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Ranking the 5 Greatest NBA Coaches of All Time

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.

Jerry Sloan - Greatest NBA Coaches of All TimeAmong 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)

Pat Riley - Greatest NBA Coaches of All TimeNo 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)

Larry Brown - Greatest NBA Coaches of All TimeOther notes: 10 First place finishes, 3 total Finals appearances, 18 playoff appearances

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

Red Aurebach - Greatest NBA Coaches of All TimeTeams Coached: Washington Capitols (1947-1949), Tri-city Blackhawks (1949-1950), Boston Celtics (1950-1966)

# 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 Jackson - Greatest NBA Coaches of All TimePhil 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.

Related posts:

  1. Jerry Sloan: Good, But Not Great
  2. Sekou Smith: Rating the New 2011 NBA Head Coaches (7/24/11)
  3. Silver Screen and Roll: Evaluating the Laker Coaching Candidates (5/17/11)
  4. Head Coach or Head Scratcher: Evaluating Golden State’s Hiring of Mark Jackson

Discussion

23 Responses to “Ranking the 5 Greatest NBA Coaches of All Time”

  1. I can’t argue with who you’ve chosen. I can only say that it’s hard to make a top coaches list and not mention Gregg Popovich.

    Posted by Adam | August 21, 2011, 12:13 pm
    • As a top5 I meant.

      Posted by Adam | August 21, 2011, 12:13 pm
      • Adam — thanks for the comment and the read. As I mentioned, this was a tough one but ultimately I had to leave Pop just on the outside looking in.

        I think the one coach you can seriously argue that Pop should be ahead of is Sloan. I gave Sloan the edge (1) because of his longevity and consistent level of success over that time and (2) he was able to pull off high levels of success with vastly different cores of players while overachieving significantly over more than a few years.

        While Pop’s record is great, I’d still like to see a few more years out of him where he really overachieves before I move him ahead of Sloan.

        Posted by Brown Mamba | August 21, 2011, 6:27 pm
    • completely true. I know Larry Brown is an awesome coaching force but Popovich was more reliable and less of An obstacle with his star players. Popovich could have made Iverson the star player and lost the gangsta image.

      Posted by Kim Greene | August 28, 2011, 10:52 pm
  2. There are two things that you did not mention that I believe are worth noting. Firstly, you might have said that Red “never won a championship he wasn’t supposed to win” with the most dominant roster of players of the era. The Celtics were simply heads and shoulders above every other team’s talent level for about a decade.

    The second thing is that Phil succeeded where others failed. The people who argue that Phil just had the most talented players forget that the coaches who proceeded him on those teams were unable to win it all with the same talent. People call Phil the Zen Master either cynically or respectfully, often not really understanding what his personal practice did for his coaching ability and he was able to transmit to his teams.

    And yes, I think Pop may very well crack the list if he doesn’t already deserve to be on it.

    Posted by Steve | August 22, 2011, 7:00 am
  3. Here why Pop deserves to be above Sloan (and potentially even Larry Brown)… Sloan won 0 championships with 2 All-Time great players (Stockton/Malone) in their primes. Pop won 4 with 1.5 (Duncan’s entire career and the tail end of Robinson’s). 4 beats 0 every time. Plain and simple. How many other coaches have 4 championship rings? (Kundla, Red, Riley, Phil).

    I don’t disagree that Sloan is one of the top 6 or 7, but not above Pop.

    Here are my thoughts on the current coaching situation in the NBA…

    http://www.nbabasketballfansite.com/featuredlist/The-Answer-to-HugeHursts-Coaching-Conundrum-1

    Posted by 'the squid' | August 22, 2011, 7:04 pm
    • Squid — I hear you on the rings and yes, Pop never had the #2 player that Sloan did, but let me explain a few more reasons why I put Sloan ahead:

      1. Pop never had to go again MJ and the Bulls. I find it difficult to believe he would have won 4 rings (or even 1), if the Duncan era coincided with the Jordan era.

