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Wednesday, February 09, 2022

NBA Selects 15 Greatest Coaches as Part of 75th Anniversary Celebration

The NBA's 75th Anniversary Team included all 50 players selected in 1996 to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List, so it is surprising that the just-released list of 15 Greatest NBA coaches does not include all 10 of the coaches selected in 1996 to the NBA's 10 Greatest Coaches List. Here are the 10 coaches from the 1996 list (in alphabetical order):

Red Auerbach

Chuck Daly

Bill Fitch

Red Holzman

Phil Jackson

John Kundla

Don Nelson

Jack Ramsay

Pat Riley

Lenny Wilkens

A 43 member panel of current and former NBA coaches selected the just-released list of 15 Greatest Coaches. Here is that list (in alphabetical order):

Red Auerbach

Larry Brown 

Chuck Daly 

Red Holzman

Phil Jackson 

K.C. Jones

Steve Kerr 

Don Nelson

Gregg Popovich

Jack Ramsay

Pat Riley

Doc Rivers

Jerry Sloan

Erik Spoelstra

Lenny Wilkens

Thus, Larry Brown,  K.C. Jones, Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Jerry Sloan, and Erik Spoelstra are new members of the list, while Bill Fitch and John Kundla missed the cut this time after appearing on the 1996 list. 

If the NBA is taking the position that players should not be removed from All-Time Greatest Lists, then why remove coaches? Not only is this inconsistent in a general sense, but the exclusion of Kundla and Fitch is bizarre. Kundla led the Lakers to five championships, tied with Popovich and Riley for third in the all-time rankings behind only Jackson's 11 and Auerbach's nine. Taking out Kundla is a slap in the face not only to his great teams and great players, but to that entire era. Regarding Fitch, he ranks 11th all-time in regular season wins, he led the Celtics to the 1981 title, he coached the Rockets to the 1986 Finals, and he improved each team that he coached, from the expansion Cavaliers to the Celtics to the Rockets to the Nets to the Clippers. Fitch was legitimately ranked as a top 10 coach in 1996, and it is difficult to understand how he is not a top 15 coach now.

Larry Brown is considered one of the greatest basketball tacticians and teachers ever. He had not won an NBA title or reached the NBA Finals in 1996, but since that time he led his teams to three NBA Finals and he guided the Pistons to the 2004 championship. He clearly belongs on the list, and I have no problem with him being given one of the five new slots.

K.C. Jones may be one of the most underrated coaches of all-time. He won two titles (1984, 1986), and he ranks sixth all-time in regular season winning percentage. It makes sense to give him one of the five new slots.

Steve Kerr ranks sixth all-time with three titles (2015, 2017-18). He owns the best playoff winning percentage of all-time (.733), and he ranks third in regular season winning percentage (.694). He belongs on the list.

Gregg Popovich ranks third on the career regular season wins list, but he is just six wins away from passing Nelson and taking the number one spot. Popovich's regular season winning percentage has dropped to .659 (12th all-time) and will continue to drop because his current team is lousy, but--as mentioned above--he is tied for third all-time with five championships won (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014). He belongs on the list.

Doc Rivers ranks 10th in career wins but 37th in career winning percentage. Like Fitch, Rivers proved that he could take over bad teams and help them improve, a skill set that is valuable but also damages one's career winning percentage. Rivers led the Celtics to the 2008 title and the 2010 Finals. Rivers is an exceptional coach, and I have stood up for him many times when he received unjust criticism, including a lot of nonsense that Bill Simmons wrote about Rivers (part of a broader trend of arrogant media members assuming that they know a lot more about NBA coaching than they do). Rivers' 1993 book Those Who Love The Game is packed with insights and is a great read for anyone who wants to understand more about the NBA from the perspective of a savvy player (Rivers was still an active player when he co-wrote the book). However, Rivers also holds the coaching record for blowing 3-1 playoff series leads (three). Again, he is a very good coach and he has received unjust criticism in the past, but I would not rank him as one of the NBA's 15 greatest coaches. For sure, he is not a better coach than Kundla or Fitch. 

Jerry Sloan and Nelson are the only coaches on either list who did not win a championship as a coach. Sloan led the Utah Jazz to two NBA Finals appearances (1997, 1998). Sloan ranks fourth in career regular season wins and 23rd in career regular season winning percentage. Sloan was a very good coach, but how can he be ranked ahead of five-time champion Kundla or one-time champion Fitch? 

Erik Spoelstra ranks 24th in career regular season wins and 31st in career regular season winning percentage. He has led the Heat to two championships (2012-13) and five NBA Finals appearances (2011-14, 2020). Spoelstra has already established himself without question as a Hall of Fame coach, but is he really one of the 15 greatest NBA coaches of all-time? 

