Bill Simmons said in The Book of Basketball that NBA coaches were overrated.
“[T]here’s no concrete evidence that they make a genuine, consistent difference except for a small handful of gifted leaders and forward thinkers…unless you’re teaming an elite coach with a quality roster, coaches don’t really matter.“
GoodHoops doesn’t disagree, but this statement is a little too simplified for us.
NBA coaches are largely functional, yes, but they do matter. It’s no surprise the best teams — the champions, the dynasties, the super-teams — work as a result of a strong, tactical coach and a great, manageable group of players.
This was true in the 1960s with the Celtics and their one-coach brigade. It was true with Showtime and the Bad Boys in the 1980s. Same with the Triangulated Bulls in the ’90s and the Triangulated Lakers of the new millennium. Again, the same with the culture-first Heat, Spurs and Warriors teams of the present day.
Those coaches know what they’re doing. Even as stars have driven the NBA bus, the key to success is coaching that doesn’t zap the life out of its best players. While not all of these 20 coaches listed below did it consistently (who can?), most did it at a high level for a respectable, persistent length of time. We credit and honor them below (part 1 available here):
10. Jerry Sloan
TEAMS: Chicago Bulls (1979-82); Utah Jazz (1988-2011)
RECORD: 1,221-803 (.603)
ACHIEVEMENTS: 1997 and 1998 NBA Finalist
Sloan’s 23-year reign on the Wasatch Front is considered one of the most meaningful gigs in NBA history. Under the steely eyes of the old coach, Utah went from NBA punchline to NBA principality, finishing second-best to Michael Jordan’s mighty Bulls teams in 1997 and ’98.
Oh, and this iconic playcall, run to perfection despite its Lombardi-esque simplicity:
Thanks to Stockton, Malone and Sloan, the NBA grew to fear the Utah Jazz as the franchise advanced to heights since untouched.
9. Don Nelson
TEAMS: Milwaukee Bucks (1976-87); Golden State Warriors (1988-95); New York Knicks (1995-96); Dallas Mavericks (1997-2005); Golden State Warriors (2006-10)
RECORD: 1,335-1,063 (.557)
ACHIEVEMENTS: Three-time Coach of the Year; Top 10 Coaches in History
I can already hear the outrage. Why the hell is Don Nelson up this high?!? Nelson never sniffed an NBA title as a head coach, though he won five as a reliable sixth man for the Auerbachian Celtics teams of the ’60s.
His tenures with the Bucks, Warriors, Knicks and Mavericks ended in burnouts, mainly based on his growing desire to take it easy. But easygoing was Nelson’s middle name, as his quirky style of ball made a path for much of today’s NBA game.
Look at Golden State’s ultimate destruction of Basketball As We Know It.
Spacing? His idea. Threes for days? His idea. Point forwards? His idea. The difference was he never won a title coaching this way.
Along with Mike D’Antoni, Nelson is one of the men who dropped offensive explosions on the game of giants. Six-foot-eleven Kevin Durant is a 3-point shooter because of Nellie-Ball. Steph Curry is a jutty little beetle who can pull up fearlessly because of Nelson. Steve Nash was employed thanks to Nelson. Stephen Jackson played high as hell under Big Nelly (and he approved).
Now, Nellie Ball is the standard for winning NBA teams. Who knew? Not even Nelson could.
8. Dr. Jack Ramsay
TEAMS: Philadelphia 76ers (1968-72); Buffalo Braves (1972-76); Portland Trail Blazers (1976-86); Indiana Pacers (1986-88)
RECORD: 864-783 (.525)
ACHIEVEMENTS: 1977 NBA champion; Top 10 Coaches in League History
When you look at Dr. Jack’s raw numbers – a decade at then-minor power St. Joe’s; two 50-win seasons; one NBA title – it may be difficult to surmise why we’re so high on him.
Ramsay was highly respected for his insights into the game. His management of top players such as Portland’s Bill Walton and Buffalo’s Bob McAdoo was to be reckoned; those players’ success with Ramsay was not matched in subsequent stops.
