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25 Greatest Coaches in NBA History

25 Greatest Coaches in NBA History

25 Greatest Coaches in NBA History

Rodney Dangerfield encapsulated the pain of a lot of professions, including NBA head coaches, when he said, "I get no respect." Lose and you’re a chump. Win and you’re just a benefactor of great athletes.

NBA logo: All-time Best Centers

Both of those opinions are hogwash. NFL and MLB fans may scoff at this notion, but the NBA season is the most grueling endeavor of all the professional sports that don't require ice skates. You have to get the upper hand on an 82-game season and then potentially play 28 games to win a championship. You have to have exceptional players who stay healthy, a little luck, and most importantly... great coaching.

Since the NBA is essentially two seasons, one can’t go on titles alone in determining the 25 greatest NBA head coaches of all time. You also have to factor in longevity and regular-season performance. Some great coaches on this list were successful in two out of three of these areas. The ones at the top covered all three. (NOTE: Since the Basketball Association of America (BAA) merged to form the NBA and the American Basketball Association (ABA) ultimately merged with the NBA in the 1970s, I count coaches’ records in these leagues on this list.)

Note: Records for active coaches are current through 2018-19 season.

— Rankings by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.

25. Erik Spoelstra

Miami Heat (2008-present)

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Overall Record: 523-363 (regular season), 71-47 (playoffs)

Championships: 2 (2012-13)

Spoelstra made the NBA Finals in four of his first six years. His future career minus LeBron James will ultimately determine if he remains on this list.

24. Steve Kerr

Golden State Warriors (2014-present)

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Overall Record: 322-108 (regular season), 77-28 (playoffs)

Championships: 3 (2015, '17, '18)

If Kerr sustains this start to his coaching career, he will end up near the top of this list, although injuries to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and the departure of Kevin Durant in free agency have led to a stumble this season.

23. Rick Adelman

Portland Trail Blazers (1989-94)
Golden State Warriors (1995-97)
Sacramento Kings (1999-2006)
Houston Rockets (2007-11)
Minnesota Rockets (2011-14)

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Overall Record: 1,042-749 (regular season), 79-78 (playoffs)

Adelman won 1,000 games and made the playoffs with three different teams. If not for Detroit's "Bad Boys" and Michael Jordan's first iteration of the Bulls' dynasty, he might have won two NBA titles.

22. George Karl

Cleveland Cavaliers (1984-86)
Golden State Warriors (1986-88)
Seattle SuperSonics (1992-98)
Milwaukee Bucks (1998-2003)
Denver Nuggets (2005-13)
Sacramento Kings (2015-16)

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Overall Record: 1,175-824 (regular season), 80-105 (playoffs)

Karl had a knack for turning teams around. If he had fared better in the playoffs, he would be much higher on this list.

21. Rudy Tomjanovich

Houston Rockets (1992-2003)
Los Angeles Lakers (2004-05)

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Overall Record: 527-416 (regular season), 51-39 (playoffs)

Championships: 2 (1994-95 Rockets)

Sadly, his back-to-back titles with Houston are overshadowed by Michael Jordan's retirement... and O.J. Simpson's white Ford Bronco.

20. Lester Harrison

Rochester Royals (1948-55) – Royals were in the BAA for 1948-49 season

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Overall Record: 295-181 (regular season), 19-19 (playoffs)

Championships: 1 (1951)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1980

Harrison was a true pioneer of the game. He founded his own franchise in the Rochester Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) and then helped negotiate the formation of the NBA. Along the way, he won the franchise's only title.

(Photo courtesy of NBA.com)

19. Jack Ramsay

Philadelphia 76ers (1968-72)
Buffalo Braves (1972-76)
Portland Trail Blazers (1976-86)
Indiana Pacers (1986-88)

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Overall Record: 864-783 (regular season), 44-58 (playoffs)

Championships: 1 (1977 Trail Blazers)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1992

Ramsay was one of the most respected coaches in the game and was a recipient of the Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award. If Bill Walton had stayed healthy, he might have had more hardware to add to his resume.

