Ranking 12 Best NBA Coaches of All Time

NBA has a rich history, and it boasts not only the greatest teams in history but also the best NBA coaches of all time.

Of course, to win in the NBA, players would need to have great talent and skillsets. However, the team also needs excellent coaching. Although evaluating the impact of a coach is a tough job, and much of the credits are given to the star players.

However, to win a championship or any game, the teams need strategies, tactics, leadership, and teamwork. This is where the coach of the team plays the most significant role.

John-Wall-Sam-Cassell-Don-Newman-Washington-at-Orlando
John Wall, Sam Cassell, and Don Newman Washington at Orlando (Source: Wikimedia.org)

Coaches draw various strategies and tactics that suit the team. They also have to motivate the team and bring the best out of the individual players. Every coach has different styles of coaching and philosophies.

Therefore, to give them the much respect that the coaches deserve for their efforts and hard work, we have prepared the list of the 12 best NBA coaches of all time.

12 Best NBA Coaches of All Time

The list presented below has been prepared based on the coach’s regular-season records, postseason records, and the championship they won during their career.

The information has been taken from trusted sites like the Bleacher report and Athlon sports. So, before diving into the details, let us take a quick look at the table below.

RankingNameChampionship
12.Larry Brown1
11.Jerry Sloan0
10.K.C. Jones2
9.Don Nelson0
8.William “Red” Holzman2
7.John Kundla5
6.Lenny Wilkens1
5.Chuck Daly2
4.Pat Riley5
3.Gregg Popovich5
2.Arnold “Red” Auerbach9
1.Phil Jackson11

12. Larry Brown

  • Regular-season record: 1,327-1,011
  • Postseason record: 120-115
  • NBA Championships: 1

We will start this list of best NBA coaches with 81 year old American basketball coach, Larry Brown. Born as Lawrence Harvey Brown, he played for the North Carolina Tar Heels Men’s Basketball in the early 1960s.

Brown started his head coaching career job in 1969 at Davidson College in North Carolina. After resigning from the post in just two months, he went ahead and coached some of the biggest NBA teams.

The NBA team that Brown has coached are the Carolina Cougars, Denver Nuggets, UCLA, New Jersey Nets, Kansas, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers.

Larry-Brown-press-conference-Feb2014
Larry Brown at a press conference in February 2014

Similarly, he was also the head coach for the Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks, Charlotte Bobcats, SMU, and Auxilium Torino.

He is the only coach in basketball history to win the NCCA national championship and an NBA title. Likewise, Brown’s other achievements as a coach include NBA Coach of the Year, two-times NBA All-Star Game head coach, three-times ABA Coach of the Year.

He has also won the Naismith College Coach of the Year awards, two-times Big Eight Tournament championship, Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award, and the AAC Tournament winner.

In 2002, Larry became the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer. Currently, he is an assistant coach for Memphis.

11. Jerry Sloan

  • Regular-season record: 1,223-803
  • Postseason record: 98-104
  • NBA Championships: 0

The next on our list of best NBA coaches is Jerry Sloan. He is regarded as one of the greatest and most respected coaches in NBA history.

Sloan was born Gerald Eugene Sloan on March 28, 1942. He was a professional basketball player before entering into the professional basketball coaching career. As a player, he played 11 seasons in the NBA.

Solan had a 30-year long coaching career, of which he spent 23-year as a head coach of the Utah Jazz. Apart from Utah, he was also a head coach for Chicago Bulls. Thus, in American major league sport, he was the longest-tenured head coach.

Jerry had a fiery personality which led to some heated situations. His method of coaching relied more on the traditional lineups and pick-and-roll sets.

He was a very consistent coach, and by the time he retired, he was the fifth coach to reach 1,000 NBA victories and one of the two coaches to record 1,000 wins with one club in NBA history.

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Additionally, Sloan was one of the only four coaches with 15-plus consecutive seasons with a winning record in NBA history.

Apart from that, he has also won the Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition,  Solan was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.

Jerry Sloan left the world at the age of 78 on May 22, 2020.

10. K.C. Jones

  • Regular-season record: 522-252
  • Postseason record: 81-57
  • NBA Championships: 2

K.C. Jones was one of the only two African-American coaches, the other being Bill Russell, to win multiple NBA championships.

Jones was born on May 25, 1932, in Taylor, Texas. He was a professional basketball player and later transitioned into a coach.

As a professional basketball player, he is tied in the third position for the most NBA championships and one of the three NBA players with an 8-0 record in NBA Final series.

