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Top 10 Coaches in NBA History

photo by Keith Allison, 2007, CC 2.0

Coaching in the NBA not only requires a master’s knowledge of the game and its strategies, it also requires an intimate understanding of player psychology and the human ego. Molding the world’s greatest basketball talent into a cohesive unit is a monumental task, and these ten men have done it better than any others in NBA history.

1) Phil Jackson

Jackson’s 11 NBA championships and 229 postseason wins are more than any coach in history. The “Zen master” used a calm and cerebral approach to teach his players the finer points of the game, including mentor Tex Winter’s famed triangle offense and Jackson’s own aggressive style of pressure defense. Under his tutelage, the Chicago Bulls won six NBA titles, including two three-peats (1991-93 and 96-98).

After leaving Chicago, Jackson took his philosophy west, where he found similar success with the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson won five championships with the Lakers, including another three-peat from 2000-02 and back-to-back titles in 2009-10.

In 20 years, Jackson never had a losing season or failed to make the playoffs, and his .704 regular season winning percentage is the highest in NBA history. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment, however, was managing the egos of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, and getting them to buy into his team-first system.

2) Red Auerbach

Auerbach was the most influential coach in the first two decades of the NBA, and the architect of its first great dynasty. The Hall of Fame coach led the Boston Celtics to nine NBA titles, including a record eight straight from 1959-66.

Strategically, he used the fastbreak to speed up the game and catch opponents off guard in a time when the game was played at a much slower pace. Auerbach also stressed a team concept, where star players were asked to sacrifice personal accolades for team success. Hall of Famers John Havlicek and Bill Walton were prime examples of this, as both players embraced sixth man roles for the Celtics.

In addition to his coaching accomplishments, Auerbach was also a trailblazer as an executive. He was the first to draft an African-American player (Chuck Cooper, 1950), and the first to hire an African-American coach (Bill Russell, 1967).

3) Gregg Popovich

At 25 seasons, Popovich is the longest-tenured coach with one team in NBA history. To stay that long in one place, a coach has to have success. Under Popovich’s watch, the San Antonio Spurs have become one of the most successful franchises in American sports, with 13 division titles, 19 50-win seasons and five NBA championships.

An attention to detail and relationship building have been keys to Popovich’s success in San Antonio. His teams always rank among the most fundamentally sound in the league, and his locker room lacks the drama that has torn apart other great franchises.

Popovich currently ranks third all-time in both regular season and playoff wins. He will likely take over first in regular season wins sometime in 2021-22, and could move into second in playoff wins in the 2020-21 postseason.

4) Pat Riley

Riley is most famous as the coach of the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers teams of the 1980s, who favored a high-scoring, fastbreaking style of play, but he was also the coach of two of the NBA’s best defensive teams, the New York Knicks of the early 1990s and the Miami Heat from the mid 90s to the 2000s.

Riley’s ability to adapt his coaching style to his personnel is surpassed only by his penchant for winning championships. He led the Lakers to seven Western Conference titles and four NBA championships, the Knicks to an Eastern Conference title, and the Heat to an NBA championship.

The Hall of Fame coach ranks second all-time in postseason wins, third in NBA titles and fifth in regular season wins. After retiring from coaching, Riley has won two more NBA championships as a Heat executive.

5) Larry Brown

If you need someone to turn around a struggling franchise, just give Larry Brown a call. Brown led a record eight NBA and two ABA teams to the playoffs in his 31 pro seasons. Among the franchises he resurrected are the Los Angeles Clippers, New Jersey Nets and Denver Nuggets.

Brown was named Coach of the Year three times in the ABA and once in the NBA, the latter coming in 2001 when he led the Philadelphia 76ers to the Eastern Conference championship. The Hall of Famer also led the Detroit Pistons to back-to-back East titles in 2004-05, and an NBA championship in 2004.

Brown remains the only coach to win an NBA title and an NCAA championship, the latter with the University of Kansas Jayhawks in 1988.

6) Jerry Sloan

Like Gregg Popovich, Sloan had a record run with one franchise. In 23 years as Utah Jazz Head Coach, Sloan led his team to 19 playoff appearances, 13 50-win seasons, seven division titles and two Western Conference championships.

Sloan was especially skilled at bringing out the best in players who were undervalued by other teams. Some of his best contributors were second round or undrafted players. This was particularly important for a small-market team like the Jazz.

Sloan ranks fourth all-time in regular season wins and sixth in postseason wins. His 23 seasons with the Jazz are second only to Popovich’s 25 with the Spurs.

7) Alex Hannum

Hannum may not be a household name, but he was one of the most highly-respected and successful coaches of all-time. He won his first NBA title as player-coach for the 1958 St. Louis Hawks, and won a second with the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers, who won a then-record 68 games.

In 1969, he led the Oakland Oaks to the ABA championship. He is one of only two coaches to win championships in both the ABA and NBA.

On offense, Hannum’s teams took a balanced approach, rather than revolving around one superstar. As an example, the NBA’s most dominant scorer, Wilt Chamberlain, led the league in assists under Hannum’s leadership.

8) Lenny Wilkens

No man has impacted the game of basketball more than Wilkens. He is a 3-time member of the Hall of Fame: as a player, a coach, and a member of the 1992 Dream Team staff. But it was as a head coach that he had his biggest impact.

On the sidelines, Wilkens was known for his calm and unassuming demeanor. It was appropriate for a coach whose teams often lacked superstar talent. Despite this lack of star power, Wilkens retired as the NBA’s all-time wins leader with 1,332.

Wilkens had 20 playoff appearances with five different teams in his career, and led the Seattle SuperSonics to back-to-back Western Conference titles in 1978-79 and an NBA championship in 1979.

9) Don Nelson

As the NBA continues to evolve, Nelson’s impact on the game is becoming even more apparent. His use of small-ball lineups and the point forward, while revolutionary at the time, are now common in today’s NBA.

Nelson’s unorthodox style resulted in some of the most entertaining basketball of his era. His high-scoring, wide-open style of play won seven straight division titles for the Milwaukee Bucks from 1980-86, and made the Golden State Warriors one of the most exciting teams of the early 1990s.

After a successful stint with the Dallas Mavericks and a second tour of duty with the Warriors, Nelson retired in 2010 as the NBA’s all-time wins leader with 1,335, surpassing Lenny Wilkens.

10) Erik Spoelstra

Spoelstra’s accomplishments are often overlooked because of his four seasons coaching the big three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. But managing the egos of three future Hall of Famers while maintaining a team atmosphere should be considered an accomplishment in itself.

The Heat won four Eastern Conference titles and two NBA championships with the big three, but it’s what happened afterwards that has cemented Spoelstra’s legacy as one of the game’s best.

In 2020, his Heat defied all odds to win the Eastern Conference for the fifth time under his watch. Whether it’s with the big three or without, Spoelstra’s teams are always among the most well-prepared and adaptable in the league. After 13 seasons, he already ranks in the top 10 in postseason wins and winning percentage.

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