The NBA’s Greatest Head Coaches Made The Job Look Easy

Basketball | 6/12/20

The career of an NBA coach can be tumultuous. Depending on the talent provided, someone like Steve Kerr could go from leading a team to the NBA Finals to a top ten lottery pick in the span of one season. Then again, in his first five seasons in the NBA, Kerr won three NBA Championships, instantly putting him in the conversation as one of the greatest coaches of all-time. The question is, does the team make the man, or does the man make the team? These are the greatest NBA head coaches of all-time and how they elevated the talent around them. Note: Some win-loss records shown in this article may have changed since the time of this writing.

Steve Kerr Turned The Warriors Into A Dynasty

steve kerr warriors
Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images

By the time Steve Kerr was hired as the head coach of the Golden States Warriors, they were already a playoff team. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were established as the “Splash Brothers,” but there was still an ingredient missing.

After dismissing head coach Mark Jackson, Kerr was brought in as the final piece of the championship puzzle. Since then, he has gone 322-108 in the regular season and 77-22 in the playoffs. The Warriors also appeared in five straight NBA Finals, winning three times. Injuries to Curry and Thompson, as well as the departure of Kevin Durant, muddled the 2019/20 season, but Kerr and the Warriors should bounce back without any problems.

Doc Rivers Defines Consistency

doc rivers nba
Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images

In the last 12 seasons, only one of Doc Rivers’ teams has finished below second in their division. During the 2019/20 season, he also became the 13th head coach in league history to reach 900 wins.

Throughout his head coaching career, which began with the Orlando Magic in 1999, Rivers has a regular-season record of 894 and a playoff record of 84-83. In 2008, he led the Boston Celtics to the NBA Finals and beat the Los Angeles Lakers in six games.

Rick Carlisle Led The Mavericks To Glory

rick carlisle nba
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Rick Carlisle began his coaching career with the Detroit Pistons in 2001. In 2003, after butting heads with higher-ups, he was fired and quickly rebounded with the Indiana Pacers. After several seasons as the Pacers’ head coach, Carlisle moved his talent to the Dallas Mavericks in 2008.

In 2011, Carlisle coached the Mavs to the NBA Finals, where they beat LeBron James and the Miami Heat to claim the championship. Carlisle is still the coach of Dallas today and has a regular-season record of 751-627.

Chuck Daly Unleashed The “Bad Boys” On The NBA

chuck daly nba
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Chuck Daly was a head coach in the NBA for nearly 20 seasons, compiling a regular-season record of 638-437 and a playoff record of 75-51. It was what he did the league during his ten seasons with the Pistons that gets him a spot on this list.

In the late ’80s, Daly unleashed the “Boy Boy” Pistons on the NBA world. The team, lead by Isiah Thomas, Dennis Rodman, and James Dumar, were known for their brutal style of play. They shocked the league when they won back-to-back titles and turned the NBA more physical as a result.

Larry Brown Always Landed On His Feet

larry brown pistons
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Larry Brown was given his first head coaching job in 1972 by the Carolina Cougars of the NBA. In 1976, the ABA merged with the NBA, and Brown continued to coach until 2010, winning one championship in 2004 with the Detroit Pistons.

Over the course of his nearly 40-year career, Brown compiled a regular-season record of 1,327-1,011 and a playoff record of 120-115. Outside of the NBA, he won an NCAA title as a head coach, and an Olympic gold medal in 1964 leading the U.S. Men’s Team.

Jerry Sloan Is A Utah Legend

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Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

From 1988 until 2011, Jerry Sloan was the head coach of the Utah Jazz. Prior to that, he served a brief stint as the Bulls’ head coach. Although he never won a championship, he was only always a winner.

By the time he hung up his blazer, Sloan had a regular-season record of 1,221-803 and a playoff record of 98-104. In 2014, the Jazz honored Sloan by hanging a banner in their arena with the number 1,223, which is the total number of wins, regular season and playoffs, that he won in Utah.

Don Nelson Is The Winningest Coach In NBA History

don nelson nba
JOHN G. MABANGLO/AFP via Getty Images
JOHN G. MABANGLO/AFP via Getty Images

Before he became a head coach in the NBA, Don Nelson won five NBA Championships as a player. In 35 years calling the shots, though, he never won a sixth. Nelson did retire with 1,335 regular-season wins, though, which is the most in NBA history.

During that run, Nelson was named Coach of the Years three times and is credited with helping to usher in the concept of the point forward as a player.

Lenny Wilkins Set The Standard

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Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

At the same time Don Nelson was working his way up the NBA head coaching ranks, so was Lenny Wilkens. Wilkens began his head coaching journey with the Seattle SuperSonics in 1969. He ended his career in 2005 with 1,332 regular-season wins.

In that time, Wilkens became the first NBA head coach to ever win 1,000 games. He also was the man in the blazer for more games than any coach in league history. Wilkens won his only championship with Seattle in 1979.

