NBA coaches are often the scapegoat for their team's failures. Every missed opportunity or playoff loss immediately puts a coach on the chopping block. The other side of the coin that should be brought to fans' attention is when a coach instills the culture or creates the playbook that leads to championship success.
Juggling egos in a league dominated by superstars isn't an easy task. The great coaches overcome the pressure and stay in the moment to galvanize their squad and blaze a trail for the future. These are the 22 best NBA coaches of all time!
1. Gregg Popovich
The resume is one thing when talking about Gregg Popovich. 1,364 regular season wins is the most in NBA history. Five NBA championships with the San Antonio Spurs make the franchise an all-timer. But the style and substance of the team is absolutely never going to be replicated.
Coach Pop is the greatest coach in NBA history because he respected his star players and understood his place in the hierarchy. He allowed Tim Duncan to lead by example, and the Spurs are legendary because of it.
2. Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson benefited from the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, and Scottie Pippen. These superstars never accomplished much without the Zen Master, though. Jackson's ability to navigate a player-coach relationship that other leaders became overwhelmed by allowed the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers to win 11 NBA titles under his watch, a record that likely won't be matched anytime soon.
3. Pat Riley
Pat Riley has been in the front office for so long now that many fans might forget how impactful he was on the sidelines. The slick, smooth, and sophisticated Riley is as tough as he is chic, forcing his flashy teams to focus on fundamentals. Without Pat Riley, it's hard to imagine Magic Johnson's Showtime Lakers ever grounding their games enough to win for an entire decade of hard-nosed 1980s basketball.
4. Red Auerbach
Red Auerbach dominated with a dynastic Boston Celtics team in the 1960s when basketball was a completely different sport. No free agency and less than 10 teams gave the C's some built-in advantages that future teams didn't have, but Auerbach modernized basketball by integrating his squad and running his offense through the maestro point guard Bob Cousy. The respect Bill Russell had for Auerbach also speaks volumes about his coaching and character.
5. Steve Kerr
They say anybody could coach the Golden State Warriors to championships, but this myth couldn't be further from the truth. Kerr took a perennial first-round exit team all the way to the promised land in his first season. He realized that playing Stephen Curry off the ball and in motion was the best way to capitalize on his revolutionary skills. Kerr's stubborn nature can be frustrating, but his results speak for themselves.
6. Chuck Daly
Of every tough guy on the Detroit Pistons during the Bad Boys decade, head coach Chuck Daly was as hard-nosed as they come. Daly encouraged the physical, bruising play that his two-time champions employed to defeat Larry Bird's Boston Celtics and Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers. He also deserves special recognition for coaching the United States Dream Team that dominated the 1992 Olympic Games.
7. Erik Spoelstra
Erik Spoelstra started out as Pat Riley's legacy hire. In the 15 years since he took over the Miami Heat, Coach Spo has become so much more than a symbol of nepotism. Spoelstra has won championships with LeBron James, and he's gone to multiple NBA Finals with undermanned rosters and overlooked players. As long as he's at the helm in South Florida, the Heat will be a constant in the Eastern Conference through the sheer power of his intellect.
8. Red Holzman
Red Holzman's legacy lies in two incredible truths: he served as Phil Jackson's mentor when the latter was a player for the New York Knicks, and he instilled the unique brand of teamwork that propelled the NBA's most infamous big city losers to major success in the 1970s. Willis Reed and Walt Frazier were Holzman's messengers, and with the three men on the same page, nobody could beat the Knicks.
9. Larry Brown
Larry Brown's fatal flaw was his lack of dedication to one team. Brown's uncanny ability to transform even the most downtrodden franchises into relevant contenders became an addiction for him. Before the job was done, Brown was already in the mood for a new meal. He did win a championship with the 2004 Detroit Pistons, defeating the more talented Lakers in five games.
