On Tuesday night, Gregg Popovich passed George Karl on the list for head coaching victories. As Popovich moves into fifth place in NBA history, we take a look back at the 10 best signal callers in NBA history.
10. Don Nelson: Nelson won the NBA’s Coach of the Year Award on three separate occasions, spending more than 30 seasons on NBA sidelines. Despite lacking major star power, Nelson won almost 56 percent of his games and developed exciting, up-tempo-style offenses that featured Run TMC on Golden State and Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas. Nelson guided the Warriors to the great upset in NBA history when the No. 8 Warriors beat the No. 1-seeded Mavericks in 2007. The Mavericks had won 67 games during the regular season before falling to the Warriors.
9. Chuck Daly: Following a disastrous coaching start with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Daly would never experience another losing season as a head coach–winning 59 percent of his games. It’s important to note his imprint on the Bad Boy Pistons that won two NBA championships. He also oversaw the 1992 Dream Team.
8. Larry Brown: Brown moved around the league, but he won a championship in both the NCAA and NBA–showcasing his versatility as a signal caller. He beat out Phil Jackson for his lone title, leading a less talented Detroit Pistons squad over a Lakers dynasty. He also led a Sixers team with Allen Iverson to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Lakers. Despite moving from team to team, Brown still managed to win nearly 55 percent of his games–an impressive feat considering some of them were in the midst of rebuilding.
7. Jerry Sloan: Sloan never coached the Utah Jazz to a championship, but he certainly got close. He won more than 60 percent of his games and spent 23 years as Utah’s lead man. He will forever be linked with the organization’s heyday, which included John Stockton and Karl Malone.
6. John Kundla: The Lakers’ coaching tree got off to a prominent start in Minneapolis under Kundla’s watch. Kundla established the sport’s first dynasty, as those Lakers teams won five titles. He won more than 58 percent of his games and rode George Mikan and Vern Mikkelsen for much of the team’s success.
5. Red Holzman: Holzman was so important to the New York Knicks franchise that they retired the No. 613 in his honor, signifying the number of wins he had as head coach of New York. He did something that no other Knicks coach has been able to do: Holzman won a championship with the team–twice.
4. Pat Riley: The Los Angeles Lakers have a tradition of great coaches, and Riley was no exception. Riley won four titles with the Lakers before adding one in 2006 with the Miami Heat. Riley coached to his personnel, which truly made him great. The Showtime Lakers played a completely different style than his New York Knicks and Miami Heat teams, which showed Riley’s versatility and savvy. He won more than 63 percent of the games he coached.
3. Phil Jackson: Phil Jackson had the luxury of coaching the very best players in the sport’s history in their primes, but his ability to handle personalities is ultimately what led to his success. Often in the discussion for No. 1 on this list, Jackson won 11 titles as a coach and presided over the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty of the 1990s. His Triangle Offense became a staple with the great Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers teams, and he won more than 70 percent of the games in which he coached.
2. Gregg Popovich: Although he has won five NBA titles and has been named Coach of the Year three times with the San Antonio Spurs, Popovich has not accomplished as much as Phil Jackson. But he has done more with less. While he did have the good fortune of coaching Tim Duncan--arguably one of the 10 greatest players of all-time--he instilled a system of ball movement and selflessness that transcended generations. The argument could also be made that players like Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen, and even Duncan do not go on to have the great careers they did without a master signal caller like Pop.
1. Red Auerbach: Auerbach’s fingerprints were on 16 NBA championship teams: He won nine championships as head coach of the Boston Celtics and added seven more as an executive. That’s an astonishing number, one that puts him at the head of the coaching class. In fact, the Coach of the Year Trophy was later named the “Red Auerbach Trophy,” indicating just how valuable his contributions were to the league.
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