Ramsay turned the expansion Portlanders around and won the 1977 title with the Blazers, cementing God status in Rip City.
After a decade of middling after losing Walton to crippling injuries, Ramsay kicked around with the Pacers (coaching a young Reggie Miller) before hanging up the whistle in 1988.
He might be better known as a television announcer, notably for the Heat in the 1990s and for ESPN until his death in 2014.
7. Red Holzman
TEAMS: Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks (1953-57); New York Knicks (1967-77; 1978-82)
RECORD: 696-604 (.535)
ACHIEVEMENTS: Two-time NBA champion (1970, 1973); 1970 NBA Coach of the Year; Top 10 Coaches in NBA History
Red Holzman needs no real introduction: this is the man who carried the Knicks to prominence in the 1970s, their greatest era yet.
A Brooklyn boy, Holzman had a notable NBL/NBA career in the 1940s and ’50s before moving onto the bench as a scout in 1957. A decade scouting for the Knicks turned into a head-coaching gig, which yielded two NBA titles and the most passionate era of prominent New York City basketball. Simply put, Red put the Knicks on the map.
Holzman’s teams in the 70s took the mantle from Red Auerbach — another New Yorker — and Auerbach’s Celtics. They briefly clashed in the mid-1970s, but ultimately the Knicks would snap under pressure. The 1970 team was the subject of a glimmering documentary; the 1973 team just got it done. Lakers-Knicks clashes of the era featured Holzman at the helm.
His stars were impeccably managed: Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Jerry Lucas, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, and even future coaching star Phil Jackson.
Even today, Holzman remains the greatest Knicks coach. Who else went to his grave providing basketball’s Mecca with two championships? GOAT.
6. Chuck Daly
TEAMS: Cleveland Cavaliers (1981-82); Detroit Pistons (1983-92); New Jersey Nets (1992-94); Orlando Magic (1997-99)
RECORD: 638-437 (.593)
ACHIEVEMENTS: Two NBA championships (1989, 1990); Olympic gold medal (1992); Top 10 Coaches in NBA History
Chuck Daly is best remembered as the patriarch of the Bad Boys, the late-80s-to-early-90s Detroit Pistons teams known for being the biggest (and tallest!) bullies in America. A coach by trade, Daly’s nine seasons in the Motor City still possess the Pistons’ greatest memories, including back-to-back championships in 1989 and ’90.
However, there’s more to the Daly Way than his time in Detroit. A born coach, he was active in the profession from 1955 (at Punxsutawney (Pa.) High School) until 1999 (with the Orlando Magic). In between, he assistant-coached at Duke; head-coached at Boston College and Penn; assistant-coached for the Philadelphia 76ers; and head-coached in the NBA with Detroit, Orlando and the New Jersey Nets.
His next great pursuit, in between gigs in Detroit and New Jersey, was coaching the Dream Team, the greatest assemblage of professional athletes on one team in history. The newly professionalized U.S. national basketball team blitzed through the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992, emphatically winning gold while simultaneously exposing the world to the sport at its highest level.
Despite his blue-collar Pennsylvania roots, Daly was best known as a salesman and a manager of egos, from the hot-headed Bad Boys to the galaxy of megastars on Team USA. As he once put it: “I’ve had surgery on my right knee. It comes from bending a lot.” Daly passed away in 2009.
5. Larry Brown
TEAMS: ABA Carolina Cougars (1972-74); Denver Nuggets (1974-79); New Jersey Nets (1981-83); San Antonio Spurs (1988-92); Los Angeles Clippers (1992-93); Indiana Pacers (1993-97); Philadelphia 76ers (1997-2003); Detroit Pistons (2003-05); New York Knicks (2005-06); Charlotte Bobcats (2008-10)
RECORD: 1,327-1,011 (.568)
ACHIEVEMENTS: 2004 NBA Champion; 2004 Olympic bronze medalist; 2011 Coach of the Year; 1973, 1975 and 1976 ABA Coach of the Year
From the standpoint of loyalty, Larry Brown really only “belongs” to two groups: the University of North Carolina — his alma mater — and Allen Iverson.
