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25 Greatest NBA Coaches Of All Time: Phil Jackson Has More Rings Than Fingers

25 Greatest NBA Coaches Of All Time: Phil Jackson Has More Rings Than Fingers

The NBA recently released their list of the top-15 coaches in professional basketball history. Some coaches like Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach were expected to make the cut; they account for nearly one-third of the titles won in the association and are legends.

Other head coaches were a bit of a surprise.

Erik Spoelstra has only been a head coach for a little over a decade, and Steve Kerr has even less head coaching time under his belt with seven full seasons. Still, they made the NBA's list, and they rank high on ours as well because of the cultures each man instilled and the banners they’ve hung.

Below we’ll take things a step farther and introduce our rankings of the top-25 coaches in league history, starting at the bottom and working our way to the best sideline master ever to grace the hardwood.


25. Tyronn Lue: 205-139 (.596)

Clippers Coach Tyronn Lue Responds To Game 2- "I'm Not Concerned."

1X NBA Champion

1X All-Star Game Coach

Tyronn Lue has only been a head coach for six-and-a-half years, but he’s notched three Eastern Conference titles and one NBA championship during that short time as head honcho. Lue’s coaching style was influenced most by his mentor Doc Rivers, but he’s also taken facets of Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson’s ethos.

Lue has had the luxury of coaching some of the best players in the league like LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George, but he never let his superstars run the show or slide by in practices. He’s consistently treated all his players the same, reaching an even level of accountability, and that’s what ultimately landed Lue on our list despite coaching under 400 total games.

Tyronn Lue’s players, from top to bottom, have consistently professed their respect for him, and it’s easy to envision the former Cavs head coach finishing his career with several chips in his pocket.


24. Rick Adelman: 1,042-749 (.582)

Rick Adelman

3X All-Star Game Head Coach

Rick Adelman made it to the championship round twice in his early career with the Portland Trail Blazers, losing to the Pistons and Bulls. He’s probably best remembered for his time in Sacramento coaching Chris Webber and Mike Bibby at the turn of the century and producing some of the most memorable playoff series in the NBA’s history against the Lakers and Timberwolves. He lost against both squads in a hard-fought seventh game, but he was inches away from making the championship round both times.

Rick Adelman’s players universally loved him because he gave them the freedom to be themselves. While other coaches boxed their athletes into specific pre-prescribed roles, he allowed them to break free. Sacramento forward Chris Webber wasn’t constricted to post up plays by the basket; he played across all levels of the court. Similarly, Brad Miller often worked as a facilitator instead of a back-to-the-basket pounder as the Kings center.

Adelman was never named Coach of the Year, and he never won a title. Still, he topped 1,000 career wins, and he was an expert in bringing out the most from his rosters.


23. Mike Budenholzer: 411-286 (.590)

Mike Budenholzer

1X NBA Champion

2X NBA Coach of the Year

2X All-Star Game Head Coach

Mike Budenholzer comes from the Gregg Popovich school of basketball, attending class down in San Antonio as an assistant coach for 16 years. It’s safe to say Budenholzer learned his lessons well.

Mike Budenholzer stormed into Atlanta, helping morph the hapless Hawks into title contenders. In the process, he led the charge for one of the great one-season swings in the league’s history, taking Atlanta from a 38-44 record during his first year as head coach to a 60-22 regular season, winning his first NBA Coach of the Year Award along the way.

Budenholzer moved onto the Milwaukee Bucks in 2018, winning his second Coach of the Year Award and the NBA title last year. Budenholzer has the Bucks in prime position again this season to take home their second consecutive championship. If he manages to secure another banner, we’ll have to move him up our list of best coaches.


22. Rick Carlisle: 856-729 (.540)

Rick Carlisle

1X NBA Champion

1X Coach of the Year

Rick Carlisle has been an NBA head coach for 20 years, and during that span, he’s steered his teams into the postseason 14 times. Carlisle is a no-nonsense coach who always seems to find the most out of his squads.

