Best NBA Coaches of All-time – Top 10 Names That You Should Know
In all sports, players are the ones that get a lot of attention and fame. But, it is people working behind the scenes who help create the great teams that achieve impressive results. This is true for NBA and any other league you can think of.
This article will be all about those people, as we’ll look into the best NBA coaches of all time to learn who are the men who helped create the amazing, often seemingly unstoppable teams.
10. Erik Spoelstra
Image courtesy of Heat Nation
- NBA Seasons coached: 14
- Teams coached: Miami Heat
- Regular season winning percentage: .593 (660-453)
- Postseason winning percentage: .596 (96-65)
- NBA Championships: 2 (2012, 2013)
- NBA Finals losses: 3 (2011, 2014, 2020)
- NBA Coach of the Year Awards: 0
We start our list of the best NBA coaches of all time with Miami Heat’s current coach. Erik Spoelstra won two NBA championships with the Miami Heat, both of them came during the big three era of James – Wade – Bosh, in 2012 and 2013.
He has also been on the sidelines for Miami during three more final appearances in 2011, 2014, and 2020. In 2011, they lost to the Dallas Mavericks after leading 2 to 1 after 3 games.
In 2014 the San Antonio Spurs proved to be too much for the team from Florida. And in his most recent finals appearance in 2020, Spoelstra had to accept another finals defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers led by Heat’s former player LeBron James.
Up to this point in his career, Spoelstra has been a part of the Miami Heat organization for 27 years and he has been in the head coach position for 14 years.
The two-time NBA champion started as a video coordinator and worked his way up the organizational hierarchy.
When he became the coach of the Heat he was the first ever Asian-American to be named the head coach in the NBA, he is also the first Asian-American head coach to win the NBA ring.
Spoelstra is known for his highly analytical approach and the attention that he gives to defense.
Even during the big three era, when the Heat had three future Hall of Famers in their lineup, most of their win came from playing great defense. During this period the Miami Heat had the best defense in the NBA.
9. John Kundla
Image courtesy of washingtonpost.com
- NBA Seasons coached: 11
- Teams coached: Minneapolis Lakers
- Regular season winning percentage: .570 (379 – 286)
- Postseason winning percentage: .612 (52-33)
- NBA Championships: 5 (1949, 1950, 1952, 1953, 1954)
- NBA Finals losses: 1 (1959)
- NBA Coach of the Year Awards: 0
During his 12-year tenure with the Minneapolis Lakers, John Albert Kundla won 5 NBA championships.
Kundla is considered the coach of the first NBA dynasty as the Lakers won 5 championships in six years under his belt. They were triumphant in 1949, 1950, 1952, 1953, and 1954.
Kundla’s only loss in the NBA finals came in 1959 when Minneapolis didn’t manage to win a single game against the Boston Celtics.
When he got the coaching job in the Lakers, he was only 31. However, this didn’t stop the mild-mannered Kundla managed and juggling a roster full of Hall of Fame members including Clyde Lovellette, Jim Pollard, Vern Mikkelsen, Slater Martin, and George Mikan.
In fact, he is the only NBA coach in history to capture NBA titles in his first two seasons as a head coach and one of five NBA coaches with more than two rings.
In 1995, the five-time NBA champion was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and in 2006 he was introduced into the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
8. Chuck Daly
Image courtesy of thesportsman.com
- NBA Seasons coached: 14
- Teams coached: Cleveland Cavaliers (1), Detroit Pistons (9), New Jersey Nets (2), Orlando Magic (2)
- Regular season winning percentage: .593 (638-437)
- Postseason winning percentage: .595 (75-51)
- NBA Championships: 2 (1989, 1990)
- NBA Finals losses: 1 (1988)
- NBA Coach of the Year Awards: 0
Charles Jerome “Chuck” Daly spent 14 seasons in the NBA as a head coach. His greatest achievements came with the Detroit Pistons with which he won 2 NBA championships in 9 years. He brought back-to-back championships to the Motor City in 1989 and 1990.
In 1989, the Pistons swept the Los Angeles Lakers who were led from the sidelines by Pat Riley another Hall of Fame NBA coach that is on our list. A year later they lost only one game against the Portland Trail Blazers on their way to the NBA ring.
Daly’s only defeat in the NBA finals came in 1988 against the Lakers.
“Dady Rich” as he was nicknamed by his players because of the suits he wore mentored some of the best and most recognizable stars in NBA history.
Isaiah Thomas, Dennis Rodman, Joe Dumars, John Salley, and Bill Laimbeer all became NBA champions under his guidance.
He transformed one of the worst franchises in the NBA into a team that never failed to make the postseason during his reign.
