The NBA recently named its 15 Greatest Coaches as part of the league’s season-long 75th anniversary celebration. They crammed a lifetime of highlights into their careers, but we recall one particular shining moment for each:
Teams: Washington, Tri-Cities, Boston
Titles: 1957, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966 (all Boston)
Highlight: Brilliant and combustible, known for his antagonistic lighting of victory cigars, Auerbach led the Celtics to eight NBA championships in a row and nine in 10 seasons before he focused solely on his front office duties. But his crowning moment might have come during the 1966 Finals, when he announced that Bill Russell would succeed him as Boston coach, making the Celtics legend the first Black coach/manager in pro sports.
Teams: Carolina (ABA), Denver (ABA/NBA), New Jersey, San Antonio, L.A. Clippers, Indiana, Philadelphia, Detroit, New York, Charlotte
W-L: 1,098-904 in NBA; 1,327-1,011 overall
Titles: 2004 (Detroit)
Highlight: When Brown moved from Philadelphia to Detroit in 2003, he left a team dominated by superstar Allen Iverson for an ensemble of grinders like Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace. Those Pistons shocked the Lakers in a five-game Finals to cap Brown’s first season, making him the only coach in history to win both NCAA (Kansas in 1988) and NBA championships.
Teams: Cleveland, Detroit, New Jersey, Orlando
Titles: 1989, 1990 (both Detroit)
Highlight: Led the Pistons’ “Bad Boys” team that broke through the collective championship stranglehold held by the Celtics, Sixers and Lakers with back-to-back titles in the late 1980s, while also fending off Michael Jordan’s ascendancy by deploying a set of defensive schemes and physical punishment — the infamous “Jordan rules” — for the Chicago superstar.
Teams: Milwaukee/St. Louis, New York
Titles: 1970, 1973 (both New York)
Highlight: Piece by piece, the Knicks came together in the mid-to-late 1960s, with scout Holzman replacing Dick McGuire as coach in 1967. He oversaw one of the NBA’s most celebrated examples of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, with five teammates working as one at both ends on a pair of title teams.
Teams: Chicago, L.A. Lakers
Titles: 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998 (all Chicago); 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2010 (all L.A. Lakers)
Highlight: “The Zen Master” often gets an asterisk on his record because he was fortunate enough to coach historically elite tandems – Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago, followed by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in L.A. – for his first nine championship rings. The one he got in 2009 came with Bryant and non-superstar Pau Gasol, after a 65-17 regular season, to break his title tie with Auerbach.
Teams: San Diego (ABA), Washington, Boston, Seattle
W-L: 522-252 in NBA; 552-306 overall
Titles: 1984, 1986 (both Boston)
Highlight: Jones was a beloved HOF Celtics guard, then a dutiful assistant when he was promoted to take Bill Fitch’s vacated post in 1983. He was such a personality shift from the demanding, volatile Fitch that players such as Larry Bird and Kevin McHale loved playing for him. After winning eight rings in his first eight full seasons as a player, Jones steered Boston to another in 1984 in seven games against the hated Lakers.
Teams: Golden State
W-L: 418-187 (through Feb. 14, 2022)
Titles: 2015, 2017, 2018
Highlight: As a 3-point specialist and backup point guard, Kerr helped the 1995-96 Bulls to the NBA’s best season ever at 72-10 en route to the first of his five titles as a player. Twenty years later, now coaching, Kerr led Golden State to a 73-9 record. Ironically, it was the only gap in a span of four seasons in which the Warriors did not snag the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Teams: Milwaukee, Golden State, New York, Dallas
Highlight: “Nellie” crafted a reputation as a mad scientist for his work with the Bucks, Warriors and Mavericks, capable of coaching defensive-minded overachievers or run-and-gun scoring machines. His most satisfying moment might have come in the 2007 first round, when he led Golden State to a six-game upset of No. 1 Dallas. The Mavericks, Nelson’s former team, had the league’s best record (67-15) but crumbled when the eighth-seeded Warriors went small and outscored them by 40 points in the series.
