After going through the best bigs, wings, point guards and sixth men of all time, let’s move on to the men on the sidelines. NBA coaches have more influence on the character of their team than do the coaches of any other professional sport. To win an NBA championship, even the best coaches need outstanding players, and only rarely does a team of great players win a title when under the direction of an inferior coach — but this does happen.
Anyway, of the several hundred men who have been head coaches in the 70-year history of the NBA, here are the 10 best.
1. PHIL JACKSON
Many critics have grouched that Jackson won his 11 championships only because he was fortunate enough to coach the likes of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaq and Kobe. They overlook the fact that both Shaq and MJ had each been also-rans for six years before Jackson became their coach. Also ignored by his critics is how difficult it is for any coach to win when he’s supposed to win.
That’s because of having to control colossal egos, having every opponent gear up when they play his team and convincing his players to play hard every minute of every game.
Indeed, Phil Jackson is the NBA’s Lord of the Rings.
2. RED AUERBACH
Even though Red coached many more future Hall of Famers than did Jackson, Auerbach’s successes were never denigrated.
Anyway, if Auerbach was not a superior X’s and O’s guy, he was a wonderful judge of talent and a shrewd wheeler and dealer. To whit: His trading of Cliff Hagen and Ed Macauley for Bill Russell. Indeed, Auerbach’s special genius was his understanding of how to take full advantage of the installation of the game-changing 24-second clock. In so doing, Auerbach and Russell invented the modern game.
3. GREGG POPOVICH
Like Jackson and Auerbach could, Popovich can recognize and nurture talented players who fit his system. Moreover, if Pop tended to be stubborn in his early days on the bench, he has evolved into an extremely flexible strategist who can make uncanny between- and in-game adjustments. Sure, up to a point he can be patient with young players, but he always insists on perfection.
4. PAT RILEY
All of his teams were always incredibly well prepared for every game. And Riley was a much more resourceful coach than he was given credit for being. For example, the early-offense schemes of his run-and-gun “Showtime” Lakers were incredibly intricate and explosive. In New York, Riley’s game plan depended on smash-mouth defense. In Miami, he inherited an offensively challenged team and had them play tough defense and slo-mo offense.
Wherever he’s coached, Pat Riley has always turned up a winner.
5. RED HOLZMAN
He avoided media attention, while in private he loudly insisted that his teams played adhesive defense, that they played unselfishly and that they always hit the open man. If Holzman always blamed himself for his team’s failings, he never took credit for their many successes.
6. BILL SHARMAN
In his invention of the gameday shootaround, Sharman’s influence is still present in the NBA. Attention to detail was his modus operandi, but Sharman’s master stroke was to convince Wilt Chamberlain to key the Lakers’ record-setting 33-game win streak and their resulting championship in 1972 by playing like Bill Russell. Sharman did this by saying something like, “Wilt, do you think you should go out and guard Jerry Lucas when he’s on the perimeter?” When Chamberlain agreed to do so, Sharman would say, “Wilt! That’s a great idea you’ve come up with!”
In his own quiet, humble way, Sharman was a master psychologist and a marvelous coach.
7. JACK RAMSAY
Dr. Jack’s 1976-77 Portland Trail Blazers were among the most disciplined squads in NBA history. Totally unselfisha nd eager to satisfy team-oriented goals while absolutely trusting their teammates and their coach, this championship team was a joy to behold. Throughout his career, Ramsay was always able to get the maximum effort from his players.
8. GENE SHUE
He never coached a team to a title and had a losing record (784-861), but Shue’s extraordinary talent was to take sad-sack teams and transform them into legitimate championship contenders. He did this by totally altering his game plan to specifically suit the individual skills of his players.
9. LENNY WILKENS
A smooth point guard in his playing days, Wilkens was equally as seamless, dignified and silently effective as a coach. The trademark of his offenses was their incredible spacing that absolutely discouraged double-teams. He also insisted on crisp, productive pass-work that also hearkened back to his active career. But his rather sophisticated strategies required the skills of veteran players only, so rookies tended to linger on the bench.
10. LARRY BROWN
“Next Town” Larry Brown was (and still is) always on the move, usually leaving some kind of bad karma in his wake. However, he was a gifted teacher for those of his charges who were willing to be taught. And his game plans perfectly suited the abilities of his players.
ON THE CUSP
RUDY TOMJANOVICH, a passive coach who threw out the ball and let his players do whatever they wanted to do. Ditto for the slightly more aggressive CHUCK DALEY.
ALEX HANNUM, a tough guy who succeeded in motivating Wilt Chamberlain by shoving him against a locker and threatening to kick his butt unless he started playing team ball. The result was a championship for the 1966-67 Sixers, one of the best teams ever.
JERRY SLOAN, a system coach whose quest for a gold ring was blocked by MJ and the Jordanaires.