The NBA has been a league all about the players that have stolen headlines and captured the imagination of young kids and fans everywhere. You can go all through time and see how the league evolved back in the days of Bobby McDermot, to the 60’s and 70’s with household names like Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Julius Erving, the 80’s with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, all the way through Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and now Lebron James. But we would be remiss if we didn’t include the great coaches that helped many of these players get there as well. The following coaches were some of the best in NBA history.
5. Don Nelson
Nelson coached in the NBA for 34 years, one of the longest-tenured head coaches to stay in the league throughout its changes. He coached at Milwaukee, New York, Dallas, and twice at Golden State. He has coached notable players like Chris Webber, Latrell Spreewell, Patrick Ewing, and Dirk Nowitzki. He actually leads the NBA with 1,335 wins for number one in all-time win totals. While he accomplished much in his career and brought a lot of new ideas to basketball, he’s not higher on the list because he never won an NBA championship as a coach, though he did help the USA dream team win gold in the 1994 FIBA World Championship.
4. Jerry Sloan
One coach that seemed immovable from the city where he enjoyed his success was Jerry Sloan. He had been an assistant for a brief period with the Chicago Bulls, and a head coach there three years, but was unsuccessful in two of the three seasons there. So he headed off to Utah where he coached the Jazz for 23 straight seasons, achieving some milestones such as 1000 plus wins with just that team, and he made the Western Conference finals six times as a head coach there. Despite coaching up some of the most dynamic players in Karl Malone and John Stockton, Sloan would come up short twice in the NBA Championship game to Michael Jordan’s Bulls.
3. Chuck Daly
One of Detroit’s finest, Chuck Daly ran the infamous “Bad Boys” team in the 1980s featuring Isiah Thomas, Bill Lambeer, and Joe Dumars. He had ended his inaugural season in 1982 with the Cleveland Cavaliers, getting fired midway through at 9-32. Cleveland may have come to regret that though as he would coach thirteen more NBA seasons and never have a losing record again. His Pistons had to overcome being eliminated in the playoffs four times by the Boston Celtics, and once by the LA Lakers in the championship. But win one finally they did in 1989 and 1990, big moments for the city of Detroit.
2. Pat Riley
The now president of the Miami Heat, Pat Riley won five championships in his head coaching career, four with the LA Lakers, and one with the Heat. The dominant Lakers teams of the 1980s were a product of Pat Riley’s, leading the way for Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Magic Johnson to take the nickname “Showtime Lakers”. In total he made 9 appearances in the NBA championship game. Only missing the playoffs three times ever, Riley might very well have gone down as the number one coach in NBA history, had it not been for the man in front of him.
1. Phil Jackson
The godfather of them all, Phil Jackson tops the list of the top 5 of all NBA coaches. He won 11 championships, essentially becoming the mayor of Chicago in the 1990s when he won 6 under Jordan, Pippen, and restoring the greatness to Los Angeles when he won 5 with Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and others that made them the force to be reckoned with. He used many unorthodox coaching techniques, and even embraced Zen Buddhism philosophies that he used in his coaching methods. Accounting for all that, he turned his teams into “team-playing” rosters, even with what some might deem too many superstars.