18. Glenn "Doc" Rivers

Orlando Magic (1999-2003)
Boston Celtics (2004-13)
Los Angeles Clippers (2014-present)

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Overall Record: 894-624 (regular season), 84-83 (playoffs)

Championships: 1 (2008 Celtics)

Rivers' teams have finished lower than second in their division only once in the last 12 seasons. Earlier this season he became the 13th head coach in NBA history with more than 900 career wins.

(Photo courtesy of NBA.com)

17. Billy Cunningham

Philadelphia 76ers (1977-85)

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Overall Record: 454-196 (regular season), 66-39 (playoffs)

Championships: 1 (1983)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1986 (as player)

The head coach of the "Fo' Fo' Fo' Sixers" also has the third-best regular-season winning percentage of any coach in NBA history at .698. Cunningham also left his mark on the game as a player, starting as a collegian at North Carolina through his Hall of Fame career with the Philadelphia 76ers and Carolina Cougars of the ABA. In 1996, Cunningham was named to the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.

16. Rick Carlisle

Detroit Pistons (2001-03)
Indiana Pacers (2003-07)
Dallas Mavericks (2008-present)

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Overall Record: 751-627 (regular season), 58-62 (playoffs)

Championships: 1 (2011 Mavericks)

Carlisle has recorded 50-plus win seasons with three different teams and coached the Mavericks to their only NBA title.

15. Chuck Daly

Cleveland Cavaliers (1981-82)
Detroit Pistons (1983-92)
New Jersey Nets (1992-94)
Orlando Magic (1997-99)

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Overall Record: 638-437 (regular season), 75-51 (playoffs)

Championships: 2 (1989-90 Pistons)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1994 (and 2010 as head coach of the 1992 U.S. Olympic "Dream Team")

Daly's "Bad Boys" Pistons were one of the greatest defensive teams in NBA history and, for better or for worse, ushered in a new era of physical play.

14. Bill Sharman

San Francisco Warriors (1966-68)
Los Angeles/Utah Stars (1968-71) – ABA
Los Angeles Lakers (1971-76)

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Overall Record: 466-353 (regular season), 57-40 (playoffs)

Championships: 2 (1971 Stars; 1972 Lakers)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1976 (as player), 2004 (coach)

Sharman was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a coach and a player. Basketball fans and historians can debate for hours on whether his 1971-72 Lakers were better than the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.

(Photo courtesy of NBA.com)

13. Tom Heinsohn

Boston Celtics (1969-78)

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Overall Record: 427-263 (regular season), 47-33 (playoffs)

Championships: 2 (1974, '76)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1986 (as player), 2015 (coach)

The Celtics continued to enjoy success in the 1970s thanks in part to the coaching of their former power forward. Since he currently serves as the Celtics' color commentator, Heinsohn is the only person to be involved in all of Boston's 17 championships.

(Photo courtesy of NBA.com)

12. Larry Brown

Carolina Cougars (1972-74) – ABA
Denver Nuggets (1974-79) – ABA until merger with NBA in 1976
New Jersey Nets (1981-83)
San Antonio Spurs (1988-92)
Los Angeles Clippers (1992-93)
Indiana Pacers (1993-97)
Philadelphia 76ers (1997-2003)
Detroit Pistons (2003-05)
New York Knicks (2005-06)
Charlotte Bobcats (2008-10)

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Overall Record: 1,327-1,011 (regular season), 120-115 (playoffs)

Championships: 1 (2004 Pistons)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 2002

Brown is the only coach in history to win both an NCAA and NBA championship and to lead eight teams to the playoffs. One can only wonder what he might have done had been able to stay put with one team. He also led the U.S. men's team to the gold medal in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and a bronze 40 years later in the Athens Summer Games.

11. Jerry Sloan

Chicago Bulls (1979-82)
Utah Jazz (1988-2011)

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Overall Record: 1,221-803 (regular season), 98-104 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 2009

Sloan coached the Jazz for 23 seasons and to more than 1,000 wins. In the era of fickle fan bases, that is a true testament to consistency. 

10. Don Nelson

Milwaukee Bucks (1976-87)
Golden State Warriors (1988-95)
New York Knicks (1995-96)
Dallas Mavericks (1997-05)
Golden State Warriors (2006-10)

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Overall Record: 1,335-1,063 (regular season), 75-91 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 2012

Nelson was named Coach of the Year three times and pioneered the point forward concept. Oh, and his 1,335 wins are the most of any coach in NBA history.