      2. While Sloan had 2 all-time greats, Pop had hands down the best PF of all time. Not only that, but Duncan has been incredibly underrated defender during his career. Furthermore, I would argue that Sloan’s coaching and system played a big part in the greatness that both Stockton and Malone achieved. On the other hand, I believe Duncan would have achieved equal greatness in other systems.

      3. Sloan did not win any rings, but unlike Pop, he proved an ability throughout his career to reinvent himself with completely different personnel and still significantly overachieve.

      4. Sheer longevity and consistency.

      All this being said, I think this past year may have been Pop’s greatest regular season coaching achievement to date. If he has a few more good ones as stated, he passes Sloan. .

      Posted by Brown Mamba | August 22, 2011, 10:27 pm
      • I agree that Timmy is the greatest power forward of all-time.. but there are PLENTY of people that could make a valid argument for Karl Malone. Not only that, but John Stockton is one of the best PGs ever, if not THE best pure point guard.

        Not only that, but Sloan was coaching during the Jordan sabbatical, and also after the Jordan era. He had his shots just like anyone else.

        I can’t argue with Sloan’s longevity and consistency, but, ultimately, would you rather have a coach for 20+ years that never won a championship? Or a coach that won 4 championships in 13 years? There is little question, right?

        Posted by 'the squid' | August 23, 2011, 11:10 am
  4. This whole list is garbage if you really are going to omit Pop. He gets penalized for having Tim Duncan on his team?
    Phil had arguably 3 of the top 5 players to ever play the game with MJ, Kobe and Shaq. He also had the best X’s and O’s assistant ever on his bench in Tex.
    Red had how many hall of famers? Riley had Magic and his all-star cast, and then not to mention swooped in and stole one with D-Wade and Shaq.
    Sloan had the number 2 scorer in NBA history and a top 5 to 10 point guard in the history of the game, and still couldn’t get it done.
    But because Pop had a strong organization he gets left off? I forgot that the Celtics, Lakers and Bulls weren’t strong organizations good point. Pop and his staff added great players from out of nowhere that others passed on and gave them chances to shine (ie tony parker and manu)
    He won 4 championships during the Kobe and Shaq eras.
    Also just out of curiousity, how did Sloan reinvent himself with new personnel??? He ran pick ‘n roll with malone/stockton and did the same with williams/boozer. Pick ‘n roll and defense is what he has done for 30 years!

    Posted by matrix | August 23, 2011, 6:42 am
  5. I have no problem with none of those picks..they all deserve to be there, EXCEPT FOR PHIL JACKSON!!! He never has impressed me …all the teams he has coach had superstars on them and or were already seasoned,,,give him a team that was lottery pick team and see if he can take them to the finals, THEN I will be the first to give him his due…but until then. Phil Jackson is only a superstar coach.
    Look at Doc Rivers what he did with a messed up Celtic team! Now thats a coach!

    Posted by Uli | August 23, 2011, 7:43 am
  6. Mamba,

    I agree with most of this list, and would have ranked the first 4 in much the same way. However you severely missed the mark by picking Sloan over Pop. In fact, Sloan would not even make my top 8 since I would put Chuck Daly (a glaring omission), Doc Rivers, and George Karl ahead of him.

    I think I summed up Sloan’s career as well as I could in my article following his retirement: I never criticized him for failing to win championships because he had so few opportunities. However, he was good but not great, and even somewhat overrated. He won 1221 games because of 2 reasons:

    1.) He had an excellent relationship with the Miller family which allowed him to remain as coach despite some arguable playoff under achievements (1990, 1995, 1999, 2000, 2001) in which his teams lost to a lower seed and was bounced out earlier than expected.
    2.) He had 2 Hall of Fame players (both top 30 all time) on his roster throughout the bulk of his career which allowed him to amass a number of wins.

