What defines a truly legendary NBA head coach?
Is he a great teacher who understands how to improve his players and get the most out of each individual’s talents? Is he a match-up magician taking advantage of other teams’ weaknesses over an extended playoff series? Is he a master motivator? Or a defensive mastermind? In truth, the greatest NBA coaches of all time have displayed some components of each of the above (but to greatly varying degrees).
One thing is true of all them however: they commanded respect. Regardless of their age, background, or coaching experience, these were leaders of men who had a very defined vision for how their teams would play. The prototypical great NBA coach had a foundation based in solid team defense, ball movement, calculated halftime adjustments, and a poise reflected in smart substitution patterns and timeouts. This identity provided their teams (who were mostly successful) with a strength to overcome the most adverse conditions.
We decided to rank the greatest coaches of all time. To do so, the following criteria was employed:
- Resume: W-L records, championships, Coach of the Year awards, etc.: this is a valuable indicator but must be taken with a grain of salt (e.g., should we penalize Larry Brown for not having the collective likes of MJ, Pippen, Kobe, and Shaq on his team?)
- Talent Development: A somewhat subjective measure, but by definition, coaches must be able to improve the personnel they are working with.
- Xs and Os: How well was this coach able to exploit matchups and personnel changes to affect the outcome of games? Were they adept at making in-series playoff adjustments? Was their team the best prepared each time they went out on the court?
- Motivation: Did the coach get the most out of his players? Did he get the most out of them in the games that mattered the most?
- Leadership: Another intangible. Was this a coach whose presence demanded attention? Did players seem to follow him simply because he was a leader of men. This element ties in closely with motivation.
As is evidenced from the list above, much of what makes a great coach ‘great’ is subjective. Because different coaches had different personnel, it is nearly impossible to gauge how successful they would have been in different scenarios. With that said, we present you with the Chasing 23 list of the 5 greatest NBA coaches of all time:
Honorable Mention: John Kundla, Greg Popovich.
It may upset a few folks that Greg Popovich in particular does not make our list of the 5 NBA greatest coaches of all time despite his brilliant record with the San Antonio Spurs. While Popovich is certainly an underrated coach of his era with the rings to prove it, we discounted his performance slightly based on the belief that the strength of the San Antonio Spurs organization has assisted his performance. Should Popovich continue to show an ability to overachieve in a post-Duncan era, it is likely he will crack the top 5. Also, there were notable omissions here such as Lenny Wilkens and Don Nelson, two of the winningest coaches of all time. While longevity is a factor under consideration, the failure of these coaches to consistently win/overachieve leaves them off the list.
5. Jerry Sloan
Teams Coached: Chicago Bulls (1980-1982), Utah Jazz (1988-2011)
# of Years Coaching: 26
Career W-L Record: 1221-803 (.603)
Playoff W-L Record: 98-104 (.485)
NBA Championships: 0
Other notes: 7 First Place Finishes, 9 Second Place Finishes, 2 NBA Finals Appearances
Coach of the Year Awards: 0
Jerry Sloan is the Charles Barkley of NBA head coaches – The greatest coach to never win an NBA ring. Yes, I realize, this pick will raise some eyebrows. How can a coach that never won an NBA championship or a Coach of the Year award be the 5th greatest coach of all time? Easy: Jerry Sloan was one of the best coaches in history at making the most at with what he had. That, and perhaps no other coach in history had such a record of consistent excellence over an extended period of time.
Among Sloan’s accomplishments include: 22 winning seasons in 26 years, 15 straight playoff appearances, and 13 50+ win seasons. He is the 3rd winningest coach of all-time behind only Lenny Wilkens and Don Nelson, both of whom have winning percentages (.536 and .557 respectively) well below Sloan’s.
For those who criticize Sloan’s lack of titles, let’s cut the guy a break. During the Stockton-Malone heyday from 1988-2008, Sloan had either a legendary Lakers or Bulls team to deal with every year, and it can be justifiably argued that if Jordan had not existed, he would have two NBA rings.
