It’s not hard to overlook the crucial role a coach plays in every team’s success. The spotlight is always placed on the players — and rightfully so — which sometimes causes most of us to undervalue the type of contribution a head coach has on his team. Today, we take a look at some of the best NBA coaches in the history of the sport, and there are indeed a good number of them so let’s get started.
Gregg Popovich is the only active head coach on our list. As a matter of fact, the San Antonio Spurs shot-caller is regarded by many as one of, if not the best head coach in the game today. Pop started his career as an assistant coach for the Spurs way back in 1988 before being promoted to the head coaching position for the 1996-97 season. And the rest, as they say, is history.
In just his third season at the helm, Popovich led the Spurs to an NBA title. He would go on to win four more (to date), making him a five-time NBA champ with San Antonio. There is perhaps, no better marriage in the history of the game between head coach and star player than that of Popovich and Tim Duncan. It was a match made in heaven, and there is no doubt that Pop played a pivotal role in Duncan becoming one of the greatest power forwards of all time.
The Spurs have got it done under Popovich without the flare or needing all the attention that some of the bigger market teams crave. Instead, San Antonio’s model is one based off of grinding out seasons and knowing that if they just get to the playoffs, with Popovich, anything can happen come postseason time.
Today, Pat Riley is known more as the architect behind the Miami Heat’s sustained competitiveness over the past decade or so. While there is also little doubt that the 76-year-old will go down in history as one of the best team executives ever, Riley is also right at the top when talking about NBA all-time great coaches.
Riley is the man behind the dominance of the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980’s (the “Showtime Lakers”) led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. He won four titles with L.A. in the span of seven seasons. During that time, there was no team as popular or with as much eyeballs on them as the Lakers and yet despite all that pressure, Riley’s LA squads won at a remarkable rate year in and year out.
Riley would then have a four-year stint with the New York Knicks, leading the team to an Eastern Conference championship in 1994, prior to heading over to Miami to take over as the team’s head coach in 1995. He would also go on to win a title with the Heat (2005-06 season with Dwyane Wade as his star player), bringing up his total tally to five rings and leaving no doubt about his status as a top tier coach in NBA history.
The younger generation may not be too familiar with Red Auerbach simply because he made his mark on the league some five or six decades ago. The Hall of Fame coach was the architect behind the Boston Celtics’ unmatched dominance during the 1950’s and 1960’s, in the era of the great Bill Russell. Auerbach’s claim to fame is his record-setting eight consecutive NBA titles with the C’s (they won a total of nine in 10 years). Safe to say, this is not a record that is going to be broken or even matched anytime soon. Auerbach passed away in 2006 at the age of 89. When considering how a lot of the same teams are in the NBA Finals in today’s league yet how hard it is to just repeat, it’s jaw dropping to think about Auerbach’s Boston team ripping off eight straight NBA titles, despite the lack of parity back in the day.
At the top of our list is the great Phil Jackson, and few would be willing to argue against his placement in any list. Jackson was the man at the helm for the Chicago Bulls when the legendary Michael Jordan won six titles in eight seasons (two three-peats separated by a two-year hiatus for His Airness). Right after Chicago’s sixth title in 1998, Jackson would then join the Los Angeles Lakers, where he would win another three consecutive titles, making it six in a row for him with two different squads.
Jackson would lead a Kobe Bryant-led L.A. franchise to back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010 before hanging up his coaching shoes in 2011. A record 11-time NBA champion coach, there’s little doubt as to why Jackson is considered by many as the greatest ever.