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The Top 10 NBA Players Who Became Coaches: Phil Jackson Is The Real Lord Of The Rings

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The Top 10 NBA Players Who Became Coaches: Phil Jackson Is Real The Lord Of The Rings

Throughout NBA history, there have been many former players trying their hand at coaching. Some have failed so immensely and been run out of town. Others have exceeded the highest of expectations and gone on to lead their teams to championships with Hall Of Fame careers. While sometimes it does not work out, more often than not, it is a good gamble to take, considering how much knowledge of the game a former player can bring.

Take the current situation in the NBA, for example. There are currently 16 coaches who are former players with head coaching jobs in the NBA. The 2 coaches in the 2022 NBA Finals are former players, and 3 out of 4 in the Conference Finals were as well, with Erik Spoelstra being the outlier. There is just a different vibe about a team when a former player takes the helm.

Although it can and has ended badly for some, our list will provide you with the 10 best players who found success as coaches.

Honorable Mention

 K.C. Jones

K.C Jones

Player Stats: 7.4 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 4.3 APG (Defensive Stats Not Recorded)

Championships As Player: 8 (1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966)

Championships As Coach: 2 (1984, 1986)

Achievements As Coach: 5x All-Star Game Head Coach (1975, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987)

Coaching Record:

Regular Season: 552-306

Playoffs: 81-61

K.C. Jones played 9 seasons in the NBA and won 8 championships as a member of the Boston Celtics from 1959-1966. His offensive numbers weren’t the best, but that wasn’t Jones’s primary role. Jones was a defensive wizard who thrived in the Celtics system, shutting down the opposition’s best player on the perimeter. He also had elite-level anticipation and awareness, making his knack for steals a big part of the reason he was able to be with the team so long. His offensive game wasn’t completely limited as he ranked 7th all-time for the Celtics in assists with 2,908.

K.C. Jones began his coaching career with the Washington Bullets in 1975. In his first season, the team went 60-22 and went to the NBA Finals but lost to the Golden State Warriors behind 29.5 PPG from Rick Barry. He went 48-34 in his 2nd season but was fired inexplicably at the season’s end. He would spend the next 7 seasons as an assistant coach with the Bucks and Celtics until he was nabbed for the head coaching job in Boston in 1984. In his first season with Boston, Jones led the Celtics back to the promised land and won the NBA championship in 7 games over the Lakers. They would go back to the finals in 1985 but lose in 6 games to those same Lakers. For the 3rd straight year in 1986, the Celtics found themselves in the Finals, where they would come out on top in 6 games over the Houston Rockets. Overall, Jones led Boston to 4 conference titles and 2 NBA titles in his tenure. 

Doc Rivers

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Player Stats: 10.9 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 5.7 APG, 1.8 SPG, 0.4 BPG

Championships As Player: 0

Championships As Coach: 1 (2008)

Achievements As Coach: NBA Coach of the Year (2000), 3x All-Star Game Head Coach (2008, 2011, 2021)

Coaching Record: 

Regular Season: 1043-735

Playoffs: 104-100

Doc Rivers’s career as a player certainly can’t be considered a bad one. His best days were spent in Atlanta, where he was a more than decent starting point guard. In his 8 seasons with the Hawks, Rivers averaged 13.0 PPG and 6.8 APG. He had 3 seasons with more than 8.0 APG as well. He was even named an All-Star in 1988, averaging 14.2 PPG and 9.3 APG. His playmaking skills were extremely valuable to the team’s primary scoring option, Dominique Wilkins. Although his playing career was pretty good, his career as a coach has more notoriety.

Rivers’ career as a coach is a peculiar one. He started in Orlando with the Magic, where he spent 5 seasons. He accumulated a 171-168 record, unfortunately failing to ever make it past the first round of the playoffs. He did manage to capture Coach of the Year in 2000. His best years were undoubtedly spent in Boston, where his teams reached 2 NBA Finals, winning in 2008 over the Lakers. He would help Boston reach the Finals again in 2009, but fell to the same Lakers team they beat the year before. He spent 9 seasons in a very fortunate situation provided with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen as a Big 3 to work with. You could almost argue that despite the title, Rivers underachieved in Beantown. He has not been back to the Finals since Boston after 7 seasons with the LA Clippers and is now headed into his 3rd season in Philadelphia.