Sloan also proved he wasn’t a one trick pony. His best coaching job may have happened in 2003-2004, after Stockton and Malone retired. During that year, he coached a team led by Andrei Kirilenko, Greg Ostertag, and Matt Harpring to a 42-40 record and finished runner-up for Coach of the Year. He continued his success with another completely different team led by Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, leading them to the Western Conference Finals in 2007 and again finishing as COY runner-up. Time and time again, Sloan proved that regardless of the pieces on the team, the Jazz would remain relevant as long as they had the most underrated coach in the NBA.
4. Pat Riley
Teams Coached: Los Angeles Lakers (1982-1990), New York Knicks (1991-1995), Miami Heat (1995-2003, 2005-2008)
# of Years Coaching: 24
Career W-L Record: 1210-694 (.636)
Playoff W-L Record: 171-111 (.606)
NBA Championships: 5 (1982, 1985, 1987, 1988, 2006)
Other notes: 17 First Place Finishes, 9 Total Finals Appearances
Coach of the Year Awards: 3 (1990, 1993, 1997)
No coach fit the mold better of the cool, collected master motivator as the Armani suit-wearing Pat Riley. Gordon Gekko, er, Riles came out of nowhere (or more specifically, the seat next to Chick Hearn), to lead the ‘80s Lakers through a legendary decade while defining Showtime and successfully guaranteeing back to back titles for Magic and Kareem. Critics will argue that Riley had the luxury of some of the most talented Lakers teams in history, but you cannot deny his resume.
Riley has an amazing 9 Finals appearances and finished in 1st place 17 times over a 24 year span. Even more impressive, he amassed this record with three completely different franchises. He reinforced his greatness with a solid stint with the Knicks where he led New York to its greatest season in franchise history in 1993, and then brought them within minutes of a NBA championship in 1994 (losing to the Rockets in Game 7). During this time, Riley’s underrated focus on defense (lost during the Showtime era) came through as the Knicks introduced a new era of thuggery in the NBA. The icing on the cake came with his last team, the Miami Heat. In 1997, he led the Heat to their first Conference Finals in franchise history. He topped this by winning the Heat’s 1st championship in 2006.
Perhaps the one knock against Riley is he tends to burn out those around him with his intense style, yet, it’s that intensity that has made his one of the great NBA coaches of all time.
3. Larry Brown
Teams Coached: Carolina Cougars (1972-1974), Denver Nuggets (1974-1979), New Jersey Nets (1981-1983), San Antonio Spurs (1988-1992), Los Angeles Clippers (1992-1993), Indiana Pacers (1993-1997), Philadelphia 76ers (1997-2003), Detroit Pistons (2003-2005), New York Knicks (2005-2006), Charlotte Hornets (2008-2011)
# of Years Coaching: 26 (NBA), 4 (ABA)
Career W-L Record: 1327-1011 (.568)
Playoff W-L Record: 120-115 (.511)
NBA Championships: 1 (2004)
Coach of the Year Awards: 4 (1973, 1975, 1976 in ABA, 2001 in NBA)
For my money, if I needed one coach to lead one team over one season (a team that didn’t have either MJ or Kobe), I would take the mercurial Larry Brown. Does Brown wear out his welcome wherever he goes? Yes. Does he job hop more than a 25 year old in Silicon Valley? Absolutely. But is he one of the most talented and accomplished coaches that this league has even seen? Without question.
Larry Brown has coached for 10 teams in his 30 year coaching career. He is the only coach to ever lead 8 different teams to the playoffs. He turned around the fortunes of such NBA doormats as the Los Angeles Clippers, New Jersey Nets, and Indiana Pacers – leading each team to unprecedented successes (by their meager standards). He even made the pre-Tim Duncan San Antonio Spurs relevant, taking the 1989-90 Spurs through the single biggest increase in wins in one season in the history of the NBA (winning a division title in the process). His job in taking a team led by a 6’1”, previously uncontrollable point guard in Allen Iverson (and little else) to the NBA Finals was amazing, and he did himself one better by completely outcoaching his peer Phil Jackson as the Detroit Pistons dominated the 2004 NBA Finals. This series and team highlighted Brown’s commitment to basketball fundamentals and defense. To cap off his brilliant career (which still may not be over), Brown led the Charlotte Bobcats to their 1st ever playoff appearance. The only real blemish on Brown’s resume was his stint with the New York Knicks. The panel forgives Brown on this account however, considering his boss at the time was none other than the WGMOAT and resident Chasing 23 punching bag, Isiah Thomas.
