Ranking Gregg Popovich Among All-Time NBA Head Coaches
With his fifth NBA Finals appearance in the past 15 seasons, the San Antonio Spurs' coach Gregg Popovich should have his face etched into the Mount Rushmore of NBA head coaches. The question is where does he rank among the greatest men to pace the sidelines of a basketball court?
Ever since his first full season as the Spurs' head coach in 1997-98, San Antonio has been the poster children for consistency. They've made the playoffs in each of the last 16 seasons and have won four championships.
Coincidentally, the team's impressive run started when they used the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft on a fundamentally-sound big man out of Wake Forest named Tim Duncan. The pairing of Popovich and Duncan has elevated both men into rare air and routine discussions over their place in NBA history.
Duncan has established himself as arguably the greatest power forward to ever take the court.
As for Popovich, his standing among the all-time coaching ranks is about to be broken down.
The criteria for this list is made up of three factors. The biggest key was longevity and consistency. To be among the greatest to ever draw up a pick-and-roll, you have to have a substantial body of work.
As great as Erik Spoelstra has been the past three seasons, his overall resume is a bit lacking to be worth consideration. The same can be said for Doc Rivers, who didn't really establish himself as an elite coach until Boston's "Big Three" was formed in 2007.
Secondly, wins and championships were thrown into the mix. The reason this was the No. 2 factor was because it is easy to rate players and coaches based on rings. However, it doesn't tell the whole story. Rick Carlisle has won more championships than Jerry Sloan, but would you consider him better than the former Utah taskmaster? I don't think so.
Lastly, the era in which these coaches dominated was taken into account. Racking up a ton of wins is only as impressive as the teams you're playing against.
The main list is comprised of five men, but three honorable mentions were thrown in because it was tough to make a list of great coaches without them.
Honorable Mention: Don Nelson
Don Nelson is the NBA's all-time winningest coach with an impressive 1,335 regular season victories. He coached for 24 seasons, starting with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1976 and ending with the Golden State Warriors in 2010.
"Nellie" was known for thinking outside of the box. He mostly utilized smaller lineups, using his team's speed advantage to outrun opponents on offense. He introduced the world to the term "point forward" by routinely using small forwards to run his offense.
He also came up with the "Hack-a-Shaq" strategy, which was a tactic he used late in games to take advantage of poor free throw shooters (namely, Shaquille O'Neal). It is a formula that is still incorporated to this day to hinder big men such as Dwight Howard.
Unfortunately, Don Nelson the coach didn't have quite the postseason success that Don Nelson the player had. That's why, despite the innovations he's brought to the game and his astounding record, he finds himself in the "honorable mention" category.
Nelson was a five-time champion as a player with the Boston Celtics. As a coach, he never even sniffed the NBA Finals. In fact, Nelson's career winning percentage in the playoffs is 45 percent. This is despite coaching some very talented teams, including the Steve Nash/Dirk Nowitzki/Michael Finley Mavericks during the early 2000s.
Nelson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012 and he'll always be remember for the various intricacies he's brought to the game. If only he could have achieved at least half of the postseason success as a coach that he did as a member of those great Celtic teams.
Honorable Mention: Chuck Daly
Chuck Daly was a prominent coach during the '80s and early '90s as the leader of the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons. For nine seasons in Motown, he made the playoffs every year as well as three trips to the NBA Finals.
For his career, he has a record of 638-437. His winning percentage in the regular season and playoffs over 14 seasons with Cleveland, Detroit, New Jersey and Orlando is 59 percent. He was also the coach for the legendary 1992 "Dream Team."
So, how does a man with two championships to his name make only honorable mention on this list?
Well, after leaving Detroit following the 1991-92 season, Daly struggled to replicate the success he had with the Pistons. He led the Nets to two playoff appearances, but they never made it past the first round. The same for Orlando's lone postseason visit under Daly in 1998-99.
