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Rosen: What Makes Great Coaches

Christophe Elise/Icon Sportswire

In the 69-year history of the NBA, only 32 different coaches have won championships. Several of these were great coaches — including but not limited to Red Auerbach, Jack Ramsay, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. And several were many degrees less than great — including Bill Russell, who won because he was able to coach himself; Chuck Daley and Rudy Tomjanovich, whose main jobs were to lead cheers and to babysit.

So if a coach’s ultimate standing isn’t necessarily guaranteed by his winning one or more championships, then what are the other qualifications of greatness?

To be considered at the top of his profession, NBA coaches must have the following. 

Superior talent at their disposal, although Phil Jackson offers a caveat: “Even having three superstars won’t necessarily win a championship without also having less-talented players who are willing to set screens, fill lanes and do all of the so-called ‘dirty work’.”  

After all, how many titles did the Baylor-West-Chamberlain LA Lakers win? Or the Olajuwon-Barkley-Drexler Rockets? The Olajuwon-Barkley-Pippen Rockets? The Miller-Smits-Mullin Pacers? The Malone-Stockton-Hornacek Jazz? And so on and on…

Aside from the absence of viable role players on the triple-star teams listed above, coaching clubs that are “supposed” to win at least one championship is extremely difficult because of the super-egos that must be dealt with.

It should also be noted that Al Attles led Golden State to a title in 1975 with only a single supreme talent — Rick Barry, who averaged more than twice as many points per game (30.6) as the Warriors’ second-leading scorer (Jamaal Wilkes, 14.2).

A truly great coach needs some manifestation of compelling charisma sufficient to snag and maintain his players’ attention. Guys like Attles and Bill Fitch were ultra-belligerent, Pop uses humor and cynicism and Doc Rivers is essentially a con man.

Add to the list enough expertise to be fluent in Xs and Os, or employing an assistant who specializes in this arcane alphabet.

Also necessary is a work ethic that sets an example for his staff and his players. Or else having several assistants willing to compensate for his laissez-faire attitude by working overtime and allowing him to claim the credit.

The ability to relate to his players is a quality that helps but isn’t always necessary. John Lucas had the best rap ever, but was a poor coach. Bill Fitch had the courtside manner of a Marine drill instructor — which he had been — yet was still a top-notch coach.

The ability to somehow motivate his players is another job requirement.  Auerbach made sure they knew that unless the Celtics won a championship they’d have to find summer jobs. Phil Jackson created an environment where players motivated themselves.

Another plus is an awareness that the season is a marathon and that having a kick left for the playoffs requires significant pacing. When Jerry West coached the Lakers (1976-79), his pregame pep talk was always the same: “This is the most important game of the season.” Which is one reason why his teams underachieved (8-14) in the playoffs.

Literally every great coach has/had an abiding passion for the game. Sometimes, though, this can become a detriment when a coach rides his players too hard, e.g., the likes of Mike Fratello, Dick Motta and Tom Thibodeau.

A balanced view of the game is another must. When he coached the Bulls, Doug Collins devoted about 95 percent of each practice session to offense, which matched his focus during his own playing career.

Organizational skills are helpful, if only to make in-season practices short and precise. As opposed to John Calipari’s habit of having his players idly standing by while he delivered various orations.

Pop and Steve Kerr are the best of the current crop in their ability to make in-game and between-game adjustments. Jerry Tarkanian (San Antonio, 1992) and Roy Rubin (Philadelphia, 1972-73) were the worst ever.

Nobody was better than Pat Riley in preparing his teams for games — mentally, emotionally, physically and supplying them with a useful scouting report as well as an excellent game plan.  

A great coach finds a way of always keeping the players interested in whatever he says. Larry Brown and Mike Fratello were infamous for shrilling the same corrections all season long at the risk of having many of their players eventually tuning them out.

Respect FOR their players is a valuable attitude, which often means occasionally asking for their input. This has to be coupled with perhaps the most critical requirement — the respect OF his players. This is where a coach who’s already won a championship has a great advantage.

Of course, no coaches, past or present, exhibit all of the above characteristics, but the truly great ones can check off a majority of the categories.

Oh, yes, there’s one more factor that is absolutely essential: The avoidance of debilitating injuries to irreplaceable players. With a corollary being: A plague of injuries suffered by key players on opposing teams. 

In sum, here are the top 10 NBA coaches of all time:

  1. Phil Jackson
  2. Red Auerbach
  3. Gregg Popovich
  4. Pat Riley
  5. Jack Ramsay
  6. Red Holzman
  7. Alex Hannum
  8. Bill Sharman
  9. K.C. Jones
  10. John Kundla

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