Brown is a notorious carpetbagger, a man who rents (not buys) and lives out of his suitcase. Peripatetic to his core, he’s walked out of pro jobs because of player burnout – while leaving the teams in better shape than before – and run from all three of his college gigs because of NCAA violations. (That alone is a GoodHoops post for a later date.)
He is the only man to claim an NCAA championship and an NBA title as a head coach. At the same time, he’s left little in terms of bridges built, simultaneously earning the loyalty of his players and the ire of his management.
Brown has a total of 13 head coaching jobs since 1972 (the ABA’s Carolina Cougars), ranging from elite (UCLA, Kansas) to reclamation projects (SMU). His biggest accomplishments include winning a title at Kansas (1988); winning a title with the Detroit Pistons (2004); reviving UCLA in the late 70s; re-invigorating SMU athletics, period; saving the Los Angeles Clippers; and building a lifelong father-ship with mercurial NBA superstar Allen Iverson while on the 76ers.
Named a Hall of Famer in 2002, it is without qualification that Brown is one of coaching’s all-time greats. However, it is telling that Brown’s contributions to Kansas and the Pistons are largely written off, due to the method of departure he used. Also, Brown was Detroit’s coach during the infamous Malice in the Palace brawl in November 2004; months prior, he led the most unlikable Team USA Olympic side in recent memory to losses against Puerto Rico and Argentina. (They settled for a disappointing bronze, leaving a nation apoplectic.)
4. Pat Riley
TEAMS: Los Angeles Lakers (1981-90); New York Knicks (1991-95); Miami Heat (1995-2003, 2005-08)
RECORD: 1,210-694 (.636)
ACHIEVEMENTS: Five NBA championships (1982, 1985, 1987, 1988, 2006); three-time NBA Coach of the Year (1990, 1993, 1997); Top 10 Coaches in NBA History; Hall of Fame Class of 2008
More than a basketball coach, Pat Riley has evolved into an NBA super-figure, a Hall of Famer and NBA champion capable of charming free agents, coaching winning teams and finding the right coaches to guide his teams. To say Riley is one of the greatest coaches ever is a no-brainer; to associate Riley with elite executive-cum-coaches such as Gregg Popovich and Red Auerbach is absolute.
The Riley story as a coach is lengthy with a somehow unspectacular beginning: a nondescript role player with the Lakers teams of the ’70s, Riley had settled into his TV/radio role with L.A. before Jerry Buss called upon him to lead the team as head coach in 1981. Assuaging a then-catastrophic situation in which Magic Johnson got the previous coach (Paul Westhead) fired, the Lakers won the title in 1982 and Riley became the permanent coach thereon.
Four Showtime Lakers titles later, Riley took his show on the road, winning with the Knicks using maiming and assorted crimes. Riley then became Mr. Miami Heat in 1995, turning an expansion team into the most successful post-’70s franchise in American sports: presiding over three titles (coaching one of them), establishing a winning culture and essentially turning the Heat into the Lakers of the Southeast.
As a coach, Riley has endured three losing seasons (all with transitioning Heat teams in the 2000s). As an executive, Riley used the power of Miami to usher in the free agent Superteam era, first with LeBron James for four seasons (and two titles). He also watched over the Shaq-to-Miami period, earning a championship as the coach in 2006.
Riley can claim a role in coaching or managing a who’s who of NBA superstars (for a man who never worked with USA Basketball in the professional era): Magic Johnson; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; James Worthy; Patrick Ewing; Alonzo Mourning; Dwyane Wade; Shaquille O’Neal; LeBron James; and Chris Bosh.
His second sphere of influence, as a businessman, created the term “three-peat” (a trademark) and a lucrative speaking career, connected to his success with the Lakers in the ’80s.
