First-class coaches: from Red Auerbach to Riles and K.C. to P.J., we break down the all-time best on the bench – baskeball coaches Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, and K.C. Jones
NAMING THE BEST COACHES OF all time is a chicken-and-egg sort of exercise. Show us a coach who had great success, and we’ll show you a coach who had some great players. But coaches matter. They set a tone, instill systems, keep players happy, and are the primary lace of their team to the media.
Our list of great coaches takes a few factors into consideration. Most important are results: Career won-loss records are an obvious factor, and winning a title is almost requisite (there’s one exception). There are also some things that don’t show up in a career summary that have to be considered–like innovations, the way a coach instills his attitude on players, and the way a coach influenced the game either in his era or in the long term. That a few teams have tried Phil Jackson’s Triangle offense shows his influence. That being a natty dresser is a virtual prerequisite to being a head coach shows how Pat Riley has affected the league.
So without further ado, here are BASKEBALL DIGEST’s 10 best coaches in NBA history.
10 RED HOLZMAN. Perhaps no coach ever managed such a unique group of players to success the way Holzman managed the Kuicks in the 1970s. New York won two “dries under his tutelage (in 1970 and 1973) with a roster comprised of divergent personalities (the quiet Willis Reed, the nightclubbing Walt Frazier) but played team-oriented ball that was a sight to behold.
Holzman also got his players to buy into the defense-first altitude that helped the Knicks win those “dries. And while everyone else was wondering how Earl Monroe and Frazier would manage to play together when Monroe was traded to New York, Holznmn quietly led the Knicks to two straight Finals appearances in 1972 and 1973. No wonder he was named the best coach of the 1970s by the basketball writers of the era.
9 ALEX HANNUM. Maybe the first modern coach, Hannum was doing things 30 years ago that current coaches get heaps of praise for incorporating today. “Drink Riley’s a tough coach? Hannum was working his players hard in practice long before Riley ever heard of Armani. Think Jackson’s a genius for his work with superstars? Well, Hannum convinced Will Chamberlain to alter his game long before the Zen Master got Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal to follow his ways.
“He won the NBA title the first season he was here,” says Philadelphia 76ers statistician Harvey Pollack, who was the 76ers’ media relations director when Hannum coached the team. “He kept Writ Chamberlain under control and he was a disciplinarian. He’d kid around too, but the players were not running the coach, the coach was running the players.”
Haunum was also looking deep into the stat sheets before the sight of a coach obsessively poring over numbers became commonplace. In an era when the league didn’t even keep track of blocked shots, steals, or turnovers, Hannum was asking for all sorts of figures.
“He asked for turnovers, not just the number, but the kind, whether the player walked with the ball twice, or walked it out of bounds, whatever he did wrong,” Pollack says.
Hannum also got results. He took over a struggling St. Louis Hawks team in 195657 and got it to the Finals, where St. Louis lost in seven games to Red Auerbach’s Celtics for Boston’s first title. Hannum got revenge when his Hawks topped the Celtics in the Finals the next season–the only coach to get the best of Auerbach in the Finals. Hannum went on to lead the 76ers to 68 wins and the NBA championship in 1966-67. For added measure, he became the only coach to lead teams to the NBA and ABA titles, guiding the Oakland Oaks to the 1967-68 championship.
8 CHUCK DAILY. He only had great success with one team (though his two seasons with the New Jersey Nets were pretty good) but his stint with the Detroit Pistons is so good that he can’t be denied a place on the fist. Daly had a lot of good, and one or two great, players (Isiah Thomas, Dennis Rodman, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer) but he didn’t have a one-two punch like Jordan-Scottie Pippen or a one-two-three punch like Larry Bird-Robert Parish-Kevin McHale or Magic Johnson-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-James Worthy. Indeed, the Pistons were not built around one or two stars the way every other championship team has been since the early 1980s. Instead the Pistons played hard (which everyone knows) and smart (something that gets lost among the Bad Boys talk), team-oriented basketball–and Daly was a big reason why.
