The 5 Greatest NBA Head Coaches Of All Time

Everyone would agree on the four best NBA coaches of all time. The order is the only question. Just exactly how would you rank the four best NBA coaches who have ever lived, and who’s number five? Continuing our “Best Of The NBA Summer Series” at Crossover Chronicles, Joe Manganiello and I take a look at the bench bosses of basketball:

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JOE MANGANIELLO (@thatjoemags)

5 – CHUCK DALY

In addition to coaching the Dream Team — a supernova of personality that grabbed the entire sports world by the face — Chuck Daly constructed one of the most high-octane collection of players in NBA history, the Bad Boy Pistons. His Detroit teams won a pair of titles while Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan were still in the league.

With the exception of his first NBA job in Cleveland, Daly never coached a losing team, and won 48 games or more in seven of his 14 seasons. Maybe Daly just knew how to pick ’em, but great coaches usually do (as you’ll see below).

4 – PAT RILEY

He coached five championship teams, and took the 1994 Knicks to the Finals. Nineteen of his 24 teams won 60 percent or more of their games. As President of the Miami Heat, Riley presided over the LeBron James-Big Three era while simultaneously grooming Erik Spoelstra into one of the sport’s top coaches. As perhaps the most connected man in NBA history — the Kevin Bacon of basketball, if you will — Riley’s impact transcends Xs and Os and championship banners.

3 – GREGG POPOVICH

As Bill Simmons penned in one of his final columns at Grantland — his beloved NBA Trade Value feature — he estimated Popovich was the No. 31 most valuable asset in the NBA. It’s funny because (a) Popovich doesn’t play basketball and (b) he’s probably worth more than that.

The Spurs just pulled off a colossal sequence of salary cap chess moves this summer, and enter 2015-’16 as the favorite to win the title — 17 seasons after Popovich and Tim Duncan won their first championship in 1999. How they did it is beyond complicated caprobatics, but when you consider who was behind the deals, it’s no wonder they got it done. The best of the best are willing to take less to play for Pop. What a scary world for every team outside San Antonio.

2 – RED AUERBACH

Nine championships as the head coach of the Boston Celtics. As general manager and team president of the team, he won an additional seven NBA titles. That’s grand total of 16 in a span of 29 years.

Yeah.

1 – PHIL JACKSON

After Phil Jackson drafted Kristaps Porzingis with the No. 4 pick in June’s NBA Draft, I wrote about why I loved the move — it was brave, daring, and indicated more than just surface-level analysis had been done. Phil Jackson, who has won 13 titles dating back to his playing tenure in New York, wouldn’t draft Porzingis unless he was sure about him. Men as accomplished as Jackson don’t attach their reputations to such a ballsy pick unless they are confident it’ll work.

Confidence doesn’t automatically equate to accuracy, but Jackson’s career has been built upon such calculated gambles. Inheriting Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, then Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, is a head start for anyone, to be sure. Yet, those teams were fine orchestras in need of a capable conductor, and Jackson’s genius has always been hearing his team’s music.

It’s possible the Porzingis pick will fail, and if it does — if Jackson’s tenure as Knicks president is a $60 million failure — he can fall back on his 13 titles and retire without fear of prosecution. However, his courage to make the daring pick instead of just taking an American-born, “ready now” player, mirrors the countless tactical adjustments he made with the Bulls and Lakers. He’s not afraid of failure.
And why should he be? He’s Phil Jackson.

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MATT ZEMEK (@mzemek)

5 – RED HOLZMAN

This marks the seventh “best-of-the-NBA” article in which Joe and I have presented a top-5 list for a given category. We have not yet matched a single list (regardless of order), which is — I’ll be honest — partly a way of getting more names on here to highlight their contributions to the game. However, it’s also a genuine product of intellectual independence.

My thought process in these articles has been and continues to be, “If I’m deviating from another equally rigorous and legitimate thought process, am I doing so just to be contrarian, or can I make a very strong case for my claims and back it up?” I felt I could back up my case in every circumstance, and in the one slot on this list where disagreement is allowable (no one could realistically argue with the top four coaches of all time — it’s just not possible), I arrived at the same conclusion.

First, a very brief word about Chuck Daly: He’s an excellent — not good, but excellent — choice as number five. He did surmount the Celtics and Lakers. He did coach the 1992 Dream Team. He is a major — not peripheral — figure in the history of the NBA. Full stop.

Why do I have Holzman? Here’s my case, and I think it holds up well:

Two of the greatest coaches in the NBA — men I’d put in the back end of the top 10 — are Jack Ramsay and Larry Brown. Ramsay’s 1977 Portland team was a 1970s version of the 2014 Spurs, with its commitment to fluid ball movement and blended team actions. Portland played the game close to its chalkboard ideal.

