When it comes to winning NBA titles, much of the accolade goes to the players, especially the stars who shoot the baskets that make up for the points that win NBA games. But behind every great team is a great bench tactician who is able to motivate and at the same time manage the team during a ball game.
The head coach is a non-playing basketball position but is an equally important part of a successful NBA franchise and a title team. In the history of the league, we’ve seen plenty of great minds and motivators but there are 10 who stand out.
Here are the Top 10 coaches in NBA history:
1. Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson has a total of 13 NBA rings. He won two in 1970 and 1973 during his 12-year NBA playing career with the New York Knicks and 11 as an NBA head coach. After serving the New Jersey Nets as an assistant coach from 1978-1981, he moved on to the Chicago Bulls where he was promoted from assistant coach to head coach in 1989. With the greatest player in the world on his team, Jackson would build a resume that would make him the greatest NBA head coach of all-time. Jackson led the Bulls to a pair of three-peats during the ’90s, helping them win a total of six NBA titles from 1991-1998. Jackson went on to coach the Los Angeles Lakers and helped the team win five NBA titles during the period 2000-2010. Phil was a four-time NBA All-Star coach and the 1996 NBA Coach of the Year. His NBA coaching record stands at 1155-485 or an insane .704 winning percentage. Count the rings and the manner he won it. No question Phil is the greatest head coach of all-time.
2. Red Auerbach
Red Auerbach led the Boston Celtics to 8 consecutive NBA titles from 1959-1966 and including the Celtics’ triumph in the NBA Finals in 1957, Auerbach won his total of nine NBA titles during a 10 year period. When he retired from his coaching duties, Auerbach had a record of 938-479 or .662. At that time, his 938 wins were the most by any coach in NBA history and his .662 mark was also among the best ever. After his retirement from coaching, he became an executive for the Boston Celtics and in that capacity, he won seven more NBA titles. In all, Auerbach was a part of 16 Boston Celtics titles in a total of 29 seasons with the team as coach and executive, making him as the most successful team official in the history of North American Pro Sports. The Boston Celtics have won a total of 17 NBA titles, the most by any franchise. Auerbach was part of 16. Now if that’s not greatness, I don’t know what that word means.
3. Gregg Popovich
When he took over the San Antonio Spurs head coaching job in 1996, Gregg Popovich finished his first season with a 17-47 record. That would turn out to be the only losing season of his NBA coaching career. In every full season, he’s coached in the NBA, Popovich has a winning record and that’s 22 in a row if you ask. He led the Spurs to at least 50 wins in 20 consecutive seasons and has taken them to the playoffs in every full season he’s coached. The Spurs have a winning record against every other NBA team during Popovich’s tenure. More importantly, Pop led the Spurs to five NBA titles, winning at least one in the last three decades. Popovich was named NBA Coach of the Year thrice and in three straight seasons from 2012-2014. He was also NBA All-Star team coach four times. His head coaching record in the NBA is 1,245-575 or .684. What’s even more impressive in Pop’s coaching resume is that he isn’t done yet. Popovich will return at least one more season to coach the San Antonio Spurs.
4. Pat Riley
He was the guy who guaranteed that the Los Angeles Lakers would repeat as NBA champions in 1988 and he made good on his word. Although his 1988 Lakers weren’t as dominant as the 1987 champion team, they beat the Detroit Pistons in 7 games to become the NBA’s first back to back champions in 19 years. After his New York Knicks lost to the Houston Rockets in the 1994 NBA Finals, he transferred to Miami where he was given an executive role aside from being the team’s head coach. Riley would engineer a trade that brought Shaquille O’Neal to Miami and in 2005, he delivered Miami’s first NBA title with Dwyane Wade and Shaw leading the way. Overall, Riley coached five NBA title teams. He also won a title as a player in 1972 with the Lakers. As an executive with the Heat, he’s been part of three Miami title squads, giving him a total of 9 NBA rings overall. Riley has been All-Star coach nine times, NBA Coach of the Year thrice and NBA Executive of the Year in 2011.
