NBA: Gregg Popovich and the Best System Coaches
Underrated and under the radar is how Gregg Popovich has operated through his lengthy and illustrious NBA career. A four-time NBA champion head coach, Pop has been able to put together a sustained run of success like few other coaches ever have. And for the first time this season, there's no Phil Jackson, or Jerry Sloan or Larry Brown or anyone else with a bigger personality to overshadow Pop.
He is clearly and undisputedly the top coach in the NBA today.
There are two types of coaches in the NBA. There are coaches who form their systems to fit their players every single year. These coaches can have great seasons here or there, but it's difficult to sustain because the players and their system changes every year.
And then there are the coaches who have their systems firmly in place and are adept at both finding players who fit that system, and then getting the most out of those players.
When it comes to the second type of NBA coach, Gregg Popovich is currently in a league of his own. There is no coach in the league today who can get more out of both great players and mediocre players than Popovich.
But where does Pop rank amongst the best coaches in NBA history? The following list will examine some of the best system coaches in the history of the league.
5. Larry Brown
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The first coach on the list is the man who once mentored Gregg Popovich at the University of Kansas, Larry Brown.
Brown is best known for developing a system that brought out the best in all of his players. For several years, whether it was as the head coach of the Spurs, Pacers, 76ers or the Pistons, Brown would take seemingly mediocre teams and turn them into contenders.
His team-oriented system and his hard-nosed coaching style would lead to some clashing with star players in the NBA, most notably in his public feud with Allen Iverson in Philadelphia. Even with some drama throughout his career, Brown was able to be one of the most successful coaches ever.
Over the course of his 27 year NBA head coaching career, Brown compiled a record of 1,098-904 and made the playoffs in all but four of those years. He only has one NBA title, but that doesn't take away from the spectacular accomplishments he was able to record over such a long career.
The end of Brown's career was really the only blemish, as he unsuccessfully led both the Knicks and the Bobcats for a combined four years with only one playoff appearance. Aside from that, Larry Brown was one of the greatest coaches in the history of the NBA.
4. Gregg Popovich
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After Larry Brown comes his most successful disciple, and a man who has been the model of stability and success in the NBA since 1996. That man is the current Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich.
Popovich has been with the Spurs since he took the head coaching position there in 1996. His first year was rough, as the team was 17-47 under him and missed the playoffs.
But then the lottery balls fell in favor of the Spurs, and they were able to draft a young man named Tim Duncan to pair up with David Robinson.
Four NBA championships and zero playoff-less years later, Gregg Popovich is regarded as one of the greatest coaches of all time.
Popovich is very much like his mentor, Brown, in the way that he continually gets the best out of players who were either average on other teams or who would leave the Spurs and have unremarkable careers elsewhere. He managed to put those players around his star, Duncan, and the success speaks for itself.
One of the most remarkable things about Popovich is how much his players seem to love playing for him. He is a brash and often confrontational person in the media, but he'll be the first to defend his team. His leadership and attitude have made it so that his players rarely consider leaving the organization when their free agency comes up.
Currently, Popovich is sitting at 836-397 for his career. His current Spurs team, who many labeled as too old to compete, is the number one team in the Western Conference and looking to make another deep playoff run to add to Popovich's 108 career playoff wins.
Popovich still seems to have plenty left in the tank and will surely remain successful for the remainder of his illustrious career, which already has him ranked as one of the best coaches of all time.
3. Red Auerbach
Red Auerbach is the icon of NBA coaching.
Everything from his massive success on the court to his willingness to break the mold on how teams play to his desire to let the best players play for him—which led to the breakdown of the NBA color barrier—made Auerbach the definition of a winner in the NBA.
Over the course of his career as the Celtics' head coach, Auerbach won 938 career games, which was a record at the time of his retirement. He won nine NBA championships as a coach and then another seven as the general manager of the Celtics.
During an era when individual play was becoming more and more important to teams, Auerbach focused on team play and hard-nosed defense to win games. It redefined the entire era.
He was also one of the first coaches to realize that tough defense would also lead to easy offense. He pioneered the fast break offense, which is now a staple of the NBA.
Auerbach was brash, loud and borderline arrogant. But he backed all of his attitude up by leading teams to great success year after year.
Auerbach was truly the King Midas of the NBA. Everything he touched turned to gold.
2. John Kundla
The very first coach of the Lakers (in Minneapolis), John Kundla was one of the original great system coaches of all time.
Kundla's system was as basic and simple as it can get. He believed that he could win by finding a stud center and building a team around that player. For Kundla in Minnesota, that center was George Mikan, and it led to a streak of success that few coaches and teams have ever seen.
Over his career as the coach of the Lakers, Kundla won 423 games and lost just 302 in the regular season, and compiled a postseason record of 60-35.
Kundla ranks so highly on the list because he was a pioneer of the game. He had this massive success and implemented his system before any of the other coaches on the list.
It also doesn't hurt that he managed to win five championships in six years.
Kundla's tenure as a head coach wasn't nearly as long as some of the others on this list, but he was able to have massive success in his time, and he implemented a system with the Lakers by building a team around a dominant center, which they have never deviated from.
He has had as much influence on the current game as anyone, and it's for that reason that he is this high on the list.
1. Phil Jackson
The Zen Master himself, Phil Jackson leads the way as the best system coach of all time.
The master of Tex Winters' triangle offense, Jackson was able to implement his system in both Chicago and Los Angeles, and the results spoke for themselves.
Jackson, along with some pretty good players, won six titles in Chicago. The Bulls three-peated 1990-91 to 1992-93 and again from 1995-96 to 1997-98.
Obviously, much of that credit goes to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, two of the greatest players of all time. But Jackson constantly put them in position to succeed and got the most out of players like Luc Longley, BJ Armstrong and the rest of the role players.
After a year hiatus, Jackson signed on the be the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1999-2000. In his first three seasons as the Lakers' coach, the team won three championships. He would add another two before his retirement in 2011.
With a career record of 1155-485 and a playoff record of 229-104, Jackson's stats are unrivaled by any coach in the history of the game. Many like to point out that Jackson was fortunate enough to coach some of the best players in the history of the game, but it was his ability to juggle those personalities and keep them happy that really made him a great coach.
It's hard to imagine that anyone will ever be able to have the success that Jackson had over the course of his career. What he accomplished was truly spectacular, and it's why he is the best of all time.