It takes a special kind of person to be a great coach in the NBA. It takes the ability to teach players how to play, create a winning culture and break up on-court feuds.
These 10 coaches have all accomplished that and more. Some, like Lenny Wilkens, have even been Hall of Famers as both players and coaches.
1. Phil Jackson
With Jordan, Pippen, and Shaq on board, Jackson was able to manage player egos and create a cohesive unit. He was a master of the Xs and Os, but his greatest asset might have been his ability to connect with players.
Jackson created a team culture that prioritized leadership, empowerment, communication, authenticity, and relationships. He also understood how to maximize a player’s potential. For example, he trusted Dennis Rodman even though he often came into camp out of shape. This helped the Lakers win 11 championships.
2. Gregg Popovich
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is one of the most successful coaches in NBA history. He has a record of 633 regular season wins and only 305 losses.
He also won four championships with the Spurs. Popovich is also the longest-tenured coach in the league and a first-rate tactician.
He preaches that there are bigger things than basketball and teaches his players to look beyond themselves. He gets his players involved in projects like Champions Against Hunger and works with organizations such as Shoes That Fit and Innocence Network.
3. Red Auerbach
Auerbach built a sports dynasty in Boston Garden and won 16 NBA titles. He nurtured the careers of legends like center Bill Russell, forward John Havlicek and guard K.C. Jones, who would later become a coaching great in his own right.
Adapting to his players, Auerbach got the most out of them by knowing what motivated each one. For example, he yelled at Heinsohn a lot, but would only gently chide Russell. This approach led to a team that was always playing together with a common goal.
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4. Pat Riley
Riley coached one of the most famous NBA dynasties in history with the Showtime Lakers, maximising the talents of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He then brought his winning philosophies to the New York Knicks, instilling them with a rugged identity and reviving the franchise.
But his restless spirit led him to seek new challenges, and he became an executive. He still coaches, but his lessons also apply to businesses. He wrote a book on the subject, The Winner Within. It’s a blueprint that teaches how to beat The Disease of Me.
5. Steve Kerr
Kerr is a five-time champion as both a player and coach, with 9 NBA rings. He has revolutionized modern basketball by embracing a team-first mentality and an offensive system that features three-point shooting.
A masterful tactician, Kerr understands the nuances of his players. He teaches his team to be prepared, play smart, and never give up. He also demonstrates how to lead through his actions, not his words. In doing so, he inspires his teammates and the entire organization to follow suit. This type of leadership is often overlooked.
6. Larry Brown
Brown is one of the best at taking stumbling NBA teams and turning them into sleek, winning machines. He uses his own method of teaching basketball, which he calls “Playing the Right Way,” to help players reach their full potential.
He began his career in the ABA with the Carolina Cougars and the Denver Nuggets before coaching UCLA for two seasons and leading a freshman-dominated team to the 1980 NCAA title game (which was later vacated by the school). He also has coached the New Jersey Nets, Kansas, SMU, Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons.
7. Chuck Daly
He revolutionized the game with his “players coach” approach. He brought a new brand of rugged and physical basketball to the NBA that made his Detroit Pistons nicknamed the Bad Boys.
He coached the original Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics and had nine winning seasons with the Pistons before he retired.
He is one of the most consistent coaches in NBA history and is known for his leadership skills. He has won more than 700 games in his coaching career. He also has a remarkable record in the playoffs.
8. Red Holzman
Despite his unruly hair and spiritual practices that were outside of the mainstream, Red Holzman was one of the best minds to ever tote a clipboard in the NBA. He molded stars like Dave DeBusschere, Earl Monroe and Dick Barnett into a team that exemplified New York City basketball.
His simple philosophies taught players to play defense, move without the ball and hit the open man. This kind of thinking led to two NBA championships for the Knicks. Those lessons will never be forgotten. The best coaches in the NBA are those who know how to manage player egos and create winning teams.
9. Dick Motta
Motta never played high school, college or professional basketball but he coached the Chicago Bulls and Washington Bullets to championships. He retired in 1997 and now runs a bed and breakfast with his wife.
The best coaches know their x’s and o’s, but they also understand the intangibles of the game. They are teachers, motivators and sometimes therapists. And they leave a lasting legacy on the sport of basketball. That’s what makes them great. Dick Motta is a true legend. He’s a big reason why the NBA is what it is today.
10. Lenny Wilkens
Lenny Wilkens never bragged about his accomplishments, but he quietly won more games than anyone in NBA history. He is the all-time coaching wins leader without ever coaching a hall-of-fame player at their best.
He molded role players like Mark Price, Brad Daugherty and Larry Nance into excellent teammates. And he helped Bill Walton through two injury-plagued half seasons at the beginning of his NBA career. That takes a lot of pride and stubbornness. It’s what made him a good coach. And a good man. In our negative society, that’s an amazing achievement.