    Bottom Line: Stockton and Malone provided Sloan with a baseline talent that gave him no excuses NOT to win 50 games per year. As such, there is nothing to prevent me from believing that any number of coaches could have accomplished the same thing that Sloan did. Why? Because for the most part, Sloan did not take his teams to higher level and finished each season exactly where he should have finished based on the talent given to him. There were really no surprises with the exception of those underachievements that I just mentioned. At best, he hit ‘par’. Is this really the mark of one of the greatest coaches of all time?

    On the other hand, with the exception of 2006 when the Spurs lost to the Mavs, Pop has always gotten the most out of his teams and overachieved often. In 2001 and 2002, his teams won an astounding 58 games despite having a severely aging #2 in David Robinson. Then, in 2003, he performed his greatest miracle of all by beating a Laker team with Shaq and Kobe, despite having no #2 at all. He then proceeded to win 2 more championships with a different roster, and as you mentioned, performed one of the greater coaching miracles in 2011. Granted, he had Tim Duncan who I consider to be one of the 6 greatest players of all time, but to me, still exhibited the mark of a great coach.

    Posted by The NBA Realist | August 23, 2011, 3:13 pm
    • Realist, let me address your points.

      1) I definitely do not view Chuck Daly as a glaring omission or as one of the 6 greatest coaches of all time (as you imply). A view of Chuck Daly’s career suggest a short brief period of brilliance bookended by some minor overachievements with the New Jersey Nets, etc. He had 3 1st place finishes in his career, significantly lower than any of the coaches on my list and won 50 games only 5 of his 14 years. He has 1/2 the career wins that Sloan had. You could certainly make the argument that Chuck Daly at his best was better than Jerry Sloan, but when you look at the complete body of work, I don’t see how Daly jumps ahead of Sloan. I won’t go into detail here, but my belief is that Doc Rivers and George Karl are even more flawed.

      2) Regarding Sloan’s underachievements, let’s be careful here about how we edit the facts to construct an argument.

      1990 — the Jazz fell to the Suns in a series that went the distance. This is the same Suns team that then went on to destroy the Lakers 4-1. Is this truly an underachievement, or were the Suns just a better team than they revealed during the regular season?

      1995 — another year you say they underachieved, they took the Rockets the distance in the 1st round. The same Rockets team that won the NBA Finals that year!

      1999 — lost to Portland, could you consider this a disappointment? Yes, in that Utah had a better record by 2 games. But this is a case where if you broke it down, you’d realize that Sloan, with an aging Stockton had really done an excellent coaching job getting the Jazz to the best record in the league, and that Portland at that point probably was the better team.

      2000 — don’t really understand this one. Utah was a 2 seed and Portland a 3 seed, only for the reason that the Lakers were the 1 seed and Portland was not the division champs. Still, Portland won 59 games that year, 4 more than Utah and was definitively the better team (and frankly, should have beaten the Lakers that year)

      2001 — Ok, I’ll give you this one, but again, this wasn’t as huge a “disappointment” as it would seem. The #4 seed Jazz lost to the #5 seed Mavs when the series went the distance (and lost the last game by a point).

      So for me, his “disappointments” were not so disappointing, but he did have many overachievements in between as well (I disagree with this notion that he didn’t achieve more than a several times, which perhaps I’ll address at a later date)

      Posted by Brown Mamba | August 23, 2011, 11:38 pm
      • Mamba,

        You are getting bogged down in numbers such as total regular season wins and first place finishes rather than looking at the forest past the trees and focusing on what is important. Moreover, you are substantiating my point even further with regards to Chuck Daly.