Carlisle won one title in Dallas during the Mavs magical playoff run in 2010-11, beating LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the finals. He’s also claimed one Coach of the Year award for his work on the 2002 Detroit Pistons.

With Rick Carlisle at the helm of your favorite squad, you’re guaranteed to see a well-coached group of players who work together to secure wins, and they’ll always play tough, disciplined defense.


21. George Karl: 1,175-824 (.588)

George Karl Takes A Shot At Mark Jackson: 'How Many Of My Teams Became Dynasties Right After I Left?'

1X NBA Coach of the Year

4X All-Star Game Head Coach

George Karl has coached six different NBA teams, two CBA squads, and he even did a stint in Spain. Karl never won a title on his journeys across America and Europe, but he racked up eight division titles and three 60-win seasons.

George Karl is best known for his ability to alter his coaching styles. While he led the Seattle Supersonics during the mid-90s, he pushed All-Stars Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp into running a pick and roll oriented offense. Later, when he took over in Denver, he empowered a young Carmelo Anthony to work out of isolation sets beyond the key, drawing in double teams and then swinging the ball around the perimeter for an open look.

George Karl suited up for only 264 games during his playing career, but he spent nearly the rest of his life coaching hundreds of professional basketball players and teaching them the ins and outs of the game he loved.


20. Tom Heinsohn: 427-263 (.619)

Tom Heinsohn

2X NBA Champion

4X All-Star Game Head Coach

Tom Heinsohn was a fiery shot-making guard as a player, and he brought that same edge to his coach’s seat. Heinsohn became famous as the captain of the Boston Celtics, pushing his players into playing pressure defense, constantly hounding the opposing team the entire length of the court.

It took Heinsohn a few years to get his players to create the type of passionate, hounding D he envisioned when he took over, but after only his fourth season, he helped the Celtics win the title in 1974 and then again in 1976, giving opposing point guards fits.

Tom Heinsohn’s coaching career was a short eight years, but during that span, he helped create the type of aggressive, switching D many teams use today.


19. Dick Motta: 935-1,017 (.479)

Dick Motta

1X NBA Champion

1X NBA Coach of the Year

1X All-Star Game Head Coach

Dick Motta is the only coach on our list who has a losing record for his career. He took over some unenviable coaching positions throughout his time in the NBA, but he made the playoffs 14 times with three different teams, and he won one of the most surprising titles ever.

He coached the underdog Wizards, who finished the 1977-1978 regular season 44-38 before shocking the world, stomping through the playoffs, eventually winning the championship against the Seattle Supersonics behind Wes Unseld, who dominated the postseason.


18. Billy Cunningham: 454-196 (.698)

Billy Cunningham

1X NBA Champion

4X All-Star Game Head Coach

Billy Cunningham was one of the fiercest competitors as a player, and he brought that same intensity to coaching, helping the 76ers reach the NBA finals three times, winning the championship once in 1982-83.

Cunningham stopped coaching after only eight seasons, choosing the less stressful joys of the broadcasting booth. Still, during his time running things in Philadelphia, he compiled the second-highest winning percentage ever, at an astronomical .698.

There’s no doubt that Cunningham’s attention to detail and fiery attitude would have led to many more playoff appearances and championship opportunities if he’d chosen to walk farther down the coaching highway.


17. Bill Russell: 341-290 (.540)

Bill Russell

2X NBA Champion

Bill Russell won two titles as the Celtics player/coach. Yes, you read that correctly. Bill Russell acted as Boston’s best player, playing incredible two-way basketball nightly. He was also their head coach, responsible for game management, running practice sessions, scouting, and all the other head coaching responsibilities with no assistants, you know, to assist him.

Bill Russell also holds the honor of the first Black coach in American professional sports, paving the way for coaches of all different races and nationalities to stalk the sidelines.

Bill Russell only won 341 total games as a head coach, with a .540 winning percentage, but that doesn’t matter. He broke barriers and won two titles, doing much of his damage while still playing at an incredibly high level.