Brown’s ability to affect change, teach, and maximize the talents of his inherited roster was not limited to the senior league. He is the only coach in history to win a championship both in the NBA (Detroit Pistons) and in college (Kansas Jayhawks).
2. Red Aeurbach
# of Years Coaching: 20
Career W-L Record: 938-479 (.662)
Playoff W-L Record: 168-99 (.589)
NBA Championships: 9 (1957, 1959-1966)
Other notes: 11 1st place finishes, 11 total Finals appearances
Coach of the Year Awards: 1 (1965)
Can there really be a debate about Red’s place in NBA history? 9 championships, the 2nd highest winning percentage in the history of coaching, and leading the greatest dynasty the NBA has ever known. Red Aurebach was such a legend, that the Coach of the Year award itself was named after him. If that wasn’t enough, you have to give respect to a man that can enjoy a good cigar.
His trademark was his emphasis on teamwork, consistently leading teams that lacked a pure scorer. He was also known as a master motivator. While Aurebach’s 938 wins ranks only #7 all-time as of this writing, it should be noted he coached at least 150 fewer games than any of the coaches ahead of him and his .662 winning percentage ranks only below Phil Jackson among the greatest coaches of all time.
1. Phil Jackson
Teams Coached: Chicago Bulls (1989-1998), Los Angeles Lakers (1999-2004, 2005-2011)
# of Years Coaching: 20
Career W-L Record: 1155-485 (.704)
Playoff W-L Record: 229-104 (.688)
NBA Championships: 11 (1991-1993, 1996-1998, 2000-2002, 2009-2010)
Other notes: 13 1st place finishes, 14 total Finals appearances
Coach of the Year Awards: 1 (1996)
I think we all understand the argument for Phil: the 11 championships, the best regular and postseason records of all time, the incredible strings of three-peats his teams have put together, etc. So our time is probably better spent evaluating the merits of the argument against Phil. The core of the argument is that Phil never won a championship he wasn’t supposed to win. (1991 Bulls fans may argue this point, but let’s face it, the 1991 Lakers had neither Kareem nor Riley at the time) But isn’t that what made Phil great? The intensity of the pressure on Phil was enormous, between coaching the difficult personalities of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal and the expectations that year in and year out, Phil HAD to win. Phil seemed to be oblivious to that pressure until the Laker disappointments of 2003 and 2004 (and much of these failures can be attributed to the rapidly disintegrating relationship between Shaq and Kobe). Still, Phil was able to resurrect his Laker career by leading them back to 3 straight NBA finals and 2 championships.
Phil was never the greatest Xs and Os coach, and there are distinct examples where he was outcoached by his counterpart on the opposing team – Rick Adelman in 2000, Larry Brown in 2004, and Rick Carlisle in 2011 to name a few. Still, his leadership in understanding the nuances of his star players and the poise he gave them stand tall amongst his accomplishments. Nowhere is this more evident than in the growth that both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant experienced under Phil’s guidance.
For those seeking a data point beyond Jordan, Kobe, and Shaq, they only need to look at the job Phil did during the 1993-1994 season, the year after MJ’s first retirement from the league. Phil took a Bulls team led by Scottie Pippen to an unbelievable 55-win season, almost knocking off the New York Knicks in the 2nd round of the playoffs.
Lastly, all of this reinforces a peerless resume that Phil has put together. The greatest winning percentages in regular season and playoff history, the most NBA rings, the most playoff wins of all time, and the 5th most regular season wins of all time. All of these together, make Phil Jackson the greatest NBA coach of all time.