In his approach to the game, Daly was extremely focused on defense. His basketball players didn’t choose the means when it comes to stopping their opponents, and because of this during his era in Detroit the Pistons got the nickname the “Bad Boys.”
In the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, he was the head coach of the “Dream Team,” arguably the greatest basketball team ever assembled, and brought home a gold medal.
Charles J. “Chuck” Daly was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame twice. In 1994 he was inducted for his overall coaching accomplishments and in 2010 he was posthumously inducted as the coach of the original “Dream Team.
7. Lenny Wilkens
Image courtesy of NBA.com
- NBA Seasons coached: 31
- Teams coached: Seattle Super Sonics (10), Portland Trail Blazers (2), Cleveland Cavaliers (7), Atlanta Hawks (7), Toronto Raptors (3), New York Knicks (2)
- Regular season winning percentage: .536 (1,332-1,155)
- Postseason winning percentage: .449 (80-98)
- NBA Championships: 1 (1979)
- NBA Finals losses: 1 (1978)
- NBA Coach of the Year Awards: 1 (1994)
Leonard Randolph Wilkens, better known as Lenny spent 31 seasons on the sidelines of NBA games.
His longest-lasting relationship was with the Seattle Super Sonics which he coached for 10 seasons and led to back-to-back NBA finals in 1978 and 1979.
In their first trip to the finals under Wilkens, Sonics fell short, losing to the Washington Bullets in 7 games.
Seattle’s second visit to the biggest NBA stage was much more successful as they took revenge on the Bullets for the defeat they suffered the previous year.
As a coach, Wilkens holds the NBA record for most games, during his time in the NBA he coached in 2,487 NBA games.
For his accomplishments during his playing days, Lenny Wilkens was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1989.
His coaching achievements secured him a second induction into the Hall of Fame in 1998. Finally, in 2010 he was inducted for the third time as the assistant coach of the Dream Team. In 2006, he was also inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
6. Larry Brown
Image courtesy of CBS Sports
- NBA Seasons coached: 26
- Teams coached: Denver Nuggets (3), New Jersey Nets (2), San Antonio Spurs (4), Los Angeles Clippers (2), Indiana Pacers (4), Philadelphia 76ers (6), Detroit Pistons (2), New York Knicks (1), Charlotte Bobcats (3)
- Regular season winning percentage: .568 (1,327-1,011)
- Postseason winning percentage: .511 (120-115)
- NBA Championships: 1 (2004)
- NBA Finals losses: 2 (2001, 2005)
- NBA Coach of the Year Awards: 1 (2001)
At number six on our list of top 10 NBA coaches of all time is Larry Brown. With 26 years of experience in the NBA Lawrence Harvey Brown knows a thing or two about basketball.
During his NBA days, he was the head coach for 9 different franchises, and not once did he spend more than 6 seasons with a team. (Philadelphia)
In 2001, Brown went to his first ever NBA finals with the Philadelphia 76ers, a team led by one of the NBA’s biggest superstars Allen Iverson.
However, the 76ers didn’t have an answer for Shaquille O’Neal and managed to win only one game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Three years later, “Next Town Brown” had another chance to secure NBA’s biggest trophy, this time with the Detroit Pistons.
On the opposite side were once again the Los Angeles Lakers led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant and although they were the underdogs, the Pistons made quite an upset betting the team from California in 5 games.
His last finals appearance came in 2005 against the San Antonio Spurs. The Pistons fell short in 7 games against the San Antonio team with Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili.
Although 3 trips to the NBA finals and one NBA ring for a coach that spent 26 seasons in the NBA might seem too few for Larry Brown to be on this list, the fact is that he coached mostly bad and forsaken franchises.
He is the only coach in basketball history with both an NCAA title (1988, Kansas Jayhawks) and an NBA title. Brown also holds an NBA record for leading 8 different NBA franchises to playoffs and is the only person to coach two NBA teams in the same season. (1991-1992, the Spurs and the Clippers)
For his achievements at the sidelines, the Basketball Hall of Fame welcomed Brown as a member in 2002.
5. Steve Kerr
Image courtesy of marca.com
- NBA Seasons coached: 8
- Teams coached: Golden State Warriors
- Regular season winning percentage: .682 (629-429)
- Postseason winning percentage: .732 (93-34)
- NBA Championships: 4 (2015, 2017, 2018, 2022)
- NBA Finals losses: 2 (2019)
- NBA Coach of the Year Awards: 1 (2016)
Stephen Douglas Kerr might still be in single digits when it comes to the number of seasons he spent in the NBA as a head coach, but he is already a guaranteed Hall of Famer.