        Are you telling me that Lenny Wilkens and Don Nelson were better coaches than Chuck Daly because of their total regular season wins and first place finishes? Of course Daly only had five 50-win seasons in 14 seasons. Outside of the Pistons, he spent 6 seasons coaching either terrible or mediocre Cavs, Magic, and Nets teams in during which his best player was Derrick Coleman in 1992. Moreover, during his 9 seasons with the Pistons, he inherited a rookie Isiah in 1984 (with Kelly Tripuka as the #2) and still managed to win nearly 50 games each season, and really didn’t have a #2 until Dumars developed in 1987. So which season do you think that his team should have won 50 games? Daly made the most of what he had and even overachieved in 88 when his Pistons beat the Celtics – which is the most that you can ask a coach to do. Along the way, he even won 2 championships with a team that exemplified ‘team’ as well as any dynasty.

        Moreover, Daly (not Riley, Phil Jackson, Larry Brown, or Sloan) was selected to coach the Dream Team in 1992 which till this day, remains the most presitgious selection-honor that a coach has ever received outside of Hall of Fame induction. Granted, Sloan was only 4 years into the league at the time, but I am fairly confident that even if we were to fast forward to 1999 when Sloan hit his peak in popularity, Daly would have nonetheless been selected ahead of Sloan.

        Lastly, regarding Sloan: As I wrote in my article, I agree with your position regarding Sloan’s 5 playoff ousts in that it is very debatable as to whether they were overachievements vs. underachievements. In fact, I used the word “arguable” in my sentence to you, but realize that antagonists can always point to the fact that Sloan’s teams had home court advantage in each instance and one of the 5 greatest coaches of all time would have gotten his team over the hump given the proximity in talent (ex: Chuck Daly). However, that was not my argument. My argument was simply that Sloan’s relationship with the Miller family enabled him to keep his job when almost any other coach would have been fired for repeatedly failing to get past the first round and enduring upsets – whether real or perceived. And in keeping his job, and retaining 2 of the top 30 players to ever play the game, Sloan amassed wins when he could have very easily become a retread and jumped from mediocre team to mediocre team and failing to generate 50-win seasons. I guess I am struggling to understand why Daly, Rivers, or Karl wouldn’t have been able to do the same thing? Sloan’s legacy wasn’t that he got the most out of his players (like Larry Brown, Red, or Riley). Instead, it was that he stuck around, hit par, and met with baseline expectations.

        Posted by The NBA Realist | August 26, 2011, 8:07 am
  7. Nice article overall, and I agree 100% with your top 4 picks. That said, I must join the masses in questioning your choice of Sloan as a top 5 coach-I don’t think he’s anywhere near the top 10.

    When Sloan took over the Jazz he inherited an established playoff team with a top 5 all time point guard and top 5 all-time power forward and continued to have this advantage for a 15 year period. His results during this era-two number one seeds, a 2-3 Western Conference Finals record, an 0-2 NBA finals record, and a long string of playoff losses that could each be construed as underachievement.

    For a ten year period, Malone/Stockton was the best 1-2 punch in the entire Western Conference, yet they frequently lost to teams with either only one All-Time great (Olajuwon, Robinson, Barkley, Drexler) or a team with a lesser 1-2 punch (Kemp/Payton). In fact, his team was upset by a lower seed 6 times in 15 years and only beat a higher seed 3 times (twice in a 4 vs 5 and once in a 3 vs 2) during that span does. This is not a series of unfortunate events, it’s a pattern.

    His Jazz team was swept by the 7th seeded Warriors in 1989-there’s no way to sweep that one under the rug. In 1991, the Drexler/Porter/Kersey/Buck Williams/Kevin Duckworth/Cliff Robinson Blazers had a better regular season than the Jazz and then beat them convincingly in the postseason. The Jazz roster of Karl Malone/Stockton/Jeff Malone/Mark Eaton/Blue Edwards/Ty Corbin was much more talented on paper. How were the Blazers the better team?

    And while you’re willing to discount Sloan’s losses to the Bulls, I’m not. 1997 I’ll give you. However, in 1998, the Jazz had home-court advantage and had beaten the Bulls both times they played during the season. They then won game 1 of the Finals, and the Bulls looked very beatable. The Jazz then choked away 3 of the next 4 games, including an epic 96-54 stink-bomb in game 3 that is the worst loss in finals history. Losing to a better team is one thing, but losing in historically bad fashion is quite another.