K.C. Jones’ Career Was Short But Mighty

kc jones nba
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

K.C. Jones may have only been a head coach in the NBA for 10 seasons, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve a spot on this list. In five of those 10 seasons, his teams made the NBA Finals. Twice, he won the whole thing.

When he called it quits, Jones had a regular-season record of 522-252 and playoff record of 81-57. His career might have been short, but there is no questioning all the greatness he accomplished in that span.

Alex Hannum Is One Of Three

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Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Alex Hannum began his head coaching career in the ABA with the St. Louis Hawks. He continued to coach for 20 seasons, eventually transitioning to the NBA. In that time he won three championships and won 649 regular-season games.

Hannum is one of three head coaches to lead two different teams to NBA titles. He is also one of two coached win an ABA and an NBA title, putting him in very rarefied air.

William Holzman Is Immortalized In New York

william holzman nba
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

It was William Holzman’s second go-around as a head coach that lands him on our list. After a brief stint with Milwaukee, he took over the New York Knicks in 1967. Over the next 16 seasons, he would win two championships and 613 regular-season games.

The Knicks organization was so grateful to Holzman that they retired the number 613 in his honor. In 1985, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Pat Riley Has A Ring On Every Finger

pat riley nba
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

With nearly twice as many regular-season wins as losses, the impact Pat Riley had as an NBA head coach is undeniable. He started his career with the Lakers in 1981, moved to the Knicks in 1991, then took over the Miami Heat in 1995.

Over the course of his nearly 30 years coaching, Riley won 1,210 games, 171 playoff games, and five NBA championships. After his coaching career ended, he joined the front office of the Heat.

Greg Popovich Makes It Look Easy

greg popovich nba
Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Entrenched as the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs since 1996, Greg Popovich makes leading an NBA team look easy. He has a regular-season record of 1.245-575 and has won five championships, most recently in 2014, all with the Spurs.

By the time Popovich retires, he has a chance to have more wins than Don Nelson. It’s not hard to see why he is one of the greatest coaches of all-time

Red Auerbach Made An Unprecedented Run With The Celtics

red auerbach nba
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Red Auerbach became the head coach of the Boston Celtics in 1950 and went on an unprecedented run that included winning eight straight NBA championships. In total, he won nine titles, one shy of two full hands worth of rings.

Inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1969, Auerbach had a regular-season record of 938-479 and a playoff record of 99-69. Before coaching the Celtics, he was in charge of the Washington Capitals and the Tri-Cities Blackhawks.

Phil Jackson Was A Mastermind With A Whiteboard

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Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

While in more recent years, Phil Jackson’s professional tenure has been marred by bad front office decisions he made with the Knicks, his coaching record is untouchable. Jackson took over the Bulls in 1989 and created one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history.

After Jackson’s career with Chicago was over, he signed on with the Lakers and his success continued. By the time it was all said and done in 2011, Jackson had won 11 NBA championships.

Erik Spoelstra Is Still Writing His Story

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Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

As the head coach of the Miami Heat, Erik Spoelstra went to the NBA Finals in four of his first six seasons, twice winning it all. Both of those championships came with LeBron James on the team, putting a “monkey on his back” that he now must get off.

Currently, Spoelstra is well on his way to re-writing his story. He is still the head coach of the Heat and has a regular-season record of 523-363 and a playoff record of 71-47.

Rick Adelman Barely Missed Out On Winning It All

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Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Perhaps if Rick Adelman had coached during a different era, he would have won a championship or two. Instead, he spent his career trying to overcome the Michael Jordan-led Bulls and the Detroit “Bad Boy” Pistons.

After finishing his career in Minnesota in 2014, Adelman left the league with a regular-season record of 1,042-749 and a playoff record of 79-78. Before joining Minnesota, he had stints with Houston, Golden State, Portland, and Sacramento.

George Karl Was A Franchise Saver

george karl nba
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Although George Karl’s teams tended to underwhelm in the playoffs, his regular-season success earns him a spot here. Throughout his coaching career, Karl was a fixer, coming into bad luck franchises and turning them around.

Karl spent time over 30 plus seasons with Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors, Seattle SuperSonics, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets, and Sacramento Kings. He ended his run with a regular-season record of 1,175-824 and a playoff record of 80-105.

Billy Cunningham Retired Too Early

billy cunningham nba
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Focus on Sport/Getty Images

While we don’t know why Billy Cunningham chose to retire as a young head coach in 1985, we know one thing; he did it too soon. From 1977 until 1985, he was the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.

In 1983, he took the team to the promised land, winning the NBA title, It was the third in franchise history. His .698 winning percentage if the third best of all-time, which lands him here, even if his coaching career wasn’t very long.

Bill Sharman Was The Head Coach For The 1971-72 Lakers

bill sharman nba
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Bill Sharman was first given a head coaching job with the San Francisco Warriors (now Golden State) in 1966. From 1971 until 1976 he was in charge of the Lakers, winning the NBA title in 1972.

In NBA circles, there will always be a debate about which single-season team is the best of all-time. Those 1971-72 Lakers are always in the conversation next to the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls and the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors.