Head coach Gregg Popovich has already etched his name into NBA history as the leader of the San Antonio Spurs dynasty, but where does he fall all-time?
The path to greatness was a road less traveled for mastermind Gregg Popovich and in turn, the San Antonio Spurs organization as a whole. It took a change in team ownership and a whole lot of turnover for the silver and black to reach the upper-echelon of NBA fame, but eventually Pop was put in a position to make decisions for what became a storied franchise shortly thereafter.
Pop was first hired as an assistant coach for the team from 1988 to 1992, then was re-hired as the organization’s general manager in 1994 after spending some time under the great Don Nelson with the Golden State Warriors. He then went on to construct and lead teams that put Pop in position to rival the very man who took him under his wing in the Bay Area, becoming one of the most well-respected figures in the sport.
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) October 28, 2018
With the hype of the 10-part documentary season ‘The Last Dance’ detailing the 90s Chicago Bulls their historic run, esteemed coach Phil Jackson has been at the forefront of many conversations. One of the first leaders to implement a complex system in “the Triangle Offense,” many consider Phil to be the greatest head coach of all-time.
Basketball historians would look to some other noteworthy leaders from years past but in the modern era of basketball, Pop stands alone on a pedestal as the No. 1 guy in the league. Every one of the coaches we mention has arguments in their favor and at the end of the day, this discussion is entirely subjunctive, but there’s no denying Pop’s place in this everlasting hierarchy.
Without Popovich, the NBA is drastically different today and for that reason, we have to put this conversation to rest once and for all: Who is the greatest coach in NBA history?
Next: Honorable Mentons
Honorable Mentions: Lenny Wilkens & Don Nelson
It takes time, effort and a ton of concentration to be an NBA head coach and for these two legends of the game, it came as second nature. Both Lenny Wilkens and Don Nelson played professionally for extended periods before getting into the coaching ranks and once they did, they each excelled even more than they did as players.
Nelson and Wilkens are held in similar regard because despite their status as No. 1 and No. 2 in all-time regular-season wins as NBA coaches, neither had exceptional postseason success in that role. To qualify for the status as the greatest professional basketball coach of all-time, you have to have won at least one ring! It’s a coach’s job not only to get their teams to the top of the standings, but inside and will their players to go out and earn that title and as coaches, both Nelson and Wilkens fell short.
Back in 1976, just after his retirement as a player, Nelson accepted a job as an assistant coach for the Milwaukee Bucks which became a head coaching gig shortly thereafter. He spent 34 years coaching in the NBA after his playing days ended and now, he holds the record for the most regular-season wins by a head coach at 1,335. However, he never won a title which puts him far behind his peers.
Just after he on that list is Wilkens with 1332 regular season wins between 1970-2005, making him the second-winningest head coach of all-time between the regular season and playoffs. Wilkens coached the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics to an NBA title but never had as much success again. He’s regarded as one of the primary figures to pave the way for the modern NBA and had he put together a more distinguished postseason resume, he’d be higher on this list.
Next: Fourth Greatest Coach of All-Time
4. Pat Riley
Known as “The Godfather” of the NBA, Pat Riley thrived off the court way more than he did on it during his playing career. Once he retired from the league, Riley took a job as a broadcaster for the Los Angeles Lakers but just a few short months later, he was brought onto the bench as an assistant coach.
Eventually, after some organizational semantics, the Lakers promoted Riley to head coach in the “Showtime” era, giving him his winning reputation early into his career. Riley went on to lead the New York Knicks for a four-year stint in the mid-90s before eventually landing in his final destination, the Miami Heat.
Ever since, Riley has fluctuated roles between head coach, general manager and his current role, Miami Heat team president. Not only was he an excellent figurehead on the court who led by example and instilled strong values in his players, but Riley’s cutthroat demeanor has come up clutch on the executive side as well.
He’s been very lucky to work with extremely talented groups as a coach, leading to his 63.6 win percentage and ranking at fifth on the all-time regular-season win chart for coaches. He also ranks third of all coaches in regular-season wins above 0.500 with 258 en route to nine conference titles and five NBA championships. Even with all of these incredible accolades, Riley continues to push himself and continue running one of the strongest operations in sports with the Heat.
Not only was he responsible for forming Miami’s Big Three with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but now he’s building another playoff contender around Jimmy Butler. He’s groomed his staff to go out and find undervalued talent every step of the way including the likes of Hassan Whiteside, Bam Adebayo and Kendrick Nunn.
Riley has become synonymous with success as a pro, but he didn’t do enough to crack the top three.
Next: Third Greatest Coach of All-Time
3. Phil Jackson
Now hear me out because this one is going to cause some people to scratch their heads in disbelief. Yes, Phil Jackson ranks No. 1 in conference championships, NBA titles and total playoff wins as a head coach. However, Phil was gifted some of the greatest, most talented players and teams of all-time throughout his career and when he was asked to find that talent himself, he failed miserably.
In the blink of an eye, Jackson went from coaching Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen to coaching Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Quite frankly that doesn’t take as much skill or talent as a leader as what the two men in front of him did. Riley was in similar situations and didn’t pull off as many sustained seasons of success as Phil did, so he gets the nod here.
The triangle offense, which Jackson is praised for popularizing in the NBA, wasn’t even his invention. If you Google search “Who invented the triangle offense?,” Phil’s name comes up in big bold letters despite it being the true invention of Bulls assistant Tex Winters.