16. Rudy Tomjanovich: 527- 416 (.559)

Rudy Tomjanovich

2X NBA Champion

1X All-Star Game Head Coach

Rudy Tomjanovich was a five-time All-Star as a player for the Rockets, and he brought his two-way mentality to the same Houston team as a coach. Rudy doesn’t have the same type of extended career that Jerry Sloan or Don Nelson own, but he gets ultimate bragging rights with the back-to-back titles he won in the early 90s.

The Houston Rockets second title run was like a made-for-TV cheesy sports film, dripping with the type of comebacks and sports magic Americans love. The Rockets fell behind in the first round to the Jazz before coming back, then they trailed the Suns 1-3 in the semis, eventually winning three in a row to make it to the next round. In the Western Conference Finals, you guessed it; they trailed the Spurs before winning and advancing to the Finals, sweeping the Orlando Magic.

The Houston Rockets’ incredible second title run was inspiring, and it gave way to one of the greatest sports quotes ever from Tomjanovich, “Never underestimate the heart of a champion.”


15. Don Nelson: 1,335- 1,063 (.557)

Don Nelson

3X NBA Coach of the Year

1X All-Star Game Head Coach

Don Nelson never won a championship, but he has the most regular season wins in the NBA’s history (Gregg Popovich is only a handful of games behind him and expected to surpass Nelson this season).

Don Nelson was one of the most creative coaches to grace the sidelines. Long before small-ball became commonplace, Nelson introduced the idea of “Nellie Ball” to the basketball world. Nelson often ran out three-guard lineups, trying to run the opposition off the court, and his teams were known to spend entire halves driving and kicking instead of dumping the ball into the post for their hulking center, an idea that was deemed crazy at the time.

Today’s modern offenses feature two-way wings, shooters who spread the floor, and a center standing behind the arc, much of which can be directly attributed to Don Nelson. “Nellie Ball” never made it to the NBA finals, but it left a lasting impression on the league.


14. Jack Ramsay: 864-783 (.525)

Jack Ramsay

1X NBA Champion

Jack Ramsay coached the 76ers, Braves, Trail Blazers, and Pacers during his 20-year head coaching career, winning a title in 1977 in Portland.

He is credited with changing the game of basketball in two ways.

He was one of the first coaches in the NBA to empower his starting center, Bill Walton, to become a playmaker, pushing Big Red to pass out of the post, setting up his teammates for easy looks. Before Ramsay unleashed Walton in Portland, centers were only used to score baskets, rarely swinging the ball once they got their paws on it, which seems crazy, but is true. There’s a reason Wilt Chamberlain dropped 50.4 points for an entire season.

Jack Ramsay was also one of the first coaches to take conditioning seriously. Ramsay was a Navy man, and he learned the value of being in great shape while he served the U.S. He pushed his squad’s hard during practice, helping them build up their wind, so they could run over opposing teams during real contests.


13. Doc Rivers: 1,027-727 (.586)

Doc Rivers

1X NBA Champion

1X NBA Coach of the Year

2X All-Star Game Head Coach

Doc Rivers became an American sensation after his Boston Celtics rallied around his Ubuntu rallying cry to win the 2008 title over their archrivals, the Los Angeles Lakers. That same year, Boston pulled off the largest one-year turnaround going from a 24-58 mess in 2007 to the team with the best record in the association at 66-16.

Most people tend to forget that Rivers began his clipboard career as a coaching genius. He took over an Orlando Magic squad in 1999-20 that was picked by most experts to finish last in the Eastern Conference, and he guided them to a 41-41 record, barely missing the playoffs and capturing the NBA Coach of the Year award in his first season at the helm.

Doc Rivers has shown the ability to rally a team of role players and help them find success, but he can also take a step back when he has a squad full of future Hall-of-Famers (Boston) and give them the freedom they need to create on the basketball court. Rivers is one of the few coaches in the league who can shift back and forth depending on the situation.