By the start of the new millennium, Daly was out of basketball as a head coach. In 2009, he passed away after a bout with pancreatic cancer.
Daly's early success helped get him onto to the list and his standing as a member of the greatest Olympic basketball team will never be forgotten. However, if we're making a list of NBA coaching heavyweights, Daly is the basketball version of Larry Holmes.
He was successful during a weak era in the late '80s. Larry Bird's Boston Celtics weren't the dynasty they once were and, once Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson came together in the '90s, Daly's run on the top was short-lived.
Still, he deserves as much credit for the success of those Pistons teams as Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer. For that, he has earned a spot on this list.
Honorable Mention: Jerry Sloan
Jerry Sloan hits on almost all of the criteria required to make this list of the NBA's all-time great coaches.
In terms of consistency, Sloan is one of just four coaches to have 15-plus consecutive seasons with a winning record (the other three are on this list). He coached one team longer than anyone in NBA history, notching 22 seasons with the Utah Jazz.
When it comes to success, he's won 1,221 regular season games (third-most all-time) and another 98 in the postseason. He made two NBA Finals. His regular season winning percentage is 60 percent.
As for his era, his Jazz teams never finished worse than fourth throughout the 1990s. Utah made the postseason 16 straight years, from the 1988-89 season to 2002-03. They stood tall in a Western Conference dominated by names like Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan.
The only knock that keeps Sloan out of the top five is that his hands lack the same jewelry that adorns the fingers of the guys above him. 26 years as an NBA head coach in Chicago and Utah and he never won a championship.
He gave it his best shot during the late '90s, going up against Michael Jordan's Bulls in the Finals in back-to-back years. He was unsuccessful on both occasions. After Karl Malone and John Stockton retired, the team had success, but nowhere near what they had in years past.
Sloan made a couple lengthy playoff runs with Deron Williams in the last few years of his coaching career, but it wasn't enough. His overall playoff win percentage dropped to 48 percent.
Jerry Sloan was a great NBA coach and, had one of those showdowns with Chicago gone his way, he would have elevated up this list. However, much like in the Finals, Sloan comes up a little bit short.
5. Larry Brown
Larry Brown is the only coach to have won an NCAA championship (1988 with the Kansas Jayhawks) and an NBA championship (2004 with the Detroit Pistons). He's the only coach to lead eight different teams to the playoffs and the only guy to coach two different teams in the same season (Clippers and Spurs during the 1991-92 season).
He has notched 1,447 victories in both the regular season and playoffs during a coaching career that dates back to the Carolina Cougars of the ABA in 1972. At 72 years old, he's still patrolling the sidelines as the head coach of SMU.
When it comes to consistency, Brown can be relied upon to constantly do one thing: leave and start over somewhere else. Throughout a coaching career that started in 1969, Brown has led four college programs, nine NBA teams and an ABA squad.
During that span, there have been many ups and downs. He had a couple successful playoff runs with Denver and New Jersey during the late '70s and early '80s, but neither of those stints lasted longer than three seasons.
He had a few solid seasons as the coach of the Pacers during the early '90s. He then formed one of the most awkward player-coach tandems the NBA has seen when he coached Allen Iverson in Philadelphia. The two eventually made it to the Finals in 2000 before losing to Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant's Lakers.
A couple years later, Brown ended up in Detroit, where he made two Finals appearances and won his first NBA title. Those would be his only two seasons in Motown. From there, he had a vastly disappointing season running the New York Knicks (23-59).
After that, he helped the Charlotte Bobcats nab their first ever playoff berth, where they eventually swept in the first round.
The fact that Brown is still drawing up plays is a testament to his longevity and love for the game. His success during different decades of NBA history also bodes well for him, as do his three Finals appearances.
The only thing that keeps Brown from being higher is he doesn't have that one long run with a franchise that people can put a finger on. His legacy is that he's a successful basketball teacher who has been well-traveled over the last four decades.