From 1967 to 1970, Jones served as a head coach at Brandeis University. It was the starting of his coaching career. He served as an assistant coach to Harvard University, Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Seattle SuperSonics, and Detroit Pistons.

As a head coach, K.C. Jones took the helm of Brandeis, San Diego Conquistadors, Capital / Washington Bullets (Washington Wizards now), Boston Celtics, Seattle SuperSonics, and New England Blizzard.

Jones won his two NBA championships as an assistant coach and two more NBA championships as a head coach. Additionally, he was a five-time NBA All-Star Game head coach.

In 1989, Jones was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.

He passed away at the age of 88 on December 25, 2020.

9. Don Nelson

  • Regular-season record: 1,335-1,063
  • Postseason record: 75-91
  • NBA Championships: 0

81 year old Don Nelson (Donald Arvid Nelson) is a former American professional basketball player before transitioning into a coaching career. He was born in Muskegon, Michigan.

Nelson is an all-time coaching leader with his most regular-season wins than any coach in NBA history. Moreover, he is a coaching innovator. For example, his creation of the point forward position in Milwaukee was revolutionary.

He renounced the traditional pivot-clogging centers in exchange for the fast-paced lineups capable of scoring points in bunches. Nelson also has a unique brand of basketball which is referred to as “Nellie Ball.”

Don-Nelson-Dallas-International-Film-Festival
Don Nelson at Dallas International Film Festival (Source: Wikimedia.org)

Don has coaching experience of over forty years. As a head coach, he coached NBA teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors, New York Knicks, and Dallas Mavericks.

His career highlight awards include three-times NBA Coach of the Year, two-times NBA All-Star Game head coach, and Top 10 Coaches in NBA history.

Don Nelson became the Naismith Memorial Basket Ball Hall of Famer in 2012. He retired from his coaching career after the 2009-2010 season.

8. William “Red” Holzman

  • Regular-season record: 696-604
  • Postseason record: 58-47
  • NBA Championships: 2

William “Red” Holzman was born on August 10, 1920, in Manhattan, New York. Like most of the coaches on this list, he was also a professional basketball player before retiring to become a coach.

Holzman started his career as an assistant coach for the New York Knicks. Later he became the head coach for the Knicks from 1967 to 1982. Aside from the Knicks, he also served the Milwaukee / St. Louis Hawks (Atlanta Hawks now) and Leones de Ponce.

Under the coaching of Holzman, the team won two NBA championships.

Additionally, his career highlight awards include NBA Coach of the Year, two-times NBA All-Star Game Coach, three-times BSN champion, and was named one of the Top 10 Coaches in NBA history.

Red Holzman was among the few individuals to have won an NBA championship as a player and a coach. He retired in the year 1982. By his retirement, he had the second-most career victories as a head coach in NBA history.

In 1986, Holzman was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Similarly, Holzman was also a member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

With the records and achievements that Holzman had acquired during his coaching career, he is undoubtedly one of the best NBA coaches of all time. But, unfortunately, he died on November 13, 1998, at the age of 78.

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7. John Kundla

  • Regular-season record: 423-302
  • Postseason record: 60-35
  • NBA Championships: 5

In this list of best NBA coaches, John Kundla is one of the coaches who did not transition from a professional basketball player to coaching. He was born John Albert Kundla on July 3, 1916 inn Star Junction, Pennsylvania.

Although he did not play basketball professionally, he did play college basketball. First, he attended and played for the Minneapolis Central High School. Later he attended the University of Minnesota, where he played for the Minnesota Golden Gophers basketball.

Kundla began his coaching journey as an assistant coach to Dave MacMillan after his graduation. He then later became the head coach of DeLaSalle High School.

After two years, World War II took over the United States, and John served his country by joining the Navy.

After World War II, in 1946, John was hired as a coach for the College of St. Thomas. Then in 1947, he became the head coach for the Minneapolis Lakers.

Kundla was the first head coach for the Minneapolis Lakers. With his mild-mannered demeanor, he served as the head coach for the Lakers for 12 seasons, from 1947 to 1959.

John resigned from his position after the Lakers franchise was going to be moved to Los Angeles. Then he went ahead to coach at the University of Minnesota.

Kundla won the NBA championship five times (1949, 1950, 1952-1954). Similarly, his career highlight awards include NBL champion in 1948 and four-times NBA All-Star Game head from 1951-1954).

Kundla was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995. Sadly, the NBA coach passed away at the age of 101 on July 23, 2017.

