The NBA is extremely player-centric, but we sometimes wonder about the coaches behind the teams. So, who have been the best coaches who’ve been in the NBA guiding its players? In this article, we will thoroughly discuss the greatest NBA coaches of all time. After reading this article, you’ll have a better understanding of how coaches have molded the history of the NBA.
Legendary NBA Coaches of the 20th Century
1. Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson stands atop the NBA coaching pantheon with a total of 11 NBA titles. While he was with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, Jackson took charge of a talented roster led by Michael Jordan. Here, he implemented the triangle offense. The result? Six championships in eight years.
But Jackson’s genius wasn’t limited to Chicago. With the Los Angeles Lakers, he tamed the talents of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, leading them to a three-peat from 2000 to 2002. After a brief hiatus, he returned to coach the Lakers, adding two more titles in 2009 and 2010.
Phil coached some of the greatest players in the history of the game. He worked with names like, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Dennis Rodman, and Pau Gasol.
2. Red Auerbach
Arnold “Red” Auerbach’s impact on the Boston Celtics and the NBA is nothing short of monumental. With nine NBA championships to his credit, Auerbach crafted a dynasty in Boston.
Auerbach was renowned for his psychological tactics. He was notorious for turning off the hot water in the visiting team’s locker room and turning up the heat in the old Boston Garden. His famous victory cigar, became one of the most recognized symbols in the sport at that time.
Red coached guys like, Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, and Sam Jones.
3. Pat Riley
Pat Riley is an institution. With the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s, Riley introduced ‘Showtime’ basketball, a fast-paced style that emphasized transition offence led by Magic Johnson. This style produced four championships.
Riley’s journey took him to New York and Miami, where his style evolved. But it was in Miami, first as a coach and then as an executive, where Riley truly showcased his adaptability. Leading the Heat to their first championship in 2006, he built a culture of hard work and determination.
Riley was able to coach players like Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, and Dwyane Wade.
4. Chuck Daly
Daly cultivated the “Bad Boys” image at the helm of the Detroit Pistons. This wasn’t just a moniker, it was a philosophy. Under his guidance, they won back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990.
Yet, Daly’s coaching range extended beyond the rough and tumble. Entrusted with the “Dream Team,” the 1992 U.S. Men’s Olympic Basketball Team, he managed a roster of massive egos and unparalleled talent, guiding them to a gold medal.
Great players that Daly coached include Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman, Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, and Vinnie Johnson.
5. Jerry Sloan
Jerry Sloan built a basketball legacy that mirrored its surroundings in Utah, resilient, consistent, and awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, the Utah Jazz never clinched an NBA title under Sloan. Over 23 seasons at the helm, Sloan instilled a hard-nosed, methodical approach to the game, best embodied by the pick-and-roll partnership of John Stockton and Karl Malone.
Jerry Sloan was fortunate enough to work with great players like John Stockton, Karl Malone, Jeff Hornacek, Mark Eaton, Andrei Kirilenko, and Deron Williams.
6. Larry Brown
Larry Brown’s NBA journey is a testament to his adaptability and love for the game. The only coach to win both an NBA and NCAA championship, Brown’s vast experience has seen him traverse the league, leaving a lasting impact at every stop.
With the Detroit Pistons, he instilled a defense-first philosophy that powered them to an NBA championship in 2004. They were the underdogs, but Brown’s helped them overcome a star-studded Los Angeles Lakers team.
Beyond his NBA success, Brown’s tenure at the University of Kansas culminated in an NCAA title in 1988. He influenced the games of players like Allen Iverson, Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, and Reggie Miller
7. Lenny Wilkens
Amassing over 1,300 career wins, Lenny is one of the winningest coaches in NBA history. His tenure with the Seattle SuperSonics is particularly noteworthy, leading them to their only NBA title in 1979.
Lenny believed in a blend of offense and defense, ensuring his teams were always well-rounded. Wilkens coached greats like Dominique Wilkins, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, and Dikembe Mutombo.
8. Bill Fitch
A two-time NBA Coach of the Year, Fitch took charge of a struggling Boston Celtics team and molded them into champions in 1981.
His coaching philosophy centered on discipline and fundamentals. Fitch was known for turning teams around, making him one of the most sought-after coaches in the league during his career.
Players like Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Elvin Hayes, Calvin Murphy, and Hakeem Olajuwon played under Bill Fitch.
9. Don Nelson
Don Nelson, is the NBA’s all-time winningest coach. While he never won an NBA championship as a coach, he is still considered one of the top nba coaches of all time as his “Nellie Ball” changed the league. Favoring small, fast-paced lineups, Nelson’s teams often played an unconventional style, which laid the groundwork for today’s position-less basketball.