    When did the Jazz overachieve during those Stockton/Malone years? The closest thing I can come up with is 1993-94, when they made it to the Finals as a 5 seed. Even then, they made it there largely because the 8th seeded Nuggets were their round 2 opponent, and they went down quite meekly to that Rockets team despite having 3 of the best 4 players on the floor. The real question, to me, is why they were only a 5 seed.

    Even if Sloan’s post-Stockton/Malone coaching days were better, they hardly seem the stuff of legend. I agree that ’03-04 was impressive, but the next season they added talent and went 26-56. Likewise, he did a great job in ’06-07, but in the ensuing seasons his team fell back to the middle of the playoff pack, which is about where they should have been.

    Sloan is, in my mind, the most overrated coach of all time. He rarely surpassed expectations and frequently fell short of them. Most average NBA coaches could have won consistently with Stockton and Malone, and I feel like the great ones would have done more. I agree with Realist that Sloan’s greatest trait, his longevity, had more to do with his relationship with the owners than his coaching ability. Now I think he’s a classy guy, and I’d be happy with him coaching my team, but he’s not in the elite class if you want to maximize your team’s chances to win a game. The list of coaches I would put ahead of Sloan is not short-Popovich, Daly, Kundla, Al Attles, Rick Adelman, Rudy T, George Karl, Jack Ramsey, Red Holzman, Gene Shue, Larry Costello, Tommy Heinsohn, Alex Hannum, and Dick Motta, just to name a few.

    Posted by Lochpster | August 28, 2011, 2:10 pm
    • Lochpster — thanks for the well thought out comment. I respect your points, but disagree on certain accounts:

      1. The greatness of Stockton and Malone — I think there is some circular logic here. Were Stockton and Malone all-time greats? Certainly. But shouldn’t Sloan get some credit for devising a system that played to their strengths and maximizing their abilities even when they were well into their mid-30s? I’m not sure other coaches could have gotten out of Stockton and Malone what Sloan did.

      2. My recollection of Sloan’s Jazz teams were that they were typically one of the least athletic teams and were among the best coached. They played hard on every play, and ran the offense to perfection. There was rarely an easy game against the Jazz. Similar to point #1, in retrospect it’s easy to say that Sloan should have won with 2 all-time greats, but keep in mind that during this time, I don’t think anyone looked in fear at either of these players. By contrast, Payton and Kemp were extremely athletic and had many more physical gifts than either Stockton orMalone.

      3. Overachievements in the 90s? How about 1997-8, when Stockton was our nearly 20 games, but the Jazz still wound up with 62 wins. Or 1996-97? Winning 64 games with a core of Malone/Stockton/Hornacek flanked by the likes of Bryon Russell (who’d up to that season never averaged more than 5ppg), a rookie in Shandon Anderson, Howard Eisley playing in his first full season, and a 35 year old Antoine Carr. In 1989-90 he took what was essentially a brand new supporting cast in Blue Edwards, Bobby Hansen, and Mike Brown and produced the best record in Jazz history. Again, I think revisionist history remembers these Jazz teams as great, but I just don’t recall these teams in that same way.

      4. Rick Adelman? George Karl? Gene Shue? Dick Motta (he of the 1000 loss club)? Don’t even know where to start here. Just argue one of them vs. Sloan.

      5. I’m hardpressed to remember when the Jazz were thought of as consistent underachievers. Again, I think most you ask will say they maximized the talents their physical ability would allow. Quite the opposite, I think Sloan was at times a victim of the expectations he created.