5. Chuck Daly
Prior to his arrival, the Detroit Pistons never had back-to-back winning seasons. During his tenure in Motown, Chuck Daly coached the Detroit Pistons to the playoffs in each of his nine seasons there, leading the Bad Boys to back to back NBA titles in 1989 and 1990. When he transferred to New Jersey and then Orlando, he also led both teams to the postseason. But perhaps Daly’s most recognizable achievement was being the head coach of the 1992 United States Dream Team which won the Gold Medal in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and re-established the United States as the top basketball powerhouse in the planet. Daly would retire with an NBA record of 638-437 or .593.
6. Lenny Wilkens
Some players can only dream to be inducted to the Hall of Fame. Lenny Wilkens has been inducted three times- as a player, as a coach and as part of the 1992 Dream. Wilkens was a former NBA player and was the 6th overall pick of the 1960 NBA Draft by the St. Louis Hawks. He played on 9 NBA All-Star teams and coached four times. He was the NBA’s 1993 Coach of the Year winner and the head coach of the 1996 U.S. Men’s basketball team which captured Olympic gold in 1996. He won the NBA title in 1979 as head coach of the Seattle Supersonics. His 1,332 total coaching wins in the NBA was a record when he retired but is now 2nd all-time behind Don Nelson. Wilkens’ 2,487 regular season games coached is 89 more than Nelson’s and his 1,155 coaching losses in the NBA is the most by any coach in league history.
7. Larry Brown
Larry Brown has traveled a lot and has coached everywhere but he brought success along with him in every stop. Brown is the only head coach to win an NCAA men’s basketball title and an NBA championship, doing so with the Kansas Jayhawks in 19888 and the Detroit Pistons in 2004. He also has an ABA championship in his resume, winning the title with the Oakland Oaks in 1968-69 but as a player. Likewise, he won Olympic gold while playing for Team USA in the 1964 Olympics. As an NBA coach, he has led a total of eight different teams to the postseason. In 2001, he led the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals and won NBA Coach of the Year honors for doing so. He was also College Coach of the Year in 1988 and a three-time ABA Coach of the Year. Brown was the head coach during the Dream Team’s failed run at the 1996 Athens Olympics where the Americans settled for bronze.
8. John Kundla
When we talk about coaches leading dynasties, we talk about Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich. But John Kundla was probably the first to coach a true dynasty when he helped George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers win five championships: 1 in the BAA in 1949 and four in the NBA: 1950, 1952, 1953 and 1954. When the Lakers relocated to Los Angeles, Kundla quit his job and decided to stay in Minnesota to coach his alma mater, the University of Minnesota. He was the first coach in Gophers history to give athletic scholarships to African-American players. In 1996, he was voted by the NBA as one of its 10 greatest coaches ever.
9. Red Holzman
William “Red” Holzman was the head coach of the New York Knicks from 1967 to 1982 He led the Knicks to two NBA titles in 1970 and 1973. As a player, he was the point guard for the Rochester Royals of the NBL. The team won the title in Holzman’s first season with them. He was also part of Rochester’s 1951 NBA title-winning team. After becoming a scout for the Knicks, he assumed the coaching job in the Big Apple. With Willis Reed leading his team, Holzman gave the Knicks some of their best seasons in franchise history. He was named as Coach of the Year in 1970 and was the coach of two NBA All-Star teams. Holzman was voted among the Top 10 greatest coaches in the NBA.
10. Don Nelson
He was a five-time champion during his playing days in the NBA but Don Nelson never won an NBA title as a head coach in the league. However, his total of 1,335 coaching wins in the NBA still stands as the standard for NBA coaches. No other coach has won more NBA games than Nelson. He turned the Milwaukee Bucks into one of the NBA’s elite teams during the 1980s and then instigated the run and gun offense with the Warriors in Oakland. During the 2007 NBA Playoffs, he led the Warriors to one of the biggest playoff upsets in NBA history when the 8th seeded Warriors toppled the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks whom he coached prior to his stint in Golden State.