In my observation, the greatest coaches in history are always leaders first and basketball minds second. The coaches who influence teams and win games tend to focus on what truly makes a team successful, which oddly enough doesn’t revolve around how many jump shots are taken within 16 feet of the basket, or whether a full-court or half-court press is initiated after half time. Of course it’s unintelligent to dismiss game strategy as altogether unimportant. No one is suggesting every coach in the NBA should completely throw X’s and O’s out the window to achieve maximum efficiency, but strategies and tactics can only get a head coach so far in the NBA. In my opinion, a coach’s leadership style and ability to motivate players influences success more than what’s scribbled on the whiteboard during a 30 second timeout. Just ask Doc Rivers.
Great coaches are 1/3 psychologist, 1/3 army general, and 1/3 teacher. If you take a close look at the greatest coaches in NBA history you’ll notice a few attributes in common: They manage the emotional and mental ups and downs of their players well, they lead and inspire players to make themselves better and fulfill a role to help the team achieve victory, and they offer constructive criticism to improve the overall game of players without causing undue frustration or permanent damage to egos. If those requirements aren’t met within a specified period of time, a coach’s season and career usually go up in smoke. Just ask Vinny Del Negro.
I’m totally convinced no team can win without a great coach. Great players are important, but even the most talented NBA stars need an authority figure to guide them through the tough days when everything looks bleak. A great coach knows the right things to say and the right time to say them. He also knows when to close his mouth and let his players figure out their own problems. Just ask Tom Thibodeau. He’s done a fantastic job with Nate Robinson.
The issue is—great coaches are hard to find. Once you find the right coach (the one players will do battle with), you have to fight to keep him. There are always more attractive offers being shoved at them from every which way, or some life passion other than basketball just waiting to be fulfilled. But a great coach never leaves before his time. He stands by his players even when failure seems imminent and success looks impossible. If you’re a player blessed with the opportunity to learn the game of life and basketball from one of these coaching legends, you’ll be forever changed for the better. Just ask anyone who’s played for Larry Brown.
Recently I’ve reflected quite a bit on my own sports career (however short-lived), to understand which coaches helped me grow and which made my situation worse. Those reflections inspired me to create my personal list of the top five coaches in NBA history. You can decide whether you agree or disagree, but one thing is for sure—there are five fantastic coaches on this list.
- Phil Jackson- People will forever argue that Phil Jackson is not a top-tier coach because he never built a team organically, but I strongly disagree. While he was privileged to work with several talented players (MJ, Pippen, Shaq, Kobe), he may have been the only one capable of helping them reach their full potential. Remember—Michael never won before Phil, neither did Shaq or Kobe. Phil accumulated 11 championships and over 1,000 wins during his career. It’s difficult to argue a better choice at number one. Phil is known for his implementation of Zhen Bhuddism to improve player morale and performance.
- Red Auerbach-Red coached the legendary Boston Celtics for 20 years and helped usher in a new era of basketball led by Russell, Cousy, and Havlicek. He picked up nine championships and over 900 wins during his career. Everyone in the game of basketball honors and respects Mr. Red Auerbach as one of the greatest coaches of all-time.
- Pat Riley-Riley won the coach of the year award three separate times and won five NBA championships with the Lakers and Miami Heat. In addition to his success on the sidelines, Riley has also collected two titles as an executive for the Miami Heat. He is beloved by all his former players and everyone in the Heat organization. Riley is a master at inspiring players.
- Don Nelson-This three time NBA coach of the year never won a championship as a coach, but still managed to rack up over 1,000 wins during his career. Don gets fired up at times, but his players always respected him as the undisputed leader of the teams he coached.
- Jerry Sloan- Jerry is one of the most talented coaches in NBA history. Sloan is only the fifth coach in history to achieve over 1,000 career wins and the only coach to do it with only one franchise. Though Sloan led the Jazz to the NBA finals in 97 and 98, he never won a championship. Though he is no longer the head coach, fans still consider him the face of the franchise. Fortunately he accepted an advisory role with the Jazz a short time ago, a role that will keep him involved with management and players.
The Jazz certainly have a few questions to answer in the coming year, one of those questions being, “Who is the coach of the future for the Jazz?” Since Jerry Sloan’s departure the Jazz record has been less than impressive and the team has only made the playoffs once in the past three seasons, a playoff run that ended in a four game sweep. No matter what happens during the offseason or in training camp, the clock is clearly ticking for the coaching staff and even the players. Maybe we’ll add the current coach to the all-time greatest coaches list 15 years from now. Either that or he’ll be fired by this time next year. Who knows? Just ask Ty Corbin.