During the 8 years he has been on the Golden State Warriors bench, he took his team to 6 NBA Finals and won 4 NBA titles.
In his first NBA season as a head coach in 2015, Golden State beat Cleveland Cavaliers in 6 games.
A year later, the 2016 NBA Finals rematch against the Cavaliers was scheduled. After 4 games the Warriors led 3 games to 1, a lead that no team overcame in the history of the NBA.
However, the best player in the NBA LeBron James, and the all-star point guard Kyrie Irving led the way for the Cavaliers as they won the last three games of the series and the NBA title.
In 2017, the Warriors played Cleveland once again, led by Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson, Golden State made quick work of the Cavaliers in 5 games.
In the next season, the scenario was almost the same as Kerr and the Warriors swept the Cavaliers and defended their title.
Kerr’s second loss in the finals came in 2019 when Golden State met with Toronto. The Warriors had a lot of problems with injuries and lost to Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors in 6 games.
After missing the playoffs for two straight seasons, in 2022 Kerr was again in the finals. With no injury issues and a couple of new pieces, the Warriors defeated the Boston Celtics 4 games to 2.
At the NBA’s 75th anniversary ceremony in 2021, Steve Kerr was selected as one of the 15 greatest coaches in the NBA.
4. Pat Riley
Image courtesy of jamesclear.com
- NBA Seasons coached: 24
- Teams coached: Los Angeles Lakers (9), New York Knicks (4), Miami Heat (11)
- Regular season winning percentage: .636 (1,210-694)
- Postseason winning percentage: .606 171-111
- NBA Championships: 5 (1982, 1985, 1987, 1988, 2006)
- NBA Finals losses: 4 (1983, 1984, 1989, 1994)
- NBA Coach of the Year Awards: 3 (1990, 1993, 1997)
In the fourth place on our list of best NBA coaches of all time is Patrick James Riley. Riley was the head coach for 3 different teams and he led all 3 of those teams to the NBA finals.
He was the head coach for the Los Angeles Lakers from 1981 to 1990. During this 9-year stretch, he made 7 trips to the NBA finals and won it all 4 times. In his first season, the Lakers beat the Philadelphia 76ers 4 games to 2, 3 years later Los Angeles lost 2 games to the Boston Celtis on their way to the title.
Pat Riley is one of the rare coaches that managed to win back-to-back titles. He did this in 1987/1988 against the Celtics and the Detroit Pistons.
The 3 times when he made the NBA Finals with the Lakers but lost were in 1983 (swept by the 76ers), 1984 (lost to Celtics in 7), and 1989 (swept by the Pistons).
In 1994, Riley booked another Finals appearance, this time with the New York Knicks. However, his team fell short in 7 NBA games against the Houston Rockets.
Riley’s last NBA ring came in 2006 with the Miami Heat. Led by the one-two punch of Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, the Heat overcame a 2 game deficit before beating the Dallas Mavericks in 6 games.
He won an NBA ring as a player, assistant coach, head coach, and an NBA executive becoming the first North American to do so, Riley also reached the NBA finals in different roles in 6 different decades.
As a 5-time NBA champion, Pat Riley was selected as one of the 10 Greatest Coaches in NBA history in 1996. In 2008 he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Up to this point in his career, he has won a total of 9 NBA rings (1 as a player, 1 as an assistant coach, 5 as a head coach, and 2 as an executive).
3. Gregg Popovich
Image courtesy of NBA.com
- NBA Seasons coached: 26
- Teams coached: San Antonio Spurs
- Regular season winning percentage: .657 (1,344-701)
- Postseason winning percentage: .599 (170-114)
- NBA Championships: 5 (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014)
- NBA Finals losses: 1 (2013)
- NBA Coach of the Year Awards: 0
Gregg Charles Popovich also known as “Pop” has been the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs since 1996. With him, the small-town franchise won a total of 5 NBA championships.
Popovich won his first NBA ring in his third season with the Spurs after defeating the New York Knicks in the finals with four games to one.
His second trip to the NBA finals came in 2003 and he was successful once again. This time the Spurs outclassed the New Jersey Nets in 6 games.
Pop continued his undefeated streak in the 2005 Finals as well, this time the Detroit Pistons came close to victory but still fell short in game 7.
His easiest victory in the championship series came in 2007 when the Cleveland Cavaliers failed to win a single game in the Finals.
In the 2013 NBA finals, Popovich lost his first and only finals series up to this moment, the Spurs were outmatched by the Miami Heat in 7 games.
His last ring came a year after his only NBA Finals loss when San Antonio took revenge on the Miami Heat in 5 games.