12. Lenny Wilkens: 1,332-1,155 (.536)

Lenny Wilkens

1X NBA Champion

1X NBA Coach of the Year

2X All-Star Game Head Coach

Lenny Wilkens coached close to 2,500 total games during 35 NBA seasons. He won only one title with the Seattle SuperSonics while stalking the sidelines. Still, his true greatness is felt in another stat: He made it to the postseason 20 seasons throughout his career without ever having coached a Hall-of-Fame player.

The one season he won a chip in Seattle, his best players were three athletes you’ve probably never heard of: Jack Sikma, Gus Williams, and Dennis Johnson. In a league where talent rules, Wilkens enjoyed extraordinary long-term success.

Lenny Wilkens could coax an excellent brand of team basketball from his rosters devoid of genuine superstars who can create something out of nothing. Who knows how we would look at Wilkens' career if he’d had Michael Jordan or Hakeem Olajuwon on one of his teams.


11. Erik Spoelstra: 645-445 (.592)

020413-erik-spoelstra

2X NBA Champion

1X All-Star Game Head Coach

Erik Spoelstra won two titles with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. As impressive as it is any time a head coach wins multiple rings, his run with the Heat to the 2020 finals might be his best accomplishment. The Lakers beat Miami, but Jimmy Butler and company were heavy underdogs throughout their march toward the Eastern Conference title, winning with some of the best defensive schemes we’ve seen.

Spoelstra has coached in Miami for 13 seasons now, and his teams are always well prepared. It doesn’t matter who is on the roster; you know a Spoelstra-coached team will work hard when they’re on the court, and they are going to play good defense.

Overall, Spoelstra has two banners to his name, one All-Star game coached, and he’s won five Eastern Conference Titles. Not bad for a guy who just turned 50 last year.


10. Larry Brown: 1,327-1,011 (.568)

Larry Brown

1X NBA Champion

1X NBA Coach of the Year

2X All-Star Game Head Coach

Larry Brown is the only coach in history to win an NCAA title and an NBA championship. He made a name for himself as a man who could come in and turn around any ailing franchise through his Xs and Os knowledge and ability to get his players to buy into a team-first brand of basketball.

Larry Brown turned perennial losing teams, the Nets, Spurs, Clippers, and Pacers, into winning organizations. He also climbed to the top in 2004, leading the superstar-less Detroit Pistons to a title over a Lakers team with four eventual Hall-of-Fame players.

Larry Brown had one of the longest NBA careers you’ll ever see, and he amassed over 1,300 Ws along the way. He affected numerous organizations with his coaching style and taught many players to put winning above their own needs.


9. Chuck Daly: 638-437 (.593)

Chuck Daly

2X NBA Champion

1X All-Star Game Head Coach

The 1980s were the Lakers versus Celtics, two high-scoring organizations that featured two of the best offensive players we’ve ever seen, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. That is until Chuck Daly, and the Pistons crashed the party in 1988, making the finals before hanging two consecutive banners in 1989 and 1990 and changing the way the game was played in the process.

The Detroit Pistons took pride in winning ugly. Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, and Rick Mahorn played the most physical brand of basketball the league has ever seen, punishing players silly enough to venture into the lane.

Nobody believed that D was the key to winning before Chuck Daly and his Pistons stormed the league. Now, the mantra “defense wins championships” is at the forefront of every title contender’s resume.


8. K. C. Jones: 552-306 (.643)

K.C Jones

2X NBA Champion

5X All-Star Game Head Coach

K. C. Jones played in the NBA for nine seasons, winning eight titles with the Boston Celtics. As a player, Jones wasn’t a flashy scorer. He was probably the best perimeter defender of his time, helping shut down Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, humbly taking a back seat to Bill Russell and his other more outspoken teammates.

After Jones retired, he coached in several cities before finding a home as a Celtics assistant coach from 1978 through 1983 and then as Boston’s head coach from 1984 until 1992. K. C. Jones won five Eastern Conference Titles and two championships as Beantown’s Number One, earning fame as the ultimate player’s coach, always ready to listen to what his men had to say.


