A top coach can have a huge effect on the success of their teams. The best coaches like Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich consistently win games regardless of what players were on their squads.
The worst coaches, though, could tank even talented teams. And these bad coaches didn’t come out of nowhere. They may have been successful in college or top assistants. Below is a list of the coaches who just weren’t ready for head coach responsibilities.
Rick Pitino actually had two different stints as an NBA Head Coach. His first run with the Knicks went well as he went 52-30 in his second season. He resigned after that year to take a job at the University of Kentucky.
The Celtics were able to lure him back to the league in 1997 with promises of full control. This NBA run went much worse as Pitino went 102-146 in his 3+ years. He hasn’t returned to the league since.
After his playing career, Larry Drew spent 18 years as a well respected assistant coach. He got his chance at the lead job with the Atlanta Hawks in 2010.
Drew had an ok run with the Hawks, going 128-102. His next two coaching jobs didn’t go nearly as well as he led the Bucks to a 15-67 record in 2014 and the Cavaliers to a 19-57 record in 2019. Drew is currently out of the NBA.
Derek Fisher was the kind of heady point guard that many people thought would make an ideal head coach. After being spurned by Steve Kerr, then Knicks’ head Phil Jackson moved quickly to make his former player his new head coach.
Fisher inked a 5 year $25 million dollar deal with the team. The first-time coach, though, wouldn’t even make it two years. The former Laker was fired after going 40-96 in his first 136 games.
Wes Unseld was possibly the greatest player in Bullets/Wizards history. When the team needed a head coach in 1987, they turned to their former superstar. The first season went ok as the team finished 30-25.
Over the next 6 seasons, though, the team would never finish with a record above .500. The worst results came over his final 3 seasons when Unseld’s teams went 25-57, 22-60 and 24-58. He was fired following the 1994 season and took a roll in the front office.
Dick Vitale has long been one of the most famous faces in the sport of basketball. What many fans don’t know, though, is that the popular college basketball analyst was once a head coach in the NBA.
The Pistons hired Vitale in 1978 after he had a very successful run at Detroit Mercy College. The NBA proved to be much more difficult for the coach as he only compiled a 34-60 record. He moved to ESPN in 1979 and that move has worked out tremendously for him.
Keith Smart had a journeyman career as a player and later became a very admired assistant coach. Unfortunately, the jobs that open up in the league typically aren’t the best.
Smart took over a rebuilding Warriors team 2010 but had pretty poor results. He built his reputation back up as an assistant with the Miami Heat before landing a job with the Sacramento Kings that again went poorly. Smart has a career record of 93-170 from his two coaching stints.
John Lucas II
John Lucas had a fine NBA playing career, but also had issues with substance abuse. He overcame those issues, though, and became a mentor to many players. He also had a great start to his coaching career, leading the Spurs to two playoff appearances.
It was all downhill from there, though. He moved over to Philadelphia, where he only won 42 games in two seasons. He later coached the Cavaliers and only had 37 victories in a season and a half.
Willis Reed’s courageous performance in the 1969 NBA Finals made him maybe the most beloved players in franchise history. The team made him their head coach 8 years later. He was mostly fine in New York, finishing above .500, but left partway into his second season.
Reed later became the coach of the New Jersey Nets and was less successful there, only winning 33 games in two seasons before moving upstairs to become the team’s General Manager.
Someone had to follow Phil Jackson once the coaching legend decided to leave the Chicago Bulls. It was fitting that the man to succeed him was Bill Cartwright who had won 3 championships with the team.
The almost impossible job proved to be too much for the former center. Cartwright only compiled a record of 51-100 in his two years and change with the Bulls. He was never a head coach in the NBA again, though he did spend some time leading a team in the Japanese Basketball League.
After a decade of dominance and some very good teams in the mid-2010s, the Bulls decided to tear it down close to the end of the decade. In 2018, the team decided to turn their fortunes over to coach Jim Boylen.
Boylen is a bit different than most of the other coaches in the league. He does some odd things like having players clock into the facility and holding extremely long practices. It hasn’t worked great, as thus far, he has a record of 39-84.