7 K.G. JONES. Here’s a guy who doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Jones owns the third-best winning percentage (.674) in league history. In his 10 NBA seasons, he had four 60-win seasons (including a high of 67 in 198586), plus 59 wins in 198687 and 57 in 1987-88. Jones’ Celtics teams won two titles and played in three other Finals. He also passes the multi-team test, guiding the 1974-75 Washington Bullets to 60 wins and a spot in the Finals.
Why does Jones get overlooked? Perhaps it’s because he only coached for 10 seasons, or that his coaching career ended with two lackluster campaigns with the Seattle SuperSonics. But such disrespect doesn’t bother Jones, according to one of his biggest stars. “The general public knows he’s a man’s man,” says former Celtic and current Indiana Pacers exec Larry Bird. “He likes to be pointed out as a good man and a good coach, but we as players knew. Playing for him, we knew how good he was and that’s all that matters. He was one of the nicest people in the world to be around. If you couldn’t respect K.C., you couldn’t respect anyone.”
Or perhaps Jones is a victim of the He Had Great Players syndrome to an even further degree than most others. Despite their great teams, Auerbach, Jackson, and Riley are part of the fabric of the franchises they coached. Jones seems to be perceived as the guy who stumbled across the Celtics–but Jones isn’t even the first coach to lead Bird-Parish-McHale to a title (Bill Fitch led Boston to the 1981 crown). And if that’s a negative, how come it hasn’t hurt Riley’s stature? After all, Paul Westhead guided the Lakers to a championship before Riley did.
6 DON NELSON. Oh, how things can change in just a few years. In 1999, Nelson was coming off seasons where he guided the Mavericks to records of 16-50 in 1997-98 (after taking over the team in December 1997) and 19-31 in the shortened 1999 campaign. He looked finished and out of touch (being fired from his previous job with the Knicks after only 59 games didn’t help). The only thing about him being mocked more than his wacky coaching decisions were his draft choices (such as an obscure German player named Dirk Nowitzki, who Nelson traded for in 1998).
Since then, the Mavs have been one of the best and most entertaining teams around, posting a 210-118 record over the last four seasons and reaching the 2003 Western finals. And Nelson’s having the last laugh.
He’s proven to be the kind of coach who can change with the times, working with today’s high-priced celebrities just as well as he did with his Milwaukee players in the 1980s when he was guiding the Bucks to seven straight division titles.
“I only knew one thing walking into this team and that was I didn’t know that much,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban says. “He’s going to forget more in a millisecond than I will ever know about coaching NBA basketball.”
With 1,096 career victories (third-best) and three Coach of the Year awards, Nellie makes the cut, even if he’s never coached a team to a title.
5 LENNY WILKENS. Being the all-time winningest coach has to stand for something. And besides his 1,292 wins, Wilkens is also the proud owner of a championship ring for guiding the SuperSonics to their lone NBA title in 1979 (he also led Seattle on a miracle run to the 1978 Finals after taking over the team early in the season). No one has coached more games than Wilkens, and his 80 playoff wins rank as the fifth-best total in history.
Wilkens never won another title, but he had great success with the Cleveland Cavaliers (three seasons of 50 or more wins and a spot in “the 1992 Eastern Conference finals) and Atlanta Hawks (57 wins in 1993-94, 56 in 1996-97).
4 JOHN KUNDLA. So many coaches have come and gone since Kundla decided to stay in Minneapolis rather than follow the Lakers to Los Angeles in 1959 that it’s easy to overlook him. But that would be a real shame: Kundla won five titles as a head coach, behind only Auerbach and Jackson with nine apiece. Kundla stands with those two as the only coaches to win three straight NBA titles. It’s worth adding that Kundla coached 11 seasons, while Auerbach coached 20 and Jackson is in his 14th.
Kundla’s playoff victory total ranks 11th all time, and again some perspective is needed. Besides the fact that he coached fewer seasons than all but two of the coaches ahead of him on the postseason victory list, Kundla’s teams played fewer rounds of playoffs (and shorter series) than most of these coaches.
“The Lakers he molded also stand as a model for NBA success to this very day. They were built around a talented big man (George Mikan) that used defense and passing to great effect, although the lack of a shot dock in those days makes the team’s ball-control style out of date.