6. Lenny Wilkens

  • Regular-season record: 1,332-1,155
  • Postseason record: 80-98
  • NBA Championships: 1

We have three times basketball Hall of Famer, Lenny Wilkens on our sixth number of the best NBA coaches. 84 year old, Wilkens is one of the three coaches to have a record for the most coaching wins in NBA history.

Born as Leonard Randolph Wilkens, he started playing basketball from college. Later on, he became a professional basketball player and started his journey with St. Louis Hawks in 1960.

At retirement as a professional player, Wilken was the NBA’s second all-time leader in that category.

Lenny Wilkens (Source: Wikipedia)
Lenny Wilkens (Source: Wikipedia)

Lenny started coaching from 1969 to 1972 for the Seattle SuperSonics as a player-coach. After his retirement, he became the full-time coach for the Portland Trail Blazers.

He also coached NBA teams like Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, and New York Knicks.

Aside from winning the NBA champion in 1979, Wilkens’s other career highlight awards include NBA Coach of the Year in 1994 and four-times NBA All-Star Game head coach in 1979, 1980, 1989, 1994, respectively.

Similarly, he is also included in the Top 10 Coaches in NBA history.

In the history of the NBA, Lenny Wilkens is the most prolific coach. Although he only won one championship, he guided his teams to the playoffs 20 times. In addition, in the 2010-2011 season, he won the Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award.

Wilkens was enlisted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1989, as a coach in 1998, and in 2010 as an assistant coach for being the 1992 United States Olympic “Dream Team.”

5. Chuck Daly

  • Regular-season record: 638-437
  • Postseason record: 75-51
  • NBA Championships: 2

Chuck Daly was two times Basketball Hall of Famer coach who is next on our list. Born on July 20, 1930, as Charles Jerome Daly, he started his basketball coaching career in 1955 at the Punxsutawney Area High School in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

Aside from Punxsutawney, he was a head coach for Boston College, Penn, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, New Jersey Nets, and Orlando Magic. Daly also served as an assistant coach for Duke and Philadelphia 76ers.

Chuck was given the nickname “Daddy Rich” because he was so committed to being the best dresser in the NBA that he would send scouts to spy on what his rival coaches were wearing.

However, his commitment to being best dressed did not hinder his focus from coaching.

With him as a head coach, Detroit Pistons were able to win two consecutive NBA championships in 1989 and 1990.

Additionally, in the 1992 Summer Olympics, he led the United States men’s Olympic basketball team (also known as “The Dream Team”) to the gold medal.

Daly has a long list of achievements and awards in his coaching career, both as a head coach and an assistant coach. He is also enlisted in the Top 10 Coaches in NBA history.

The Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award is named after him. In addition, he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1994 for his coaching career.

Chuck Daly passed away at the age of 78 on May 9, 2009. However, he was again inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010 posthumously as the head coach of the “Dream Team.”

4. Pat Riley

  • Regular-season record: 1,210-694
  • Postseason record: 171-111
  • NBA Championships: 5

Regarded as one of the greatest NBA coaches of all time, we have 76 year old Pat Riley is fourth on our list. He is a professional basketball executive and a former coach and player in NBA.

Riley began his professional basketball playing career with the San Diego Rockets in 1967. He retired in 1976, after playing for nine seasons in the league.

After retirement, he returned to NBA as a broadcaster for the Lakers in 1977. Then in 1979, Riley was hired as an assistant coach by Paul Westhead for the Los Angeles Lakers. His professional coaching career began from there.

Then after serving as an assistant coach for the Lakers for nearly two years, he took over the team as a head coach from 1981. He also served as a head coach for the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat during his coaching career.

Pat-Riley-trying-to-get-his-players-attention
Pat Riley trying to get his players attention (Source: Wikimedia.org)

Riley rose to fame for his aesthetically pleasing fastbreak approach that led the Lakers to four championships. Likewise, his down-and-dirty approach made the Knicks one of the NBA’s most challenging and dirtiest teams.

Since 1995, Riley has been the team president of the Miami Heat. He is also enlisted in the Top 10 Coaches in NBA History. He also became NBA Coach of the Year three times and NBA All-Star Game head coach nine times.

In 2008, Riley stepped down from his position as a head coach of the Miami Heat. However, he is still active as the team president. In addition, he became the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer in 2008.

3. Gregg Popovich

  • Regular-season record: 1,277-614
  • Postseason record: 170-114
  • NBA Championships: 5

Gregg Popovich is a 72 year old American professional basketball coach and executive for the San Antonio Spurs. He was born in East Chicago, Indiana.