10. Lenny Wilkens
Lenny Wilkens' longevity makes him stand apart from his coaching peers throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Wilkens coached the Seattle SuperSonics to their only championship in 1979, becoming a Pacific Northwest icon. His further success with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks proved his staying power was mythical in prowess.
11. Jerry Sloan
Utah Jazz basketball in the 1990s would never have been a perennial winner without Jerry Sloan. The former Chicago Bulls player stalked the sidelines with a calm demeanor and solid playcalling, solidifying Utah as a Western Conference powerhouse. Sloan is the best coach to never win an NBA title.
12. John Kundla
John Kundla is the definition of a pioneering NBA coach. Kundla pushed all the right buttons during the primitive years of the Minneapolis Lakers, winning five NBA championships partnering with George Mikan. Kundla's short career and the time period he coached during contributed to fans and historians underrating him in the annals of the league.
13. K.C. Jones
More known for winning eight NBA championships during his playing days with Bill Russell, K.C. Jones took over as coach of the Celtics in the mid-1980s and immediately meshed with stars Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. Jones never received headlines like rival Pat Riley during the Lakers-Celtics duels, but his hardware is indisputable. Two championships later, Jones made quite the impact in Beantown.
14. Don Nelson
Don Nelson was truly ahead of his time. Fast-paced offenses and a willingness to play positionless lineups were hallmarks of his days coaching the Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors. Nelson's style was criticized for never winning a title, but sometimes innovating can be just as impressive, and it definitely was in his case.
15. Rick Adelman
Rick Adelman found success on every bench he sat on. After delivering the Portland Trail Blazers two NBA Finals berths, Adelman weaved the Sacramento Kings and Houston Rockets into the playoffs virtually every season. Adelman won 1,042 regular season games in his NBA career by the time he retired in 2014.
16. Doc Rivers
Doc Rivers' reputation was built almost entirely on the incredible talent and performance of the 2008 Boston Celtics. Rivers has failed to return to the NBA Finals in stints with the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers, usually losing in profound fashion with big series leads. Rivers typically leads his team to the playoffs, though, something not everyone manages.
17. Rudy Tomjanovich
Rudy Tomjanovich was the perfect man to lead the Houston Rockets to back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995. Not many people believed the Rockets had the talent and youth to dominate the league, but Tomjanovich reminded everyone, including his players, that you should never underestimate the heart of a champion!
18. Rick Carlisle
Dirk Nowitzki made the shots that led the Dallas Mavericks to the 2011 title, but Rick Carlisle drew up a balanced offensive attack around him and made a forgotten team believe they could win. Carlisle famously puts his fingerprints all over his teams, much to the chagrin of points guards like Rajon Rondo and Jason Kidd, but it also demonstrates the skills he has from the sidelines.
19. Jack Ramsay
Jack Ramsay took a measured approach to basketball. His Portland Trail Blazers of the 1970s took what the defense gave them, and they doled out plenty of pain on the other end of the floor, too. Ramsay's doctoral background gave him an allure within the league, and fans enjoyed his commentary on radio in the decades after his retirement.
20. George Karl
George Karl may be known more for stirring the pot on Twitter and writing biographies that run down his former players, but he was a major factor in coaching the Seattle SuperSonics and Denver Nuggets in the 1990s and 2000s. Karl had fire and feistiness that others in the NBA didn't possess, and the wins rolled in with his unique personality.
21. Mike D'Antoni
Mike D'Antoni's offensive wizardry turned even the most offensively inept players into competent scorers. D'Antoni believed just one more basket could always make up for a lack of defensive effort, and his Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets teams almost backed up his creed. D'Antoni turned Steve Nash and James Harden into NBA MVPs.
22. Bill Fitch
Bill Fitch lost more games than he won, which obviously isn't a rousing endorsement of his credentials. Fitch's abrasive coaching did wonders for outmatched rosters and turned him into a prominent presence in NBA coaching circles. Fitch clashed with Larry Bird on the Boston Celtics but did help him win his first chip in 1981.