Kundla also figured out that center Vern Mikkelsen could be converted into a forward and form a big-man partnership with Mikan. Coaches have been following that lead ever since, most recently Gregg Popovich’s paring of Tim Duncan and David Robinson that helped the San Antonio Spurs win two NBA titles.
3 PAT RILEY. He’s known as the ultimate disciplinarian a tough coach who’s a tireless worker and works his players until they plead for mere. What gets overlooked is Riley’s flexibility.
That’s right, flexibility, at least when it comes to the play of his teams. Riley rolled the cameras on Showtime as Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, Worthy, and company ran their way to four titles in the 1980s. Then he slowed things down when he made the Knicks perennial title contenders against the Chicago Bull. It should be noted that Riley did this without players as talented as the Bulls’ Jordan and Pippen. And while his stint with the Miami Heat didn’t end on a high note, keep in mind that when Riley got to the Sunshine State, the team was coming off a fourth-place finish and won the first of four straight Atlantic Division titles in his second season. In fact, Riley’s Knicks and Heat teams won seven division titles in nine years between the 199192 and 1999-2000 seasons.
Then there is Riley’s place in the record books. He’s second all-time in wins, first in playoff games coached, and second in playoff wins.
2 PHIL JACKSON. The man has his detractors and their rap usually goes like this: “I could coach Jordan and Shaq to titles.” Actually, the very fact that Jackson has coached players like Jordan, O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant to a bounty of championships is part of what makes him the best coach in the NBA today.
Jordan played in the league for six seasons before winning a title (in Jackson’s second year as the Bulls’ head coach). O’Neal also played six seasons without winning it all, and Bryant played three before Jackson joined the Lakers. In an era where star players are widely believed to be selfish and uncoachable, Jackson gets them to listen, even if they’re not reading the books he often gives them as presents.
Jackson’s Chicago and Los Angeles teams share many traits. They both follow the pass-oriented Triangle offense, non-star players (see John Paxson and Steve Kerr in Chicago, Robert Horry in Los Angeles) took, and made, do-or-die shots in the Finals, and both teams came back from title-threatening deficits–the Bulls against the Utah Jazz in 1998, the Lakers against the Portland Trail Blazers in 1999.
“He was Phil,” Ron Harper says of Jackson in that classic Lakers-Blazers matchup. “He was saying, ‘Hold your head up high and go out and play basketball.’ We were being beaten but we were not out of it, and he had Us go out and play.”
That was just one example of this great coach instilling his ways on a team to success. Jackson does that as well as anyone else ever has.
1 RED AUERBACH. The run is staggering. Nine titles in 10 years, including eight straight from 1959 to 1966. And it wasn’t like Auerbach’s Celtics teams were playing pushovers. Among the opponents Boston defeated time and again in the playoffs during Auerbach’s reign are the Lakers of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, a Cincinnati Royals team starring Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas, and Wilt Chamberlain’s Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors teams.
Thirty-seven years after he coached his last game, Auerbach remains among the top five leaders in regular season and playoff wins and winning percentage. But beyond that, Auerbach’s innovations virtually created the standard chess game that is coaching today. You could say he was lucky enough to have Bill Russell on his team, but Auerhach used Russell brilliantly. He virtually invented the concept of the sixth man, knowing that a rested good player would be a huge asset when opponents were resting their starters. And he was the first coach to make sure his best players were rested for the final minutes of a game.
So even though the history of the NBA is filled with the names of great coaches, Auerbach gets to light the ultimate cigar.
Five Who Could be Great
* Rick Carlisle. In the six seasons before Carlisle got to Detroit, the Pistons hadn’t won more than 32 games. In his first season (2001-02). Carlisle guided the team to 50 wins. They won another 50 last season and went to the conference finals. His firing in Detroit was a surprise–but if he’s successful with the Indiana Pacers, a legacy could be built.
* Gregg Popovich. He ended his seventh season with a 339-185 career record and a second title. Tim Duncan is signed on for the long term and that means Pop’s teams are going to have a chance at greatness for awhile.
* Byron Scott. Scott’s players may have criticized some of his substitution patterns in the 2003 Finals, but taking the New Jersey Nets from longtime laughingstock to Eastern Conference champions in two straight seasons isn’t a bad way to spend your first three years as a head man.