Teams: San Antonio
W-L: 1,332-689 (through Feb. 14, 2022)
Titles: 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014
Highlight: Long after some coach stalks down the record for coaching victories Popovich is about to claim, even if the Spurs sideline boss gets eclipsed as a cranky, curt in-game interviewee, his maneuvering to land Tim Duncan in the 1997 Draft will resonate (moving from GM to coach so he could shut down an ailing David Robinson to boost San Antonio’s lottery odds). So will the relationship he crafted with Duncan, teaming for five rings and a rare coach-player bond across two decades.
Teams: Philadelphia, Buffalo, Portland, Indiana
Titles: 1977 (Portland)
Highlight: “Dr. Jack” was eight years into his NBA coaching career when he landed in Portland. While there he inspired a challenging young star, Bill Walton; a brawny acquisition from the newly defunct ABA, Maurice Lucas; and an ensemble of team-first role players to a championship in the franchise’s first playoff appearance.
Teams: L.A. Lakers, New York, Miami
Titles: 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988 (all L.A. Lakers), 2006 (Miami)
Highlight: Once a Laker, always a Laker. That context seemed to make the championship Riley and his team won in 1985 loom just a little larger, because it marked the first time the Lakers beat Boston in The Finals. Riley, who played five seasons in L.A. and knew the two hated rivals’ history well, got them past the “Memorial Day Massacre” of Game 1, soothed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar back mentally into the fray and won it in six games. Riley considered this one to be his favorite title.
Teams: Orlando, Boston, L.A. Clippers, Philadelphia
W-L: 1,026-727 (through Feb. 15, 2022)
Titles: 2008 (Boston)
Highlight: Ubuntu. That was the rallying mantra of the 2008 Celtics, a team that had come together barely 10 months earlier and won it all. Rivers, with GM Danny Ainge, had been instrumental in bringing Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce in Boston and those 30-and-over stars divvied up duties perfectly. With Rivers presiding and 22-year-old Rajon Rondo handling the point, those Celtics improved from 24 to 66 victories, dominated defensively and battled through 26 playoff games to win their rings. Ubuntu? It was an African term calling for unselfishness and collective success. Worked pretty well.
Teams: Chicago, Utah
Highlight: No championships on his resume across 11 seasons as a rugged player and 26 more as a head coach. But his teams reached the playoffs 20 times, and gave Utah fans their greatest thrill in Game 6 against Houston in the Western Conference finals. Sloan put the game in John Stockton’s hands and, hard-nosed like his coach, Stockton scored 15 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter, including the buzzer-beating 3-pointer that won Game 6 and sent the Jazz to their first of two consecutive Finals.
W-L: 644-445 (through Feb. 15, 2022)
Titles: 2012, 2013
Highlight: It’s hard to look past four consecutive trips to The Finals with a pair of championships. But arguably Spoelstra’s most impressive work came in the Heat’s turnaround in 2016-17. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all had moved on when a crew led by Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside sputtered to an 11-30 record in the season’s first half. Without any drastic makeover, as injured players healed and chemistry improved, Miami worked and defended itself to a 30-11 finish, flipping the script and barely missing the playoffs. Spoelstra showed once and for all he wasn’t Big Three- or Pat Riley-dependent.
Teams: Seattle, Portland, Cleveland, Atlanta, Toronto
Titles: 1979 (Seattle)
Highlight: Wilkens was one of a now-vanished breed, a player-coach for his first four years on the sideline with Seattle and Portland. He still made All-Star games with his play, but when he finally got to focus on one job, things took off. The Brooklyn native returned to Seattle in 1977 to take over a 5-17 team and guided it to the 1978 Finals. A year later, the SuperSonics paid back that Washington team that had beaten them, capturing the first pro sports title in city history in five games.
* * *
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.