Unquestionably, Riley is among the sport’s giant figures, whose relevance cuts four decades deep.
3. Gregg Popovich
TEAMS: San Antonio Spurs (1996-present)
RECORD: 1,150-506 (.694)
ACHIEVEMENTS: Five NBA championships (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014); three-time NBA Coach of the Year (2003, 2012, 2014)
The longest-tenured coach in U.S. pro sports, Gregg Popovich is the patriarch of a franchise he has had a hand in since the late 1980s. With five championships, three superstars and a treasure-trove of memories for Spurs fans, Popovich single-handedly built the Spurs into the pride of San Antonio, as well as the top basketball brand in a football state.
With Air Force-bred discipline, a sharp wit, a pinpoint approach to player (and coach) development and an outspoken take on issues bigger than hoops, Popovich has found a way to stay relevant as the NBA evolved from the sport of 87-86 to the sport of 120-118. His Spurs teams have remained a top-four team in the sport, from the 1990s to today, regardless of on-court personnel.
Pop’s role in keeping Tim Duncan in the Alamo City in the summer of 2000 is underratedly his best move yet. As a result, San Antonio captured four more titles with the Big Fundamental, enough time to locate the third Spurs icon to make his mark — Kawhi Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP.
Lest we forget, Pop uncovered Manu Ginobili, the greatest Latino basketball player ever, as well as Tony Parker, probably the greatest French basketball player ever. In addition, he helped nurture a gaggle of role players, some foreign and some domestic, to serve as the glue in his system.
Popovich is a loyal Larry Brown disciple, with 99 percent more respect from his peers. His offenses are rooted in fundamental, team-first basketball and his defenses are the envy of the NBA. For this reason, his Spurs teams have been derided as “boring” and several Spurs NBA Finals have been among the lowest-rated games in American sports TV history.
Nevertheless, Popovich has congeniality and love of his players (especially Duncan). As long as the Spurs have Pop’s brain (and his occasionally verbose mouth) around the team, they will continue to be a threat for championships. Undoubtedly, Popovich will ascend to the Hall of Fame, but his most beloved anticipated task is running USA Basketball, where he’ll be entrusted with guiding the Americans to Olympic gold.
2. Red Auerbach
TEAMS: Washington Capitols (1946-49); Tri-Cities Blackhawks (1949-50); Boston Celtics (1950-66)
RECORD: 938-479 (.662)
ACHIEVEMENTS: Nine NBA championships (1957, 1959-66); 1965 Coach of the Year; Top 10 Coaches in NBA History; Hall of Fame Class of 1969
Red Auerbach is both Mr. Boston Celtics and Mr. NBA. Continuously employed by an NBA team from its inception to his death in 2006, he is the central figure in much of what we know about NBA basketball, much less the sport of basketball itself.
As a coach, Auerbach took the Celtics job in 1950 and instantly turned a shell company into the real deal, winning nine titles in 16 seasons and weaning his players on the Celtic way. He was belligerent and gregarious, berating officials and smoking cigars after sure championship victories. He also introduced large numbers of black players into the NBA, which irked local Boston fans to the point where attendance suffered as a result. His love of Bill Russell, a star center and a civil rights pioneer, held strong despite Russell’s personal tortures as a Celtics player in the 1960s.
As an executive, Auerbach was often the only stabilizing figure on the Celtics management team. He unleashed Larry Bird onto the league, a game-changing player who would help revive the NBA on a cultural level in the 1980s. Through shaky ownership situations in the 1970s, it was far simpler to answer to Auerbach, who remained president until 1997 (and again from 2001 until death). He won seven further titles as an executive, which he ascended to after introducing Russell as America’s first black pro head coach in 1966.
As a tactician, Auerbach brought the fast-break and the sixth man to the sport. His Celtics won with warrior power (no pun intended) and overwhelming wit over its opponents, a testament to Auerbach’s stewardship over a franchise that largely lacked respect from its own internal elements.