      6. I’m looking at the Blazers and not sure how you’re coming to the conclusion the Jazz were “much more talented on paper”. Drexler was probably the 2nd best shooting guard in the NBA. Porter averaged almost 20 and was essentially an All-star. Jerome Kersey was a solid forward and averaged 12-15 ppg. Buck Williams was a double double guy. Duckworth was another very viable center. etc. Mark Eaton, in 1991-2 averaged..wait for it…3 ppg. Blue Edwards and Ty Corbin were decent, but I’m pretty sure I would have rather had Kersey and Buck Williams as my forwards. Plus, the Blazers team was more experienced in general. So, I’d ask you the question in reverse, what are you seeing that I’m missing?

      7. Let’s not throw away the last 10 years of Sloan’s career as if it doesn’t count. This is a huge part of his legacy. He overachieved both in 2004 and 2007 significantly and refreshed his style with both of these teams.

      Posted by Brown Mamba | August 29, 2011, 12:46 am
  8. Thanks for the thoughtful response. I think you’ve created a very strong argument that Sloan was a good coach, but I still think he falls short of the great category.

    First off, you paint the Jazz as a very unathletic but disciplined, hard-working bunch. I think a large reason for this is because we tend to think of white athletes in all sports this way, and the Jazz have been the whitest team in the league for the past 30 years. Although Stockton’s dorky look made him appear unathletic, you don’t steal more balls than everybody else in NBA history by being a poor athlete. Malone, of course, was just a physical freak. Mark Eaton, another white supporting player, looked lumbering and unathletic but was one of the greatest shot blockers ever up until his last season. On the flipside, while I agree that the Jazz were well-coached and disciplined, I don’t see much evidence that they were extraordinary in this regard.

    As for Sloan getting credit for Malone and Stockton’s longevity, I’m dubious. They were already All-Star caliber players coming into their primes when he arrived, so he certainly doesn’t get credit for developing them, and longevity is due more to training and luck than it is to any system.

    As for those “overachievements,” I think a team with 2 Hall of Famers and a third borderline All-Star is supposed to be contending for the NBA title every year no matter who their supporting cast is. Perhaps 89-90 and 97-98 were mild overachievements during the regular season due to injuries and turnover, but then each of these teams then arguably underachieved during the postseason. The Jazz had a logjam of talent for 10 years, and their results for this era were 2 conference championships and…that’s it. That’s not the mark of an All-Time Great coach or an All-time great team.

    In contrast, Popovich’s 2003 NBA championship team featured one Superstar in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker in his second season, Bruce Bowen, Stephen Jackson, 37-year old David Robinson (averaging 8 points and 8 boards) and Malik Rose as its top 6 contributors in terms of minutes. This team had the best record in the NBA and then knocked off the 3 time defending champion Kobe/Shaq Lakers and the Nash/Nowitzki/Finley Mavs en route to the title. Talk about overachievement! Further, Popovich developed both Parker and Ginobli into stars while keeping his team functioning at a championship-caliber level. That’s great coaching.

    As for Sloan’s last 10 years, they do count, just like his 3 years with the Bulls should as well. I just don’t see a lot of greatness there, either. He overachieved significantly in only two of these ten years, I will admit, but many other coaches have done similar things. He also developed Deron Williams into a star and deserves credit for his work with Kirilenko as well, but lots of other coaches have developed star players, as well.

    Picking one of the lesser-known coaches I mentioned, Alex Hannum coached 7 different teams. He twice beat the juggernaut Celtics of the early NBA, in 1958 with St. Louis and in 1967 with the 76ers. No other coach won a playoff series against a Russell and Auerbach led team. He managed to get a famously rebellious Wilt Chamberlain to buy into his system, once even challenging the big guy to a fight. Later in his career, he won an ABA title with the Oakland Oaks despite losing his best player, Rick Barry, before the start of the playoffs. That’s 3 titles with 3 different teams, tons of overachievement, and a lot more difficult situations than Sloan ever had to overcome. Hannum won coach of the year twice and had a career winning % of .535. Most people wouldn’t come up with Hannum’s name if they were listing their top coaches, but I’d put him ahead of Sloan without a second’s hesitation.