Popovich is the longest-tenured active coach in NBA and all major sports leagues in the United States. His record for the most win in NBA history surpasses that of Lenny Wilkens and Don Nelson both.

Before entering the coaching career, Popovich served five years in the United States Air Force. Then he made his first coaching career move in 1973 when he returned to Air Force Academy as an assistant coach to work under head coach Hank Egan.

After working as an assistant coach for six years, he became the head coach for the Pomona-Pitzer. In addition, he served as an assistant coach for Kansas, San Antonio Spurs, and Golden State Warrior.

Popovich also served as the head coach of the U.S. National team. From 1996 onward, Popovich is serving as a head coach and president of the San Antonio Spurs.

Gregg has won five NBA championships. In addition to that, his career highlights and awards include three times NBA Coach of the Year, four times NBA All-Star Game head coach, and three times SCIAC champion.

Furthermore, in the 2020 Summer Olympics, he led Team USA to the gold medal.
Gregg Popovich is an exceptional manager of talent and an influential figure of the NBA. His 11 former assistants have gone to coach their NBA teams which is proof of his influence.

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2. Arnold “Red” Auerbach

  • Regular-season record: 938-479
  • Postseason record: 99-69
  • NBA Championships: 9

Arnold “Red” Auerbach, famously known as Red Auerbach, is our second-best NBA coach of all time. Born on September 20, 1917, he was an American professional basketball coach and executive.

Auerbach is most notably known for being the head coach for the Boston Celtics. He started his coaching career in 1940, coaching basketball at the St. Albans School and Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C.

However, after three years, he joined the U.S. Navy for three years. There he coached the Navy basketball team in Norfolk. There he was hired by Washington millionaire Mike Uline for the head coach position for the Washington Capitols.

From 1946-1949, Auerbach coached the Washington Capitals. Then he served the Tri-Cities Blackhawks from 1949 to 1950. Then, he became the head coach for the Boston Celtics from 1950 to 1966.

Auerbach is considered a pioneer of modern basketball. He redefined basketball as a game dominated by team play and defense. Additionally, he also introduced the fast break as a potent offensive weapon.

Not only a pioneer, but Red is also remembered as a vital player in breaking down the color barriers in the NBA. He made history in NBA by drafting the first African-American NBA player, Chuck Cooper, introducing the first African-American starting five in 1964.

Moreover, he also hired the first African-American head coach, Bill Russell, in North American sports in 1966.

Auerbach has many career highlight awards and achievements, but he had zero assistants in his entire tenure in Boston. He is also enlisted in the Top 10 Coaches in NBA History list.

The Celtics legend was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 1969. He died on October 28, 2006, at the age of 89.

1. Phil Jackson

  • Regular-season record: 1,155-485
  • Postseason record: 229-104
  • NBA Championships: 11

The number one on our list of 12 best NBA coaches of all time is non-other than the 11 NBA championship titleholder as a coach, Phil Jackson. 76 year old Jackson is a former professional basketball player, coach, and executive in NBA.

Jackson played 12 seasons as a professional player in NBA. After his retirement, he immediately started his coaching career.

His first-ever coaching job was in professional leagues like the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) and Puerto Rico’s National Superior Basketball (BSN).

During his coaching career, he worked with teams like Albany Patoorns, Piratas de Quebradillas, Gallitos de Isabela, Chicago Bulls, and most notably Los Angeles Lakers. He also served as an assistant coach for teams like New Jersey Nets and Chicago Bulls.

Phil-Jackson
Phil Jackson (Source: Wikimedia.org)

Jackson as a coach, was an excellent tactician, recruiter, and above all, an excellent mediator. No wonder he is regarded as the greatest coach in NBA history.

Jackson’s career highlights and awards, aside from 11 NBA championships, include four-times NBA All-Star Game head coach, NBA Coach of the Year, CBA champion, and CBA Coach of the year.

Similarly, he was also enlisted in the list of the Top 10 Coaches in NBA history in 1996 as a part of the NBA’s 50th-anniversary celebration. He also holds the NBA record for the most combined championships of 13, both as a player and a coach.

After the 2010-2011 season, Jackson retired from professional coaching. Jackson was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2007.

Conclusion

Coaches in any sports get less of the credit than they actually should. Rodney Dangerfield once perfectly expressed the pain of the profession when he said, “I get no respect. Lose, and you’re a chump. Win, and you’re a benefactor of great athletes.”

It takes a lot of strategies, motivators, and a skill to manage personalities to be a great coach. So let us salute these individuals for their efforts and hard work.

So who do you think is the best NBA coach on all the list? Do let us know.

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