With the Golden State Warriors and the Dallas Mavericks, Nelson often fielded lineups that prioritized skill over size. His forward-thinking style makes him one of the most influential figures in modern basketball.
Don Nelson coached guys like Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Mullin, Tim Hardaway, and Patrick Ewing.
10. Rudy Tomjanovich
Tomjanovich navigated through the competitive 90s with the Houston Rockets to secure back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and 1995. This feat was all the more impressive, considering they weren’t the favorites either year.
Rudy’s famous proclamation, “Never underestimate the heart of a champion,” wasn’t just a celebration quote, it encapsulated his coaching philosophy. Beyond his NBA accomplishments, Tomjanovich coached the USA Basketball team to a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics.
Rudey helped to mould players like Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, Kenny Smith, and Robert Horry.
11. Rick Adelman
Rick Adelman’s teams were always competitive. From the Portland Trail Blazers to the Sacramento Kings, Adelman’s squads were known for their fluid ball movement and high basketball IQ. His “corner offense” became a staple in the league, an intricate system emphasizing spacing and player movement.
Adelman’s Kings in the early 2000s were particularly memorable. Though he never won an NBA title, Adelman’s influence on the game is undeniable. He’s worked with guys like Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Clyde Drexler, Peja Stojakovic, Brandon Roy, and Kevin Garnett.
Modern-era NBA Coaches
12. Gregg Popovich
Popovich has instilled a culture of excellence, teamwork, and selflessness in San Antonio. Under his guidance, the Spurs have clinched five NBA titles.
Popovich’s coaching style is a blend of old-school discipline and new-age player management. He found success with international greats like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Hopefully, he’ll do the same with recent draftee Victor Wembanyama.
Pop coached players like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginóbili, Kawhi Leonard, David Robinson, Tracy McGrady, and LaMarcus Aldridge
13. Steve Kerr
Steve Kerr’s entrance into coaching was nothing short of spectacular. Taking over the Golden State Warriors in 2014, he transformed an emerging team into a dynasty. Kerr implemented a free-flowing, heavy ball-movement system emphasizing three-point shooting and defense. Under his guidance, the Warriors won three NBA titles in four years (2015, 2017, and 2018).
A former player and five-time NBA champion, Kerr’s understanding of player dynamics is exceptional. Off the court, he’s known for his articulate views on societal issues, making him one of the most respected figures in modern sports.
Kerr’s dynasty has been held together by two of the greatest shooters of all time, Steph and Klay.
14. Erik Spoelstra
Starting his career in the Miami Heat’s video room, Erik Spoelstra’s rise is a testament to hard work. Handpicked by Pat Riley to lead the Heat, Spoelstra faced immense pressure and scepticism when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh teamed up. He led Miami to four consecutive NBA Finals despite the challenges, winning two.
Even after the LeBron era, he has kept Miami competitive, emphasizing player development and a strong team ethos. He is one of the current best NBA coaches. Spo’s greatest coachees include LeBron, D Wade, Jimmy Butler, and Bosh.
15. Mike D’Antoni
Mike D’Antoni started a revolution in the NBA with his “seven seconds or less” offense with the Phoenix Suns. This fast-paced, offensive-centric approach was met with skepticism, it kind of still is today, but its success changed the league’s view on offense. Since he is yet to win a championship with this style, success may not necessarily be the best word to use here.
The D’Antoni system emphasized the use of quick transitional play, and perimeter shooting, laying the groundwork for the modern NBA’s style. Mike has been fortunate to coach greats like Kobe, Nash, Howard, Joe Johnson, James Harden, and Amar’e Stoudemire.
His time with the Houston Rockets, coaching James Harden, further showcased offensive genius. While critics often point to his lack of defensive, there’s no denying D’Antoni’s impact on the NBA’s offensive evolution.
What Makes a Great NBA Coach?
These are some of the personality traits that the top NBA coaches in history possess.
- Able to coach great players of different personalities
- Ability to cultivate a winning culture
- Perform their best even under pressure
- Ability to bring the best out of players
Legacy and Impact of the Best NBA Coaches
The top NBA coaches in history share a legacy of winning and changing the game. For example, Phil Jackson leads the NBA with 11 titles, and Red Auerbach follows closely with 9. Pat Riley introduced ‘Showtime’ basketball to the NBA and has 5 championships to show for it.
Don Nelson never won a title but is the NBA’s all-time winningest coach. He also laid the groundwork for today’s position-less basketball.
Wrapping Things Up: Top 15 NBA Coaches in History
The greatest NBA coaches of all time have many things in common, but at the same time, they have some unique differences. The top NBA coaches in history have titles and top spots on the win column to show for it. On the flip side, they have unique contributions that shape the way the game is played.
We hope you enjoyed this post! If you did, be sure to check out our other basketball FAQ articles here.