The 5-time NBA champion also led the US national team to the gold medal at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Coach Pop holds the record for the longest active tenure in all US major sports, he is also the record holder for the most consecutive winning season in NBA history with 22. With 1344 regular season wins he is also the winningest coach in NBA history.
The three-time Coach of the Year was also named one of the 15 Greatest Coaches in NBA History in 2021. Popovich has still not been named into the Hall of Fame but based on his accomplishments it’s just a matter of time before this happens.
2. Red Auerbach
Image courtesy of Sports Illustrated
- NBA Seasons coached: 23
- Teams coached: Washington Capitols (3), Tri-Cities Blackhawks (1), Boston Celtics (19)
- Regular season winning percentage: .662 (938-479)
- Postseason winning percentage: .589 (99-69)
- NBA Championships: 9 (1957, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966)
- NBA Finals losses: 1 (1958)
- NBA Coach of the Year Awards: 1 (1965)
Second, on our list of the best basketball coaches of all time is Arnold Jacob Auerbach better known as “Red”. Under his belt, the Boston Celtics became one of the greatest franchises in NBA history.
With him, the Celtics went to 8 consecutive NBA Finals and won every single one of them. His first championship came in 1957 after a 7 games series against the St. Louis Hawks.
Two years later, Boston’s famous streak would begin. From 1959 to 1966 the Celtics played and won every single NBA Championship.
During this period the Celtics defeated the Lakers in 1959, 1962, 1963, 1965, and 1966 NBA Finals. They outclassed the Hawks during back-to-back seasons in 1960 and 1961 and won one final against the Warriors in 1964.
Auerbach retired from coaching in 1966 and went on to serve as a front office executive for the Boston Celtics. During his managerial days, he won an additional 7 NBA championships which means that he in total won 16 NBA rings.
In 1969 Red Aurbach became one of the first coaches in NBA history to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and in 1996 he was named one of the top 10 coaches in NBA history.
The 9-time NBA champion left a big mark on the NBA and as a form of gratitude the NBA named its best coach of the year reward the “Red Auerbach Trophy”.
1. Phil Jackson
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- NBA Seasons coached: 20
- Teams coached: Chicago Bulls (9), Los Angeles Lakers (11)
- Regular season winning percentage: .705 (1155 – 485)
- Postseason winning percentage: .688 (229 – 104)
- NBA Championships: 11 (1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2010)
- NBA Finals losses: 2 (2004, 2008)
- NBA Coach of the Year Awards: 1 (1996)
Philip “Phil” Douglas Jackson also known as the “Zen Master” is the best NBA coach of all time. Jackson spent 20 years as a head coach in the NBA during which he appeared in 13 NBA Finals and won 11 NBA Championships.
He spent his first 9 years in the NBA as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. During this time he led the Bulls with Michael Jordan and Scotty Pippen to two three-peats. Chicago won consecutive NBA titles from 1991 to 1993 and from 1996 to 1998.
During their first three-peat, the Bulls first beat the Los Angeles Lakers 4 games to 1 in the 1991 NBA Finals, a year later they defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in 6 games, and in 1993 their victims were the Phoenix Suns also in 6 games.
Zen Master’s second three-peat began in 1996 when the Bulls defeated the Seattle Super Sonics in 6 games.
Chicago secured a second consecutive NBA title in 1997 after 6 games against the Utah Jazz. and the same scenario was repeated a year later.
Apart from the Chicago Bulls, Phil Jackson only coached one more NBA franchise, the Los Angeles Lakers.
He was the head coach of the California team from 1999 to 2004 and from 2005 to 2011. (Rudy Tomjanovich was the head coach of the Lakers in the season 2004/2005)
In his first tenure with the Lakers, the Zen Master won another three-peat. Led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the Lakers defeated the Indiana Pacers in 2000 with 4 games to 2.
A year later they only allowed the Philadelphia 76ers to win one game in the Finals and finally concluded the three-peat after sweeping the New Jersey Nets in 2002 NBA Finals.
After remaining undefeated in his first 9 NBA Finals, Jackson tasted defeat in his next 2. First, he lost the 2004 Championship to Detroit Pistons in five games and then he lost to the Boston Celtics in 2008 in 6 games.
The one-time NBA coach of the year again won back-to-back NBA titles in 2009 and 2010. First, the Lakers won against the Orlando Magic in 5 games and one year later they took revenge on the Boston Celtics after 7 games.
The Zen Master is best known for his triangle offense and his holistic approach to coaching (which is why he got the nickname the Zen Master).
Phil Jackson was named one of the 10 greatest coaches in NBA history in 1996 and he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.