7. Red Holzman: 696-603 (.536)

Red Holzman

2X NBA Champion

1X NBA Coach of the Year

2X All-Star Game Head Coach

Red Holzman was a steadying presence in New York, coaching the Knicks for 14 straight seasons from 1968 through 1982. Holzman picked up two titles in NYC in 1970 and 1973, along with one Coach of the Year Award.

After Holzman, no other coach won a title while walking the NYC sidelines, and it wasn’t for lack of talent. New York City is a pressure cooker. No city in America brings the type of media attention and fan derision than The Big Apple launches at a coach. It is a city that breaks people.

The great Pat Riley almost made it to the top of the mountain, but even he couldn’t pocket a chip for the Knicks, and that’s where Holzman is special. He coached his Knicks squad through the stress of the biggest media market in the world without flinching. He brought a relaxed attitude with him wherever he went, treating officials with class as well as the media and his players. His men soaked up his calm demeanor, and it served them well during their two championship runs.


6. Jerry Sloan: 1,221-803 (.603)

jerry-sloan-040616-usnews-getty-ftr_16vt5qb0tkufo1e32lxtj81fbg

After Jerry Sloan retired, did he have weekly nightmares about Michael Jordan, tongue-wagging, beating his Utah Jazz teams in the finals?

Jerry Sloan was Gregg Popovich before Gregg Popovich began winning in San Antonio. He coached nearly his entire career in Utah, steering the Jazz to 15 straight postseason berths from 1989 to 2003. Sloan, like “Pop,” was happy to work his coaching magic in a small market, unimpressed with the thrills a larger city like LA or NYC offered.

Jerry Sloan never won a title, but in a league that spits out head coaches like a troll lurching up deer bones, he stayed with one organization for over three decades amassing a huge 1,221 wins while coaching his squads up with his solid defensive acumen and knowledge of the pick and roll. It’s safe to say, if Sloan hadn’t gone up against Jordan, the greatest player to suit up, he would have walked away with at least one banner hanging in Utah.


5. Steve Kerr: 418-187 (.691)

(via Business Insider)

(via Business Insider)

3X NBA Champion

1X NBA Coach of the Year

2X All-Star Game Head Coach

Sure, our top-4 coaches have at least double the regular season wins Steve Kerr has amassed, and that matters. Kerr hits hard where it counts, though. He’s 5th all-time in championships won with three chips in his pocket, and he’s third in winning percentage at .694. Just to put Kerr’s overall record in perspective, the Miami Heat are currently first in the Eastern Conference with a .636 winning percentage, and that’s nearly 100 points under Steve Kerr’s career mark.

Steve Kerr has coached some of the best players of our generation in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green. Still, he guided the Warriors to five straight finals appearances, a feat that is nearly impossible when you consider the physical and mental strain.

Kerr’s genius lies in his ability to keep things light and positive, even when his players are fighting under some of the most intense, pressurized situations a human being can endure. Without Steve Kerr’s ability to bring the joy of simply playing basketball out of his players, encouraging them to enjoy the moment instead of breaking down inside it, the Warriors never would have won three titles, regardless of their overall gifts.


4. Pat Riley: 1,210-694 (.636)

Pat Riley

5X NBA Champion

3X NBA Coach of the Year

9X All-Star Game Head Coach

Pat Riley won four titles with the Lakers in the 80s. Two decades later, he won another title with the Heat and sandwiched in between; he guided the New York Knicks to a finals appearance during the 1993-94 season before losing to the Rockets in a hard-fought series.

Pat Riley had the luxury of coaching some of the most talented players we’ve ever seen, like Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O'Neal, and Dwyane Wade.

Still, no coach has ever changed their style of play as Riley did. He allowed the Showtime Lakers to run loose and fast with Johnson at the helm. Then when Riley arrived in New York in the early 90s, he played a slow-paced, grind-it-out style of basketball with Ewing as his offensive centerpiece. Finally, in Miami, Pat Riley played a half-court-oriented brand of basketball, allowing Shaq and Wade to pick apart teams throughout the entire 24-second clock.

We’ve seen many coaches (Mike D’Antoni) throughout the NBA's history flounder as they doggedly use one system, even if it’s wrong for their current personnel. Pat Riley’s adaptability makes him lauded across the NBAverse.