    Posted by Lochpster | August 30, 2011, 10:29 pm
  9. Comparing coaches prior to 1980 to those after 1980 is an apples to oranges comparison due to one area: Officiating. NBA officiating (since 1980) has become so biased towards the “superstars” that comparing players is impossible let alone coaches. It is so bad everyone “jokes” about Jordan getting every call, Magic running over smaller guards since he knew he would never get called for charging. The list goes on and on. That is why the NBA is a joke. They should have a special game where they call the game by the book. People would be astounded by the difference. imho.

    Posted by Daryle | September 2, 2011, 5:12 am
  10. Spurs lovers are welcome at poundingtherock

    Pop not on the list? and you call this an intelligent site? ha

    i would go through the reasons why but it seems they have been addressed already.

    your argument against Pop not being on there is a joke. the small market Spurs had to great of an organization (by the way, Pop was GM and Coach) and so he is not on the list but Phil (Bulls,Laker, Riley (Heat, Lakers) and Red (Celtics) all make the list. Are you trying to make this article a joke of some sort? or you just looking for a bit of controversy for more hits?

    Posted by Artis Gilmore | September 4, 2011, 6:48 am
  11. uhh, every excuse you’ve used to discount coach pop is not even part of your criteria for selecting a top coach. It doesn’t seem like you even followed your own guidelines throughout it, let alone consistently for each coach.
    Much like this article, the headline for this blog is a great joke.

    Posted by the little o | September 7, 2011, 4:17 am
    • Artis and Little O — let me be a little bit more careful about the parameters here, so you understand what I’m arguing. I am NOT arguing who is more talented of a coach, I think you could make very good arguments why Chuck Daly, Pop, and a handful of others were better coaching talents than Sloan.

      This article is about the greatest coaches of all time. In my mind, greatness is a combination of resume, talent, etc.

      Sloan, besides having the highest winning percentage by far of any coach in the top 3 of all time wins, also managed to show coaching prowess with essentially 3 completely different teams with the Utah Jazz. The Stockton/Malone duo, the Kirilenko squad, as well as Deron Williams/Boozer. The only real identifiable trait between all of these teams was tenacious defense and excellent offensive execution.

      Popovich has had a great deal of success as well and again, I put him a hair behind Sloan. However, I would continue to say that I will dock him a little for lack of longetivity as well as the fact that his teams have generally had one consistent base (Duncan) so it’s more difficult to differentiate Pop’s success from Duncan’s.

      For those who think I’m being hypocritical about Phil Jackson, I hold Phil in high regard for a few reasons: (1) he did it with effectively 2 completely different teams, (2) is record is unblemished.

      But in the end, I think we’re splitting hairs here. I think Pop and Sloan are both all-time greats and if you think Pop is ahead of Sloan, then I don’t believe it’s an unreasonable position to have.

      Posted by Brown Mamba | September 7, 2011, 9:54 pm
      • I can see where you’re coming from a bit more now in terms of Pop not having a long enough coaching career to or at least one non-distinguishable from Duncan, but it sounds eerily familiar to Red and Russel. Not to mention that Red had an all-star cast that was head and shoulders above everyone else in the league, as well as the support of a great organization. I guess we can just agree to disagree, just think Pop should rank around 3rd or so based on your initial criteria, or heck, even Larry Brown should rank 1st based on all reasons why you ranked Pop after 5.

        Posted by the little o | September 8, 2011, 5:36 am
  12. You are going to have Jerry Sloan at 5 and not even have Rick Adelman in the honorable mentions? I read an article the other day that was saying if Phil Jackson never coached then Rick Adelman be a top 5 coach of all time.

    Posted by Ben | November 4, 2012, 9:55 pm
  13. What about now……has Pop finally passed a few of these dudes on your list?

    Posted by Jack Bauer | July 27, 2014, 5:47 pm

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