For as much as there’s this argument against him being the greatest coach of all-time, there’s also a lot to like with Jackson. He was influential in appealing to his players and letting them be themselves without letting that get in the way of team success. Furthermore, Jackson did a great job of finding ways to implement these arrays of supplemental players to put a winning product on the court.
Jackson is going to be lauded as the GOAT when it comes to coaching by most Chicago Bulls fans and Lakers fans alike, but when you zoom out and look at the grand scheme of things, certain individuals did more to influence their team’s winning culture than Phil did.
Next: Second Greatest Coach of All-Time
2. Red Auerbach
There are few figures in basketball with such allure and praise as the great Red Auerbach, an incredible coach and leader who legitimately paved the path for every other coach on this list. He was the leader of the Boston Celtics beginning in 1950 when he famously emphasized the selection of an African American player, Chuck Cooper, over the white players his Boston fanbase yearned for in that draft.
For years to come, Auerbach was the model of consistency in his role. He was wildly influential to breaking the color barrier in professional sports and more specifically, the NBA. Auerbach single-handedly built the Boston dynasty that’s held in such high regard today. He made a draft-day trade to acquire Bill Russell, dramatically changing the course of history for the Celtics and earning nine NBA Titles in the process.
It’d be easy to dismiss his greatness by saying “He had Bill Russell, of course, he won all of those rings!,” but what sets him apart from the previously-mentioned considerations is that Auerbach built his dynasty from scratch and applied his ingenuity to drastically alter the trajectory of NBA history. His influence remains in the lifeblood of the modern sport and for that, he’s earned the runner-up as the greatest coach of all-time.
Red won nine rings and put Russell in position to earn some more as his successor—a player/coach. He finished with an all-time regular-season NBA record of 938-479, giving him the third-best winning percentage amongst coaches with at least 1,000 games under their belt. This doesn’t include any of his success with the Basketball Association of America (BAA), the NBA’s predecessor. Only one man could match the kind of impact Red made on the NBA.
Next: Greatest Coach of All-Time
1. Gregg Popovich
Between the playoffs and regular season, no one coach has won as many games as the great and powerful Gregg Popovich. As the leader of the Spurs Dynasty for over two decades, Popovich has totaled 1,442 career-victories, making him the league’s all-time leader in total wins between the regular season and the playoffs.
Popovich leads by putting his players in the best possible position to succeed, applying practical skills to help them fulfill their potential. Every year, new players who’d otherwise be no-names emerge as pivotal role players for the Spurs, eventually setting off on their own NBA ventures as legitimate rotation players because of Pop’s teachings.
While Pop doesn’t have the rings that Jackson and Auerbach boast, he’s won five titles and brought his team to the postseason for 22 seasons in a row, tying the record for consecutive playoff appearances by a single franchise. His impact on the sport is uncanny dozens of his proteges moving on to head coaching positions of their own with his greatest partner, Tim Duncan, returning to the Spurs’ sidelines to be by his side one more.
Popovich also set the tone for the modern NBA with the 2014 Spurs, teaching opponents the value of playing an unselfish, team-based game that emphasizes quick passing and high-volume shooting in the heat of the moment. Coaching for as long as Pop has and winning 67.6 percent of his games sounds ridiculous at first glance, but it’s what he’s done for the Spurs organization.
He was also influential in normalizing the implementation and drafting of European prospects in the modern league. His basketball IQ is higher than just about anyone on the planet, rivaling everyone on this list as well as the smartest basketball players like Chris Paul and LeBron James.
Back in 2017, LeBron gave this detailed answer as to why Popovich is the Greatest Coach of All-Time in an interview as reported by USA Today’s Charles Curtis:
“You’ve got to be (the greatest) to do what he’s done in the era of basketball when it’s changed so much and he’s been able to have a growth mindset and be able to change with the game. He’s continued to build around Timmy [Duncan] and Manu [Ginobili] and Tony [Parker] and bring pieces in and out throughout his whole tenure.
“It went from a league where it was like, inside/outside. Like every time you bring the ball down, throw it to the big. Then it goes to every time down, pick-and-roll. Then it goes to every time down, shoot a three. Pop has been able to adjust every single time and still somehow keep those guys under the radar. I don’t understand that.”
LeBron is widely regarded as the best player of his time and many say he’s the greatest player to ever play; and yet the Spurs thwarted his teams twice in three Finals meetings as well as various times throughout their time facing off against each other. That admiration for Popovich, as well as a solid relationship off the court, makes this comment all the more worthwhile.
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Popovich was also selected to take over as the head coach and leader of Team USA basketball this past offseason. To be selected for that role, you have to be the best of the best and I don’t think there’s anyone around the league who would deny that Popovich is the best at what he does, even in a time like this when the Spurs aren’t at their best.
The most recent annual NBA GM poll reassured what we’ve heard time and time again in this debate: Gregg Popovich is still considered the best coach in the NBA. 55 percent of general managers proclaimed that he’s the best at his job and 41 percent believe that he’s the best motivator of any coach around the league. Who was the runner up, you ask? It was Doc Rivers, who is yet another coach stemming from Popovich’s coaching tree.
Quite frankly, I could probably keep going on this matter for another 10,000 words, but you get the point. Popovich isn’t just the greatest coach of all-time because of the on-court product that he puts into the floor, but the strong, kind and fearless mentalities that he instills in the people that he works with every single year.
Pop is the greatest coach because he makes those around him better people both personally and professionally.