There are several coaches who did not make either list who I would take over Rivers, Sloan, and Spoelstra. Alex Hannum won two NBA titles (1958, 1967) plus one ABA title (1969). He coached the only two teams to beat Bill Russell's Celtics in a playoff series. Bill Sharman's Lakers broke the regular season wins record set by Hannum's 76ers, and then they won the 1972 title. Tommy Heinsohn won two championships (1974, 1976) in a nine year coaching career, including a seven game triumph in 1974 against peak Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when Abdul-Jabbar was playing alongside Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Bobby Dandridge with the Milwaukee Bucks. Billy Cunningham led the 76ers to the 1983 championship with the greatest playoff record in NBA history up to that time (12-1; the 2001 Lakers went 15-1 in an expanded playoff format, and the 2017 Warriors went 16-1 after the playoff format was expanded again). Cunningham's 76ers had the best regular season record in the NBA for a six year span, and he ranks second in career regular season winning percentage (.698, just behind Jackson's .704). Cunningham ranks ninth in career playoff winning percentage.

Think of it this way: Who do you have to mention if you tell the story of the NBA decade by decade through the lens of coaching? John Kundla was the dominant coach in NBA history prior to Red Auerbach. Then Auerbach's Celtics dominated the late 1950s/early 1960s. Those Bill Russell-led Celtics--coached first by Auerbach and then by player-coach Russell--only lost two playoff series, both times to teams coached by Alex Hannum. Bill Sharman led the Lakers to their first title since moving to L.A. from Minneapolis. Red Holzman and Tommy Heinsohn were the only NBA coaches to win two titles in the 1970s. Lenny Wilkens led the Sonics to two Finals and one championship en route to setting the career regular season wins record (since broken, but he still ranks second).

Pat Riley, K.C. Jones, Chuck Daly, Bill Fitch, and Billy Cunningham were the championship coaches in the 1980s, which might have been the greatest decade in NBA history, featuring the Lakers, Celtics, 76ers, Pistons, and the amazing talents of the young Michael Jordan. Phil Jackson was obviously the coach of the 1990s and the 2000s, leading dynasties in Chicago and then L.A. Popovich won five titles in a 15 year period. Larry Brown sustained excellence for decades, and won a title versus a Phil Jackson-coached team. Steve Kerr helmed the NBA's most recent dynasty, winning three titles in a four year span.

That adds up to 16 coaches. I am not sure how the league settled on 15 coaches for the 75th Anniversary Team, but if the NBA can have 76 players on its 75th Anniversary Team then it can have 16 coaches. With all due respect to the coaches who I left off--each of whom I greatly respect--I feel good about that list of 16; some teams and some eras are more defined by coaches than others, and the coaches I listed are the seminal coaches in NBA history. Perhaps the most difficult cut for me is Spoelstra, but we have seen LeBron James win four titles with three different coaches, so I am more comfortable picturing the Heat winning with a different coach than I am picturing some of these other teams winning with a different coach; I am pretty sure that Riley could have left the front office and coached those teams to titles had that been necessary. I think that Spoelstra is a great, Hall of Fame coach, and he is possibly even a top 20 coach, but he falls just outside of my top 16.

Earlier I said that I am puzzled by the NBA removing coaches from the 1996 list, but if we are keeping the new list to 15 (or 16) and removing coaches then Nelson and Ramsay--not Kundla and Fitch--have to go. Nelson was an innovator and he is the all-time regular season wins leader (until Popovich passes him soon) but he ranks 54th in career regular season winning percentage and he never reached the NBA Finals despite coaching a lot of very talented teams. Ramsay won one title in a 21 year coaching career, never reached another Finals, and had a losing playoff record; he was a great TV/radio commentator and a respected tactician, but in my estimation he is not one of the top 15 or 16 NBA coaches of all-time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:15 AM



At Wednesday, February 09, 2022 2:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doc Rivers?! That seems absurd, after all the playoff collapses -- and the one title in which his stacked team needed 7 games to get out of the first round (and the second round). Surprised you're not more disapproving.... What about Rudy T? His second title was esp noteworthy as an underdog seeding-wise. Or Rick Carlisle?


At Wednesday, February 09, 2022 3:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I disapproved, for the reasons that I stated in the article. I was not "more disapproving" because Rivers gets an unfairly bad rap in some quarters, most notably from Bill Simmons. Rivers is a very good coach, but I would not rank him in the top 15.

Tomjanovich was an excellent coach, but he is not in the top 20 in regular season wins, regular season winning percentage, playoff wins, or playoff winning percentage. He is one of just 14 coaches who won at least two championships, so if that is the main criterion then we can include all 14 but that does not leave much room for great coaches who won one title or no titles. He deserves consideration, but he does not make my top 15/16.