* Paul Silas. The great coaches have great players, and if LeBron James is as good as people think he is, Silas may be linked to James the way Red Auerbach is to Bill Russell, Pat Riley is to Magic Johnson, and Phil Jackson is to Michael Jordan.
* Jeff Van Gundy. His New York Knicks teams almost always overachieved, and now he’s taking over a very talented Houston Rockets team that should be poised to strike when today’s elite teams start to fade. Most great coaches have managed dominant big men, and Yao Ming seems poised to become the league’s best center within five years.
The Five Worst Coaches of All Time
* Don Delaney. Delaney was hired by the Cavaliers to coach the last 11 games of the 1980-81 season, during which Cleveland went 3-8. But he wasn’t given much of a second chance since he was let go after 17 games of the 1981-82 season and a career 7-21 record.
* Dick Vitale. Shortly after hiring Vitals, the Detroit Pistons mast have found themselves asking for a “T.O. baby!” In his only full season, 1977-78. Vitale took the Pistons to a 30-52 record. He was unceremoniously fired after 12 games the next season and embarked on his broadcasting career soon after.
* Magic Johnson. A great player and businessman, and an overall inspiration, but his brief stint coaching the Los Angeles Lakers to close out the 1993-94 season was dreadful. It’s not just the 5-11 record–it’s that he said he couldn’t get through to the current generation of players, and he had played a mere three seasons earlier.
* Rick Pitino. His stint with the Knicks wasn’t bad (New York went 90-74 over his two seasons before he left to coach the University of Kentucky) but Pitino’s NBA legacy will be his work with the Celtics. Boston eased Red Auerbach away from the decision-making to bring in Pitino and the result was a 102-146 record in three-plus seasons.
* Jerry Tarkanian. No amount of towel chewing could help Tarkanian cope with the NBA. His stint with the San Antonio Spurs lasted just 20 games (9-11); and even David Robinson had trouble getting along with him.
3 Michael Jordan Collectibles & A One Special Basketball Hall of Fame Item
We’re glad to offer the following collectible items, all now out of print, but available to readers of Basketball Digest for a limited time period …
Space Jammin. This is large format (10″ x 10″) and loaded with tons of amazing color photos and drawings. This is to give an insider’s perspective in on the making of the movie, Space Jam. It is a wonderful Michael Jordan collectible book, having the distinction of being one of the more unusual Jordon collectibles. First, it involves the film debut of Michael Jordan. Second, it is a true pictorial of the worlds of professional basketball and animation. As the dust wrapper states, the insightful text of this beautiful, hardcover book (published in 1996) is based on many interviews with Michael Jordan and a legion of NBA stars. 175 oases, with almost every page a mixture of wonderful text and color illustrations. Mint in dust wrapper. Only $25
Scarce 28 x 20 Michael Jordan Soccer Pester. Printed in 1994 for the World Cup by Upper Deck. It shows Michael with a soccer ball in his right hand, almost like he’s read to slam-dunk it. Folded, but in Very Fine-Near Mint condition. Scarce. $25
For The Love Of The Game: My Story. By Michael Jordan This paperback first edition collectible book is all about Michael’s career, including his wish list of players he would like to play against, past and present. Includes his insights on Magic Johnson and HIV. Lots of observations and statistics from the greatest basketball player ever. Beautifully illustrated book. Profusely illustrated with color photographs. 112 pages. Near Mint–Mint. $15
The Opening of the New Basketball Hall Of Fame Program. November 2002. This was a special promotion by a New England supermarket in conjunction with the new improved Hail of Fame. Full of information on the Players Gallery, Game Gallery, Teams Gallery, Media Gallery, and the History of the Game. It includes pictures of the new Hall, as well as career highlights for Dr. J., Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Red Auerbach, Larry and Magic, and, even though he is not yet officially a member, Michael Jordon. Also, wonderful highlights on the original 13 rules, the Harlem Globetrotters, and a full list of the Hall’s enshrinees. 34 pages including the covers and interior ads. Near Mint–Mint. $9.95
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