10. George Karl

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Player Stats: 6.5 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 3.0 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.1 BPG

Championships As Player: 0

Championships As Coach: 0

Achievements As Coach: NBA Coach of the Year (2013), 4x All-Star Game Head Coach (1994, 1996, 1998, 2010)

Coaching Record:

Regular Season: 1175-824

Playoffs: 80-105

George Karl’s playing career is nothing to write home about. He was selected in the 4th round of the 1973 NBA Draft by the New York Knicks. Karl would never lace up for them, opting instead to play with George Gervin and the San Antonio Spurs in the ABA. He would spend 3 seasons as the team’s starting point guard, peaking in 1975 with 8.1 PPG and 4.1 APG. After the Spurs joined the NBA as part of the merger, Karl saw limited playing time and would retire after the 1978 season.

Coaching is where you will see the immense impact George Karl has left on the game of basketball. He started as an assistant with the Spurs and struggled his first few years as a head coach until he went overseas to coach Real Madrid. When he returned stateside in 1992, he found himself an opportunity with the Seattle SuperSonics. Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp have always sung Karl high praise, citing him as the reason they were able to flourish as a duo. He would go on to be the 2nd winningest coach in franchise history and made one Finals appearance in 1996. He is also the 2nd winningest coach in Denver Nuggets history and 4th in Milwaukee Bucks history. Karl will be inducted into the Hall Of Fame in 2022.

9. Jerry Sloan

Jerry Sloan

Player Stats: 14.0 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.1 BPG

Championships As Player: 0

Championships As Coach: 0

Achievements As Coach: No Coaching Accolades

Coaching Record:

Regular Season: 1127-682

Playoffs: 98-104

Jerry Sloan had a very respectable basketball career. Although he never got to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy, he was a 2x All-Star in an 8-year career with the Chicago Bulls. He was known as a tenacious defender and incredible rebounder despite his 6’5" height. Sloan led the Bulls to the playoffs in their first season in existence and only division title before a man named Michael Jordan came around 19 years later. Known as “The Original Bull”, Sloan would be the 1st player in franchise history to have his jersey retired.

Sloan coached in the NBA for a miraculous 26 seasons, 3 with the Bulls and 23 with the Utah Jazz. Of those 26 seasons, his teams only finished 3 of them with a record below .500. He currently sits 4th all-time on the regular-season wins list. In 1997 and 1998, Sloan led Karl Malone, John Stockton, and the Jazz to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances but unfortunately ran into the MJ-led Bulls both times. He also ranks 4th all-time in playoff victories and games coached. Jerry Sloan is the epitome of the Utah Jazz organization and easily the most decorated coach in franchise history. Gregg Popovich considers Sloan a mentor of his, speaking volumes about the impact Coach Sloan had on the game.

8. Bill Sharman

Bill Sharman

Player Stats: 17.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.0 APG

Championships As Player: 4 (1957, 1959, 1960, 1961)

Championships As Coach: 1 (1972)

Achievements As Coach: No Coaching Accolades

Coaching Record:

Regular Season: 466-353

Playoffs: 57-40

Bill Sharman was one of the key players for a successful late 50s/early 60s Boston Celtics team. Sharman was named an All-Star 8 consecutive seasons from 1953 to 1960. He is easily considered the best shooter of his era, being one of the first players in history to shoot 40% or better. He also led the NBA in free-throw percentage an incredible seven times. Forming a seemingly unstoppable backcourt with Bob Cousy, Sharman would help the Celtics by grabbing 4 championships in his time there.

As a coach, Sharman is considered to be one of the early innovators of the game. He is the only coach to win a cham[pionship in 3 different leagues ( ABL, ABA, NBA). In his first season in the NBA as a head coach, Sharman led the Lakers to a franchise-record 69 wins and an NBA championship. Led by Jerry West, Gail Goodrich and Wilt Chamberlain, Sharman’s Lakers laid a beat down on the New York Knicks, winning the Finals in 5 games. Sharman has led 4 different teams to 15 championships as a player, coach, and executive. With his long history of success and winning, there should be no doubt about his placement on this list.

7. Rudy Tomjanovich

Rudy Tomjanovich

Player Stats: 17.4 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 2.0 APG, 0.3 SPG, 0.2 BPG

Championships As Player: 0

Championships As Coach: 2 (1994, 1995)

Achievements As Coach: No Coaching Accolades

Coaching Record:

Regular Season: 527-416

Playoffs: 51-39

Rudy Tomjanovich was a spectacular forward for the Houston Rockets during the 1970s. Drafted in 1970 by the then-San Diego Rockets, Tomjanovich would spend the entirety of his career with the franchise. He was a ferocious scorer and rebounder, averaging at least 20.0 PPG and 6.0 RPG four times in his career, propelling his 5 All-Star selections. He is the 4th leading scorer of all time in Rockets history and has his #45 retired by the club.

