spurs franchise has been strong as well, with the likes of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James both speaking highly of the coach.
If you played, who would you rather have as your coach? Pop. The perfect mixture of success and personality is the main draw card for me, and should be for anyone.
Sports writer based in Auckland, New Zealand. I have a strong passion for a range of codes, including the NBA, NFL, Soccer, Rugby and more.