Carlisle is 15th in regular season wins but 68th in regular season winning percentage. He is 17th in playoff wins but 61st in playoff winning percentage. He won a title, but 35 coaches have won at least one title and we can't put them all in the top 15/16. He's HoF worthy, but not in serious consideration for top 15 status.

At Wednesday, February 09, 2022 8:21:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response. In reply, I would only say that top 25 playoff win % can be misleading, in part b/c of sample size.

Per https://www.basketball-reference.com/coaches/NBA_stats.html:

Rudy T: 56.7% over 90 games (25th all-time) -- 2 titles

Ahead of him are, among others, these 6 coaches:
--David Blatt: only 20 games (2nd all-time)
--Paul Westhead: 19 games (4th)
--Nick Nurse: 35 games (5th)
--Buddy Jeannette: 24 games (19th) plus in different era
--Steve Nash: 12 games (20th)
--Randy Wittman: 21 games (22nd)

Of that list Paul W is the only one with a title -- and he had exactly 1.

(Doc is 41st with 51% over 192 games, and 1 title. By the logic above, it's not necessarily fair to fault him for having a lower winning % than Rudy T, b/c Doc coached more games.)

But do the above numbers lead you to consider given Rudy a second look for at least being top 20?

Thanks again for sharing your commentary -- always enlightening.


At Wednesday, February 09, 2022 11:29:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that Tomjanovich deserves consideration. He is not in my top 15/16, but I would not have a huge objection if someone included him in his top 15/16 or top 20.

I agree that playoff winning percentage--like all statistics, and all evidence, for that matter--must be taken into context. I did not seriously consider any of the six coaches that you listed (though Nurse looks like a coach who could earn his way onto the list by the next time the NBA issues a milestone anniversary list) because, among other reasons, their high playoff winning percentages came from a small sample size.

Put a different way, if we keep the list's size at 15/16, who do we take off to include Tomjanovich? I gather that you would remove Rivers, but Rivers led his teams to the playoffs in almost every full season that he coached, and he did not always have stacked rosters. Tomjanovich's coaching career last half as long, and he missed the playoffs four times in 11 full seasons. I understand the case for Tomjanovich, and I have said that he deserves consideration--mainly based on winning back to back championships--but I would not rank him ahead of the 16 coaches who I listed.

At Thursday, February 10, 2022 10:29:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

I think giving such rankings arbitrary number of people selected is pretty unfair... the history gets longer and longer with time, so several coaches have to be removed as new coaches emerge...

good solution would be to list all great coaches (by any metrics) and from that group select those who were incredible, be it 10 or 16 or 21 people deserving the nod; then publish such a list. The same with players.
And don't remove those who played/coached in earlier eras.

At Thursday, February 10, 2022 12:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I am also disinclined to remove those who have already been honored, particularly when the list is being expanded from 10 to 15.

At Thursday, February 10, 2022 5:01:00 PM, Blogger EHR said...

I think there’s quite a bit of recency bias and prisoner of the moment in this list. I agree with your list but I think Spoelstra will be there when he retires. Just not now. I have great respect for him. Honorable mention: Tyronn Lue. I doubt he makes the list, even in top 20. Longevity doesn’t seem to be in his favor given his previous health issues from coaching.

Off topic but Don Nelson should be given more credit for this era of basketball than say…Mike D’Antoni.

At Thursday, February 10, 2022 8:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Without question the NBA's list displays recency bias. My understanding is that most of the voters were current coaches, who may not know the history of the game and who are likely apt to overrate their peers.

Spoelstra may deserve inclusion eventually, but he narrowly misses the cut for my list now. I agree with your categorization of Lue as "honorable mention"--not a candidate for this list, but worth mentioning as a top 25 or 30 coach all-time.

Nelson is more of an innovator than D'Antoni, so I agree with you.

At Friday, February 11, 2022 4:08:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...


Steve kerr def wouldnt make my list

He ok

But he had the greatest talent in prime ever

Spo And others are better than kerr spo gets the most out of all his talent

And has won after bron left

Kerr always had curry playing at this insane level

Im not impressed

At Friday, February 11, 2022 4:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You cannot name a coach who won multiple championships without having all-time great players.

Spoelstra won two championships in four years with James-Wade-Bosh in their primes. That is not bad, but he has one Finals appearance scattered among 10 other years as a head coach.

Kerr has not been coaching as long as Spoelstra, but Kerr already has won three titles. Kerr inherited a talented team that had never won anything, and under his watch the team won three titles. This is similar to Phil Jackson inheriting the Bulls from Doug Collins, and then winning six titles, or Jackson taking over the Lakers and then winning five titles. It is easy to say that any coach could have won with that talent, but in many situations other coaches had great talent and never won anything.

Kerr and Spoelstra are both great, but I don't see the evidence that Spoelstra is better than Kerr.


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