Bill Hanzlik spent 10 years as an NBA wing and was well known for his hard-nosed defense. He later moved into the coaching field and worked as an assistant with the Charlotte Hornets and the Atlanta Hawks.
In 1997, he was given a shot at the top job when he became the head coach of the Denver Nuggets. To say it didn’t go well would be an understatement as the team went 11-71. This is still the worst record ever for a rookie coach.
Teams tend to think that point guards make for good head-coaching candidates. It makes sense as they are often the leaders of their teams. It doesn’t always work out, though, and Jacque Vaughn is a good example of that.
The 12 year NBA veteran cut his teeth as an assistant coach for the Spurs before getting the Orlando job. Vaughn only went 58-158 in 2 seasons and change for the Magic. He now serves as the interim head coach for the Brooklyn Nets.
Teams have always wondered if successful college coaches can make it in the NBA. Sometimes it works like with Thad Motta and Brad Stevens. Sometimes it doesn’t, which was the case with Rick Pitino, John Calipari, and Mike Montgomery.
Montgomery had spent 16 successful years at Stanford before moving over to Golden State in 2004. He spent only two seasons with the Warriors holding a record of 68-98. After his firing, Montgomery went back to the college ranks, coaching the University of California.
Most new head coaches are taking over teams that have a profound lack of talent. That wasn’t the case for Marc Iavaroni when he took over the Grizzlies in 2007. That squad featured talent like Pau Gasol, Mike Conley Jr., and Kyle Lowry.
Iavaroni, who was hired after a successful assistant coach stint with the Suns, only won 22 games during his first year with the talented team. He got a second chance, but after winning only 11 of 41 games, he was canned by the Grizzlies.
Jeff Hornacek had an outstanding NBA career. The sweet-shooting guard was a fixture on some excellent Utah Jazz teams. His head coaching career, though, went nowhere near as well as his playing one did.
Hornacek got his first job with the Phoenix Suns, winning 48 games in his first season, but failing to make the playoffs. He was let go 1 1/2 seasons later before resurfacing with the Knicks. The former guard only went 60-104 during his 2-year stint in New York and is now out of the league.
In 2011, Tyrone Corbin was given the unenviable task of taking over for legendary coach Jerry Sloan in Utah. The Jazz felt that his 7 years as an assistant with the team would prepare him well for the roll. It didn’t work out that way.
Taking over a talented team, Corbin managed to make the playoffs in his first full season. The wheels fell off soon afterward as the Jazz only managed to finish 25-57 in the 2013-2014 campaign.
It’s hard to criticize Ron Rothstein too much. The long-time NBA assistant had to take over an expansion team when the Miami Heat came into the league in 1988. The team was lacking in talent, but the coach certainly wasn’t making them better.
During his 3 seasons in Miami, Rothstein’s teams only won a total of 57 games. He got a second chance in Detroit, but only finished 40-42. The coach later became an assistant for Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra’s champion Heat squads.
Kurt Rambis was a well-known member of the 1980’s Showtime Lakers. He later became a protege of Phil Jackson working as an assistant under the coaching legend in Los Angeles.
The Timberwolves hired Rambis in 2009 hoping to bring some of the Laker magic to Minnesota. His tenure was a disaster from the start as the coach only won a total of 32 games over his two full seasons. He later served as an interim coach for the Knicks, running up a record of 9-19.
John Calipari is one of the most successful coaches in the history of college basketball. His teams have traditionally been contenders, making 6 Final Fours and 1 Title. His NBA tenure went much differently.
Calipari was hired in 1996 by a Nets team that had a fair amount of talent. The coach, though, couldn’t quite motivate his pro team in the same way as his college squads. After amassing a record of 72-120 in a little over 2 seasons, Coach Cal returned to the college ranks.
David Fizdale was a well-regarded assistant from the Miami Heat who took over a very talented Memphis squad. The first year went well as the team went 43-39. But he was gone 20 games into the second season after feuding with star Marc Gasol.
Fizdale was then hired by the Knicks and never really got it together. He was again fired before he could finish his second season. While the Knicks did not have a ton of talent, the squad looked markedly better when interim coach Mike Miller took the helm.