The Top 5 NBA Coaches and the Attributes That Made Them Great

July 29th, 2013 | by Kyle Hunt

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Kyle Hunt

Kyle Hunt

Kyle Hunt is an avid sports fan who follows college and pro basketball extremely close. He is a regular college basketball contributor for the Deseret News and runs his own sports blog in his spare time. During the day Kyle works as a digital marketing analyst, improving the credibility and web presence of more than 25 high-spend clients.
Kyle Hunt

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  1. Sam says:

    Greg Popovich has to make this list. Probably ahead of Nelson and Sloan.

  2. Clint Johnson says:

    Even having read Andy and Dan’s tweets on the subject, I have to come down on your side, Kyle. I think leadership is the prime attribute of a successful NBA coach (and probably of professional sports coaches in general).

    Mike D’Antoni is a good test case. His offensive philosophy as implemented by the Suns revolutionized the league in lots of ways, include upping pace of play, liberalizing use of the three point shot (particularly in early offense), and breaking ground in the small ball strategy that Miami has ridden to two consecutive championships. But D’Antoni has never even coached in the NBA Finals. When given a team with possibly four Hall of Fame players (albeit aging) last season, the team imploded for a slew of reasons.

    To win in professional sports, you must have elite talent, and that talent comes with egos to match. To sell elite talent on a philosophy, structure, and roles therein is the single most essential component to winning at an elite level. Championship teams pivot on leadership by coaches that undergird all Xs and Os: Spoelstra convincing Wade to be Robin and Bosh to be a regular beat cop so LeBron can be the team’s Batman; Popovich fitting ever more players into an established culture, each in his role, no more or less; Rivers selling aging offensive wings in Paul Pierce and Ray Allen on the idea that their ring would be purchased at the price of defensive effort.

    The best coaches are, almost without exception, great leaders. The best tactical minds in the game are, rarely, the best coaches.

  3. Laura says:

    I agree that Pop needs to be on the list. I might even put him at #3.

    I would even go so far as to say that I think Phil Jackson is underrated. Considering the egos of the players he coached, I think what he did is pretty remarkable. He was masterful at managing personalities and tackling issues from unconventional angles.

  4. bleepbloop says:

    your list is flawed:

    1. Red Auerbach
    2. Larry Brown
    3. Greg Popovich
    4. Doc Rivers

    Phil Jackson is highly overrated. For all this controlling egos talk, shaq did whatever he wanted, kobe definitely did whatever he wanted. An in his prime shaq should have had more than 3 championships with the lakers. He was just that dominant.

  5. Beau says:

    I have to agree that this list is flawed. As much as I like Sloan, you can’t put him above Popovich. At the same time, I wouldn’t put Don Nelson over Sloan – he’s not had as much sustained success. I see him in the “I’ve stuck around a long time, ergo I’ve got a big win total” category that Lenny Wilkens is in. I’d say the list should look like this:
    1. Jackson
    2. Auerbach
    3. Popovich
    4. Riley
    5. Sloan

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