If anyone embodied the words intensity and energy, it was Rudy T. He would work himself nearly to death, making sure his players and coaches were prepared for each game, actually being hospitalized multiple times for exhaustion. His hard work paid off to the tune of back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995 with his star player, Hakeem Olajuwon. In 1994, the Rockets defeated the New York Knicks in 7 games for his 1st title as a coach. In 1995, after giving Olajuwon some relief and adding Clyde Drexler, the Rockets defeated the Magic for back-to-back titles in a clean sweep. He was the first coach to ever take a team from the lottery to a division title and holds Rockets franchise records for wins and winning percentage. He was inducted into the Hall Of Fame in 2021.

6. Bill Russell

Bill Russell

Player Stats: 15.1 PPG, 22.5 RPG, 4.3 APG

Championships As Player/Coach: 11 (1957, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969)

Achievements As Coach: No Coaching Accolades

Coaching Record:

Regular Season: 341-290

Playoffs: 34-27

Bill Russell is one of the greatest players of all time. As the leader of the Boston Celtics, Russell led them to 11 championships in his 13 seasons with the team. Known as one of the greatest defenders ever, it is a shame to think what his defensive stats would be considering they didn’t start recording them until after he retired. Russell led the league in rebounding 5 times and averaged over 20.0 RPG in 10 seasons as well.

Russell only served as a player-coach for three seasons, but his impact was so great that it earned him a Hall Of Fame nod as a coach. After Red Auerbach stepped down in 1966, there was only one replacement that could fill his shoes and that was Bill Russell. In his 3 seasons as coach, he won championships in two of them. Both titles came at the expense of the Jerry West-led Lakers. The Celtics defeated them in 6 games in 1968 and 7 games in 1969. He was also named the first African-American coach in any professional sport, something he has said himself is his proudest accomplishment. Although it would never work in the modern era, being a player-coach for Russell came easy with the respect he already had from his teammates and the great things he had already accomplished.

5. Tom Heinsohn

Tom Heinsohn

Player Stats: 18.6 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.0 APG

Championships As Player: 8 (1957, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1961, 1963, 1964, 1965)

Championships As Coach: 2 (1974, 1976)

Achievements As Coach: NBA Coach of the Year (1973), 4x All-Star Game Head Coach (1972, 1973, 1974, 1976)

Coaching Record:

Regular Season: 427-263

Playoffs: 47-33

Tom Heinsohn was yet another key player for the great Celtics teams of the late 1950s and 1960s. Heinsohn was a versatile scorer with a soft shooting touch but was overshadowed by teammates like Bob Cousy and Bill Russell. Heinsohn was drafted in 1956, the same year as Bill Russell, but claimed NBA Rookie of the Year over the big man with 16,2 PPG. Russell missed half the season to play in the Olympics. Heinsohn would go on to win 8 titles as a player, make 6 All-Star Games, and get named to 4 All-NBA Second Teams.

Heinsohn’s reign as a coach did not start in the greatest fashion. Bill Russell had just retired and Red Auerbach offered him the job promptly. Heinsohn would miss the playoffs with the Celtics, marking the 1st time in 20 years the team would do so. In 1974, he would finally get the team back to the promised land, beating the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals in 7 games. Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White were the key players for Heinsohn’s championships. He would win one more championship as a coach in 1976 over the Suns before stepping down for good in 1978. He was elected to the Hall Of Fame in 1986.

4. Lenny Wilkens

Lenny Wilkens

Player Stats: 16.5 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 6.7 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.2 BPG

Championships As Player: 0

Championships As Coach: 1 (1979)

Achievements As Coach: NBA Coach of the Year (1993), 4x All-Star Game Head Coach (1979, 1980, 1989, 1994)

Coaching Record:

Regular Season: 1332-1155

Playoffs: 80-98

Lenny Wilkens is one of the great playmakers that the game of basketball has seen. With the St. Louis Hawks, Wilkens spent 8 seasons as a 3rd or 4th option behind such greats as Bob Pettit and Cliff Hagan and still managed to produce at a high level making 5 All-Star teams. When he was traded to the expansion sonics in 1969, he blossomed as an elite guard. In his 4 seasons with the team, he averaged 19.5 PPG and 9.0n APG. He led the league in assists in 1970, the year he finished 2nd in MVP voting behind Wilt Chamberlain. He was inducted into the Hall Of Fame in 1989 as a player.