(Photo courtesy of NBA.com)

9. Lenny Wilkens

Seattle SuperSonics (1969-72, '77-85)
Portland Trail Blazers (1974-76)
Cleveland Cavaliers (1986-93)
Atlanta Hawks (1993-2000)
Toronto Raptors (2000-03)
New York Knicks (2004-05)

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Overall Record: 1,332-1,155 (regular season), 80-98 (playoffs)

Championships: 1 (1979 SuperSonics)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1989 (as player), '98 (coach)

Wilkens coached more games than any other coach in NBA history. He also was the first coach to win 1,000 regular-season games.

(Photo courtesy of NBA.com)

8. K.C. Jones

Capital/Washington Bullets (1973-76)
Boston Celtics (1983-88)
Seattle SuperSonics (1990-92)

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Overall Record: 522-252 (regular season), 81-57 (playoffs)

Championships: 2 (1984, '86 Celtics)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1989 (as player)

Jones' coaching career only spanned 10 seasons. His teams were in the NBA Finals for five of them.

7. Alex Hannum

St. Louis Hawks (1956-58)
Syracuse Nationals (1960-63)
San Francisco Warriors (1963-66)
Philadelphia 76ers (1966-68)
Oakland Oaks (1968-69) – ABA
San Diego/Denver Rockets (1969-74)

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Overall Record: 649-564 (regular season), 61-46 (playoffs)

Championships: 3 (1958 Hawks; 1967 76ers; 1969 Oaks)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1998

Hannum is one of three coaches to win NBA titles with two different teams and one of two coaches to win both an ABA and NBA title. His 1966-67 76ers snapped the Boston Celtics' eight-year title run.

6. William "Red" Holzman

Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks (1953-1957)
New York Knicks (1967-77, ‘78-82)

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Overall Record: 696-604 (regular season), 58-47 (playoffs)

Championships: 2 (1970, '73 Knicks)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1985

So beloved was Holzman's success with the Knicks organization that New York retired the number 613 to honor the wins he accumulated coaching their team.

5. John Kundla

Minneapolis Lakers (1947-59) – In BAA until NBA merger until 1949

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Overall Record: 423-302 (overall record), 60-35 (playoffs)

Championships: 5 (1949-50, '52-54)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1995

Kundla is largely forgotten in the modern basketball era, but his Lakers were the first dynasty in NBA history.

4. Pat Riley

Los Angeles Lakers (1981-90)
New York Knicks (1991-95)
Miami Heat (1995-2003, ‘05-08)

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Overall Record: 1,210-694 (overall record), 171-111 (playoffs)

Championships: 5 (1982, '85, '87-88 Lakers; 2006 Heat)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 2008

In addition to his five titles with two different teams, Riley won 50 or more games in 17 of the 24 seasons that he coached.

3. Gregg Popovich

San Antonio Spurs (1996-present)

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Overall Record: 1,245-575 (overall record), 170-114 (playoffs)

Championships: 5 (1999, 2003, '05, '07, '14)

Popovich has won 68 percent of his games and five NBA titles. If he sticks around long enough, he'll pass Don Nelson (1,335) for the most regular-season wins. His place near the top of this list is firmly secure.

2. Arnold "Red" Auerbach

Washington Capitals (1946-49) – In BAA until NBA merger in 1949
Tri-Cities Blackhawks (1949-50)
Boston Celtics (1950-66)

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Overall Record: 938-479 (regular season), 99-69 (playoffs)

Championships: 9 (1957, '59-66 Celtics)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1969

Auerbach brought the NBA into the modern era and his Celtics dominated the opposition along the way.

1. Phil Jackson

Chicago Bulls (1989-98)
Los Angeles Lakers (1999-2004, '05-11)

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Overall Record: 1,155-485 (overall record), 229-104 (playoffs)

Championships: 11 (1991-93, '96-98 Bulls; 2000-02, 2009-10 Lakers)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 2007

So much of coaching success in the modern NBA depends on getting superstars to play cohesively. No one did it better than Jackson.