Larry Brown got the 2004 Detroit Pistons to play some of the best team defense we’ve ever seen, and had Rasheed Wallace not left Big Shot Bob Horry open at the end of Game 5 in the 2005 Finals, the Pistons might have repeated. Beyond Detroit, Brown got the 2001 Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals and even (with Allen Iverson’s help) won a game against the mighty Lakers. Iverson, for all his combativeness, was able to coexist long enough with Brown to give Philadelphia its most recent basketball moment of considerable significance. Brown also guided the Los Angeles Clippers to the playoffs. He coached the Indiana Pacers within a game of the NBA Finals twice — had the Pacers not lost a 12-point, fourth-quarter lead in Game 7 of the 1994 East Finals in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks, Indiana would have matched up favorably against the Houston Rockets in the Finals.

Here’s where Holzman fits into the larger picture:

First, as a purely biographical detail, Holzman, like the Philly-born Ramsay and the Brooklyn-born Brown, grew up in the urban Northeast (Brooklyn). He always knew basketball as the city game and was therefore exposed to the same vein of experience Ramsay and Brown benefited from.

Holzman, though, idealized and maximized his career in that he won in New York, at MSG, with the Knicks. No one else ever has; Pat Riley came within a game, but he didn’t make it. Being the coach of the Knicks has been one of the most thankless, perplexing and exhausting jobs in all of sports over a long span of time. Great basketball men such as Rick Pitino and Hubie Brown couldn’t solve the puzzle of being the Knicks’ coach. Jeff Van Gundy made the Finals, but one can’t shake the feeling that if the 1999 season had not been shortened, the outcome wouldn’t have been the same.

Here comes Holzman, though: He took the best of Ramsay and Brown and brought it to fruition in the Big Apple, getting the early-1970s Knicks teams to play the city game with unselfishness and total dedication to the larger project of winning, in a manner Gregg Popovich (a Brown protege, by the way) has adopted in San Antonio.

More than that, if you can (rightly) note that Daly’s all-time standing is enhanced by the fact that he wrested the NBA title away from the 1980s Lakers, Holzman also won titles after other great teams had come before him. The Knicks took the torch from the 1960s Boston Celtics in 1970, and in 1973, they took back the NBA title one year after the 1972 Lakers won 33 games in a row and marked themselves as one of the best single-season NBA teams of all time.

The Red Auerbach-and-Bill Russell Celtics never did lose to the Lakers in the NBA Finals, so the Knicks — by losing in 1972 — could not say they were perfect. However, beating the Lakers in two of three Finals to essentially “win” the early part of the 1970s — before the NBA moved into one of its most parity-laden periods (from 1975 through 1979) — represents a tremendous accomplishment.

For a whole host of reasons, Red Holzman nudges out Chuck Daly for fifth on my list.

4 – PAT RILEY

We now get to the point where the order of coaches — more than whether or not they appear on this list — becomes the main issue. Because one is ranking four legends — the four people who best practiced the art of coaching — one has to make very specific and granular distinctions among these men. Accordingly, what will seem like a criticism on the surface is simply meant to say that Coach X is better, not that Coach Y was worse. These comments are fully intended to magnify the higher-ranked man, not to diminish or detract from the lower-ranked man.

With that prelude over, here’s why Riley is not third on the list:

First, Riley had a great perimeter player (Magic Johnson) and a great interior player (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) when he took over for Paul Westhead as the Lakers’ head coach early in the 1981-1982 season. Gregg Popovich also had two cornerstone stars on his first NBA championship team in San Antonio, but they were both interior players: David Robinson and Tim Duncan. The early-1980s Lakers had a more ready-made roster than the late-1990s Spurs did.

Second, Popovich clearly won NBA titles with totally different styles. The 2014 team and the previous four Spurs champions approached the game from substantially different vantage points, even though the emphasis on team play remained at the heart of the project.

Riley ultimately stays at fourth on this list because he couldn’t win the NBA title with the Knicks. I know this smacks of “New York/big-media Knicks worship,” but it’s not meant to convey that impression: Just realize that had he broken through with the Knicks, Riley could make the claim that he won NBA titles with Showtime and… well… a style as opposite Showtime as one could imagine. Riley’s title in Miami didn’t easily fit into a style. A championship in New York — given the way the Knicks played in comparison to the 1980s Lakers — would have given Riley’s resume a completeness which would have exceeded Popovich in the present moment. (If Popovich wins another title in San Antonio, well, then the discussion changes.)