3. Gregg Popovich: 1332-689 (.659)

Gregg Popovich

5X NBA Champion

3X NBA Coach of the Year

4X All-Star Game Head Coach

Gregg Popovich’s sideline interviews are legendary. As a kid, I used to love watching him make whatever poor in-game reporter had the misfortune of drawing the short stick. They’d approach “Pop,” knees shaking, trepidation spilling out their eyes. Half the time, watching Popovich punk some quacking analyst just trying to do their job was better theater than the game.

Pop might hate answering silly questions during the heat of the game, but man, is he an excellent coach. His numbers are startling. He guided the Spurs to the playoffs for 22 seasons in a row, winning five titles, and becoming the benchmark of consistent success all coaches across the globe now try to reach.

Popovich’s success goes beyond wins and losses. Some folks believe he’s had more sway on today’s game than any other human being alive. 11 former “Pop” assistants have gone on to coach their own squad, bringing Popovich’s coaching style and playbook with them, permeating the entire association with their former boss’s style, and X’s and O’s.


2. Red Auerbach: 938-479 (.662)

Red Auerbach

9X NBA Champion

1X NBA Coach of the Year

11X All-Star Game Head Coach

Red Auerbach is best known for winning eight titles in a row in Beantown as he stomped up and down the sidelines with his wonderful hat and smoking cigar jutting out from his mouth. Many people don’t know he was one of the best motivators the sports world has ever seen.

Auerbach convinced his Boston squads, laced with some of the most talented players in the NBA at the time, to put their own statistics on the back-burner and to play team basketball. While Wilt Chamberlain was becoming one of the most famous athletes in America, racking up incredible points and rebounds totals, Bill Russell reigned in his game and did what it took to win. Russell has credited his team-first approach to Red Auerbach’s coaching style.

Oh, and Red Auerbach did it all primarily by himself. Today’s NBA teams shuffle dozens of coach’s, trainers, nutritionists, and massage therapists in and out of the practice facility, but the NBA’s second-winningest head coach had zero head coaches to help him during his entire tenure in Boston, let alone trainers and the rest of the shebang we see in the modern association.

Zero assistant head coaches!!!!!!


1. Phil Jackson: 1155-485 (.704)

Phil Jackson

11X NBA Champion

1X NBA Coach of the Year

4X NBA All-Star Game Head Coach

Phil Jackson owns the most championships of any coach in NBA history with a whopping 11 titles to his name. Jackson is the king of the three-peat. He won three consecutive titles with the Chicago Bulls from 1991 to 1993, then he did it again in the Windy City from 1996 to 1998, hanging three more banners before taking his coaching talents to Hollywood where he won another three chips with the Lakers from 2000 to 2002 earning a clean triple-triple in three-peats. He topped off his championship resume again in Los Angeles with a mere two titles in a row in 2009 and 2010.

Phil Jackson isn’t just a playoff coach, he has the highest regular season winning percentage ever at .704, and he has a huge 1,155 wins to his name. He also led the Chicago Bulls to the second-best regular season ever during 1995-96, finishing things with a 72-10 record.

Beyond the statistics, Jackson was a master of psychology, reigning in some of the most immense talents the NBA's ever seen, like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal. He put out weekly fires as a head coach, helping corral Dennis Rodman and Metta World Peace into playing their best brands of basketball, and he also held up dozens of olive branches for Kobe and Shaq to grasp hold of before killing each other.


Our 25 Greatest NBA Coaches Of All Time

Coaching in the NBA is a pressure-packed job that’s been known to break men. The association sees skippers come and go, but only a few can become basketball lifers, making the association their home as they instruct the athletes they’ve been blessed with.

Our list of Top-25 coaches features seven active commanders who are still building their resumes. We also have the most winning coaches in the league’s history and the most successful title winners to hold a clipboard. All-in-all, every basketball fan should tip their hat to the men who lie within our list because they got here through hard work and incredible intelligence.

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