Wilkens basketball IQ catapulted a post-playing career to legendary heights. Wilkens' coaching style was easy for many to buy into considering it revolved all-around teamwork on both ends of the ball. After a brief stint in Portland, Wilkens headed back to Seattle as a coach, taking over for Bob Hopkins after he was fired 22 games into the 1979 season and Wilkens helped launched a miraculous run to the NBA Finals. Wilkens led a Sonics team with Gus Williams, Jack Sikma, and Dennis Johnson to a 5-game series win over Wes Unseld’s Washington Bullets, who were heavily favored. It would be the only Finals victory of his career. He then had somewhat successful stints in Cleveland and Atlanta before hanging it up for good in 1995. Wilkens currently ranks 3rd all-time in coaching wins, having been the 1st coach to surpass the great Red Auerbach in that category. He was inducted into the Hall Of Fame as a coach in 1998.

3. Steve Kerr

Steve Kerr

Player Stats: 6.0 PPG, 1.2 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.5 SPG, 0.1 BPG

Championships As Player: 5 (1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2003)

Championships As Coach: 4 (2015, 2017, 2018, 2022)

Achievements As Coach: NBA Coach of the Year (2013), 2x All-Star Game Head Coach (2015, 2017)

Coaching Record:

Regular Season: 429-200

Playoffs: 93-34

Steve Kerr has to be one of the most fortunate players of all time. He was never a starter in the NBA, but his impact was still felt off of the bench. Clutch shots and a high shooting percentage are the definitions of his career. He was a member of the 2nd Bulls 3-peat from 1996 to 1998. After leaving the Bulls in 1998, Kerr joined the Spurs where he would win 2 more titles in the same role. He also still holds the NBA’s record for 3-point percentage, shooting 45.4% from deep for his career.

Say what you will about the talent Steve Kerr has had since taking control of the Golden State Warriors, but it was his free-flowing offense that made it successful. Kerr’s green light to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, along with their incredible ability to hit their shots, has been a huge part of Golden State’s success. In 2015, his 1st season as coach, Kerr led the Warriors to 63 regular-season wins and an NBA title defeating LeBron James and the Cavaliers in 6 games. His next championship would come in 2017 over those same Cavaliers, except this time, they would win in 5 games thanks to the addition of Kevin Durant.

The Warriors would capture back-to-back titles in 2018, this time with a clean sweep of the Cavs behind an incredible series from Finals MVP Kevin Durant and teammate Steph Curry. After losing in the Finals in 2019 to the Toronto Raptors, the Warriors struggled with injuries and a turnstile lineup that saw different guys in and out of the rotation. 2022 has perhaps been his most impressive coaching job yet. The Warriors finished the regular season 53-29 and as the 3rd seed in the Western Conference. The playoffs were a different story with the Warriors never facing elimination on their way to the NBA Finals. It was more of the same in the Finals with Kerr and the Warriors taking out the Boston Celtics in 6 games for their 4th title in 8 years. 

2. Pat Riley

Pat Riley

Player Stats: 7.4 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 1.7 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.1 BPG

Championships As Player: 1 (1972)

Championships As Coach: 5 (1982, 1985, 1987, 1988, 2006)

Achievements As Coach: 3x NBA Coach of the Year (1990, 1993, 1997), 9x All-Star Game Head Coach (1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1993)

Coaching Record:

Regular Season: 1210-694

Playoffs: 171-111

Pat Riley can be overlooked as a player due to his vast success as a coach and executive. The truth is, he was an integral reserve for the Lakers during his career, playing a role in a 1972 team that won 33 straight regular-season games and an NBA championship. Although he was never an All-Star or even a starter, Riley's contributions to team success cannot be ignored. Something that would carry on to his coaching career and then some.

Pat Riley is one of the greatest basketball minds of any generation. He was a true master of the x’s and o’s of the sport. Riley’s style was fierce, focusing on physical play, especially on defense. He wanted his teams to fight for all 48 minutes, figuratively and literally. He was the mastermind behind the historic “Showtime” offense in LA, centered around Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The Lakers would go on to win 4 titles under this system implemented by Riley.