If one man could be credited with holding the influence of the sport and a team in the balance for as long as Auerbach did, it’d probably be Gregg Popovich, who has as much a case to be ranked above Red. However, pioneers get lost in modernity, so we placed Auerbach at this position – in deference to his non-coaching power as well as his ability to shape our game.
1. Phil Jackson
TEAMS: Chicago Bulls (1989-98); Los Angeles Lakers (1999-2004, 2005-11)
RECORD: 1,155-485 (.704)
ACHIEVEMENTS: 11 NBA championships (1991-93, 1996-98, 2000-02, 2009, 2010); 10 Greatest Coaches in NBA History; 1996 Coach of the Year; Hall of Fame Class of 2007
The Zen Master, a man who blended a Bill Walton-like outlook on the world with pinpoint on-court strategy, is best known as a winner.
Phil Jackson was, much like Pat Riley, a semi-beloved role player on a big-market championship team in the 1970s. Much like Riley, his ascent to coaching greatness was unconventional – Jackson coached the Albany Patroons to greatness in the 1980s CBA.
But much like Riley, Jackson was difficult to pinpoint, which partially contributed to Jackson’s disastrous tenure as president of the New York Knicks.
Jackson and Riley were contemporaries on the coaching circuit: Riles winning with the Lakers, Knicks and Heat; Jackson building a holistic, methodical power in Chicago with Michael Jordan’s Bulls. Jackson was the greatest tactician of the Triangle offense in history, utilizing his Buddhist teachings and off-brand motivational strategies to get MJ to share the ball (and eventually win six rings). These things would be handy when more cantankerous personalities, such as Dennis Rodman, would join along in the late 90s.
While Riley ascended into managerial success in the new millennium, Jackson continued a rugged day-to-day coach. With the Los Angeles Lakers, Jackson used the same methodology to coax a bubbling, yet controversial, relationship between budding superstars Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Three rings, and a run of success where the Lakers were the envy of the NBA during the early 2000s, were derailed by Bryant’s Colorado sexual-assault episode, casting a shadow over the franchise for a long enough time to drive away O’Neal and Jackson.
Jackson, however, returned in 2005 to guide a shell franchise. With Bryant evolving into a tattooed gunner self-described as the “Black Mamba,” the Lakers took the lead of a narrow-minded machinist, with Jackson as the ego-massager-in-chief. Two championships ensued in 2009 and 2010, ascending Jackson past Celtics icon Red Auerbach as the greatest winning coach in league history.
For these management scenarios, many coaches would have faltered and crumbled under the weight of sheer madness. The Chicago Bulls of the 1990s and the Lakers of the 2000s were different beasts, but borne of a similar animal. While critics lambaste Jackson for merely inheriting teams “on the come-up” and making them champions, one earnestly points out his bottom-up roots with Albany in the 1980s CBA, or the transitional Lakers of Smush Parker and Kwame Brown (before Pau Gasol gave Bryant a second star to pass the ball to). Bryant’s love-me-or-hate-me relationship and hard-headedness came, surprisingly, second to that of Jackson, who relentlessly needled opponents and played mind games with the field to the point where media and fans were vexed.
Much like Bryant, Jackson’s on-court accomplishments are muddled by general antipathy for the person. While people such as Tim Duncan or Gregg Popovich are lauded as squeaky-clean, analytical, ego-free legends beloved by the New League’s fans, O’Neal, Bryant and Jackson are the opposite — men who revel in the camera and their earned stardom. Jackson’s meddlesome tenure with the Knicks, where he insisted on triangulation in order to run a franchise in his image, crashed and burned almost on arrival and nearly drove Kristaps Porzingis out of the Garden. (It didn’t help that Jackson assistants, such as Derek Fisher, Jim Cleamons, Brian Shaw or Kurt Rambis, never panned out as head coaches.)
Perhaps appropriately, in a state (Texas) where “shut up and play” is a standard among the general sports public, there was never a Phil Jackson or Kobe Bryant-type player or coach representing the state’s biggest basketball team. That’s California noise. Of course.
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