3 – GREGG POPOVICH 

Did he hit the mother of all jackpots with Tim Duncan? Of course he did. Yet, remember that before he was coach of the Spurs, Pop was general manager of the team. He sacked the coach (Bob Hill) and came down from the front office to coach the team, something Riley did in Miami in the 2005-2006 season, pushing aside Stan Van Gundy. Unlike Riley, Pop didn’t win a title in the same season he took over coaching duties. (What a profound irony it is that the 1996-1997 season — by becoming as awful as it was — would lay the groundwork for Pop’s career in the Alamo City.) However, what Popovich has done over the past 18 years boggles the mind.

In many ways, what has happened in San Antonio is what Portland residents wish could have happened in their city following the 1977 world championship. Had Bill Walton remained healthy, and had Portland been able to stack on another title in 1978 (the Blazers were clearly the best team in the league before Walton got hurt), the Blazers would have become a destination franchise for other players and the envy of the league. Selfless, integrated team basketball could have taken hold, and the 1980s Lakers might have had a much tougher time winning the West.

San Antonio, in the first decade of the new century, wrested power from the Lakers with a core roster that took its best components (Robinson and Duncan) and gradually added new (young) pieces to the mix. With Tony Parker arriving in 2001 and Manu Ginobili coming aboard in 2002, the Spurs developed a complete team. Bruce Bowen was the defensive stopper. Malik Rose provided crucial rebounding. Steve Kerr hit still more clutch playoff jumpers, having gotten used to the routine in Chicago with Michael Jordan’s post-comeback Bulls. Everything fit, and with Robert Horry joining the show in time for a memorable 2005 postseason run, the Spurs kept tweaking themselves enough to win multiple additional titles.

Popovich built something in San Antonio, whereas Riley inherited something in Los Angeles. Riley dominated in a big market, but Pop did in a smaller market. Advantage, Pop.

2 – PHIL JACKSON

Are Phil Jackson’s coaching feats extraordinary? Yes — without question. Is Jackson the foremost example of a coach who succeeded chiefly in the art of sports psychology, of managing large egos and getting them to coexist on gamedays? Yes he is. Coaching has always required the ability to handle the athletes under one’s supervision, but in more recent years, the intensity of the media microscope and the explosion of wealth in an increasingly lucrative sports business has made “ego management” that much more central to a coach’s job description. In this realm of the profession, Jackson stands without peer. If you could handle Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Toni Kukoc… and then Shaq and Kobe… and then Kobe, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, and Metta World Peace… you deserve a damn Nobel Peace Prize.

Jackson’s mastery of the locker room and the competitive ego makes him the second-greatest head coach who has ever lived. He’s not being shortchanged here. That’s high praise.

It’s just that one coach was better.

1 – RED AUERBACH

As great as Phil Jackson was and is and always will be, I challenge you do to two things:

1) Name a member of the Phil Jackson coaching tree who, in the years following Jackson’s stay in Chicago, has gone on to make a considerable impact as an NBA head coach. Tyronn Lue might get his chance, and he certainly helped David Blatt with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but he remains an assistant. Tex Winter, of course, preceded Jackson, and was more a mentor to Phil than a pupil or disciple. Where is the Phil Jackson-trained head coach who has succeeded in the league?

2) Of the 11 championships Jackson won as a head coach, identify an NBA Finals in which Jackson’s team defeated an opponent with two players as great as Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. The two wins over the Utah Jazz — with John Stockton and Karl Malone — come close. The 1993 Finals against Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson of Phoenix come almost as close. The 1992 Finals against Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter? That feels like more of a reach, but it might still be in the ballpark. The 1996 Finals against Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp? Similar to 1992. The 2010 Finals against Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett of the Boston Celtics? That’s closer to the top of the list, but it remains below the standard set by West and Baylor.

Red Auerbach made Elgin Baylor 0-for-7 in NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics, and Jerry West 0-for-6. While you let those facts sink in, then realize that unlike Phil Jackson, Auerbach cultivated not just a successful coach, but a player-coach who guided his own team — the Celtics — to NBA titles in 1968 and 1969. Bill Russell was the coach of those two Celtic champions, and the 1969 team pulled off what might remain the greatest upset in Finals history. (It’s certainly on the short list alongside the 1975 Warriors over the Bullets, and the 2004 Pistons over the Lakers.)

Auerbach players Bill Sharman, Tommy Heinsohn and Don Nelson all enjoyed considerably successful coaching careers — Sharman and Heinsohn won NBA titles (Heinsohn two) and reached multiple NBA Finals. Nelson merely won over 1,300 NBA games.

If coaching is teaching — handing the game and its secrets to the subsequent generations and equipping them for greatness — which coach taught the game better?

Jackson’s signature was his mastery of the modern male ego.

Auerbach was the better teacher of basketball.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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