In 1982, his first season as coach, Riley led the Lakers to a championship over Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers in 6 games. He would reach the promised land again in 1985, defeating the Boston Celtics in 6 games behind great performances from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. It wouldn’t be long before Riley and the Lakers would find themselves back on top in 1987, after again beating Larry Bird’s Celtics in 6 games. Riley would then take the team back-to-back in 1988, defeating the “Bad Boy” Pistons in 7 games for Riley’s 4th championship as a coach and final title with the Lakers.

His most impressive Finals victory might be from 2006 when Riley took a Miami Heat team led by a young Dwyane Wade and Shaq to victory over the powerhouse Dallas Mavericks. It would be his fifth and final title as a head coach. He has since gone on to become one of the great executives in the game as well in Miami, winning 2 more championships in that role in 2012 and 2013. He was inducted into the Hall Of Fame as a coach in 2008.

1. Phil Jackson

Phil Jackson

Player Stats: 6.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.1 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.4 BPG

Championships As Player: 2 (1970, 1973)

Championships As Coach: 11 (1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2010)

Achievements As Coach: NBA Coach of the Year (1996), 4x All-Star Game Head Coach (1992, 1996, 2000, 2009)

Coaching Record:

Regular Season: 1155-485

Playoffs: 229-104

Phil Jackson’s playing career doesn’t hold a candle to his coaching resume. Jackson played 12 seasons in the league, only managing to average 10.0 PPG or more twice in his career. Much of that has to do with a back injury that cost him the 1970 season after needing surgery. That season would actually be a catalyst for his coaching career as he spent the year observing and studying coach Rex Holzman en route to a title for the Knicks. Jackson would finally be on the floor for a championship in 1973, averaging 8.1 PPG and 4.3 RPG as the Knicks would reign supreme once again.

There is no doubt that Phil Jackson is the greatest coach of all time. Yes, he had MJ, Kobe, and Shaq but it was definitely Jackson’s basketball mind that helped elevate their play. He is the only coach to secure 3-peat title runs with 2 separate franchises with the Bulls and Lakers. Jackson would capture his 1st championship in 1991, his 2nd year as head coach. The Bulls would dominate the playoffs, only losing 2 games in its entirety and defeating the Lakers in the Finals in 5 games.

The following 2 years were more of the same for Jackson and Chicago. With the aid of the greatest player of all time, Michael Jordan, and other stars like Scottie Pippen, the Bulls would win the next 2 championships. In 1992, they defeated Clyde Drexler and the Trailblazers in 6 games. In 1993, the Bulls would defeat MVP Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns also in 6 games. It was 3 years later that they would reach the real pinnacle of their success.

With arguably the greatest team of all time, Jackson led the Bulls to a 72-10 regular season record and an NBA championship once again in 1996. They defeated the Seattle SuperSonics led by Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp in 6 games. In 1997, they would be right back in the Finals, defeating the Utah Jazz in 6 games. The very next year, Jackson and the Bulls would defeat Stockton and Malone’s Jazz once again in 6 games, securing Jackson’s 6th title and final one as coach of the Bulls.

Jackson would then take the coaching job with the Los Angeles Lakers, bringing his winning philosophies to another star duo in Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. After losing to the Spurs in the 2nd round in 1999, the Lakers were headed back to the Finals where they would defeat the Pacers in 6 games in 2000. They would go on to repeat as champs in 2001 with a dominant 5 game series victory over Allen Iverson and the 76ers. They only lost one game in the entire playoffs. Jackson and the Lakers were not finished as in 2002 they would dominate another Finals opponent, defeating the New Jersey Nets in a sweep and securing Jackson’s 3rd three-peat as a coach.

Jackson would lead the Lakers to glory twice more as a coach, defeating the Orlando Magic in 2009 and the Boston Celtics in 2010. Phil Jackson has had the unique opportunity of coaching the greatest player of all time (Jordan), the most dominant player ever (Shaq), and arguably the greatest Laker of all-time (Kobe Bryant). He made the most of his opportunities, taking home 11 total championships as a head coach. There have been so many players to try their hand at coaching in the NBA, but none have ever done it better than Phil Jackson. “The Zen Master” is not only the greatest player turned coach in history, but the best to ever do it, period. It will be decades before we see another coach replicate the success and overall dominance that Jackson did as a coach in the NBA.    


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