If he had a storied run like Pat Riley had with the Lakers or Red Auerbach with the Celtics, he may be higher on the list. As it stands, Larry Brown is a guy with as many accomplishments as former employers.
4. Pat Riley
There are many ways to identify Pat Riley. It could be the trademark slicked-back hair he adorned for many years during his younger days as a head coach. It could be his largely-successful run as the leader of the "Showtime" Lakers, who won four titles under Riley.
You might also remember Riley for the years he coached a very physical New York Knicks team during the early '90s and his equally tough Miami Heat squads during the later portion of that decade.
Riley has had many achievements throughout his storied coaching career, but forming the "Big Three" in Miami may be the move that pays the most dividends. Miami has made the NBA Finals every season since James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade agreed to join forces three years ago.
The ability to align three of the league's best players in their prime has allowed the Heat to put a stranglehold on the Eastern Conference. They currently stand three wins away from their second consecutive NBA championship (as of June 10).
In terms of the criteria for this list, Riley hits on all three cylinders. When it comes to longevity and consistency, one needs only to look at the fact that Riley made the Finals with three different teams in three different decades.
From a success standpoint, Riley is a five-time champion with 1,381 career wins in the regular season and playoffs. He has a career winning percentage of 63 percent in the regular season and 60 percent in the postseason.
As for his era, Riley coached some of the greatest players of the last three decades. During the '80s, he had Magic Johnson and James Worthy in L.A. He did battle with Michael Jordan's Bulls as coach of a Knicks team led by Patrick Ewing.
Lastly, he won his last championship as a head coach with Wade and Shaquille O'Neal in 2006, toppling Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks.
If not for the superior consistency and success of the guys ahead of him, Pat Riley would be worthy of being much higher on this list. Regardless, he's a guy who managed to build successful dynasties with three different teams in three different decades
3. Gregg Popovich
Spurs fans shouldn't be discouraged by Gregg Popovich only being third on this list. In his defense, the two guys ahead of him have won a combined 20 NBA championships as head coaches.
As impressive as the accolades of those ahead of Popovich are, the San Antonio coach's resume isn't too shabby either. Since his first full season as head coach in 1997-98, Popovich's teams have never finished worst than second place.
They have made the playoffs every year during that run and have won four NBA championships (with the potential for a fifth this season). They've been eliminated in the first round just three times in the last 16 seasons.
With the exception of the strike-shortened 1998-99 season (which was also Pop's first championship), the Spurs have won at least 50 games every season since Popovich took over as the full-time coach.
A large part of the team's success is due to the presence of Tim Duncan. The future Hall of Famer has been the Tom Brady to Popovich's Bill Belichick. Duncan has averaged 20.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks a game over the course of his 16-year career.
However, equally as impressive as the accomplishments of "The Big Fundamental" has been Popovich's ability to maximize the production from his players. With a keen eye for international talent, the Spurs have made stars out of once-unheralded players from overseas.
Tony Parker slipped to No. 28 in the 2001 NBA Draft and has developed into one of the game's best point guards. Manu Ginobili was a scrawny, unknown shooting guard out of Argentina when San Antonio selected him at No. 57 overall in 1999. Since then, he's been one of the team's most dangerous weapons off of the bench.
It isn't just the foreign players that have succeeded under Popovich. Guys who were afterthoughts on other teams have become successful role players in San Antonio. From Malik Rose to Matt Bonner to Danny Green, Popovich has managed to turn little-known players into effective contributors.
The last 16 years are a testament to Popovich's longevity and consistency. In the regular season, he has won 68 percent of his games and notched 905 victories (already good for 12th-best of all-time). In the playoffs, he's won 131 games and has an astounding 62 percent winning percentage.
There are a couple of other factors to Popovich's greatness. First, the fact that he's competing for a title this season, 15 years after notching his first one, is impressive. It is also important to remember that, in an era of "super teams," the Spurs haven't made any flashy signings or blockbuster trades in order to compete.
Secondly, Popovich has managed to be successful with Phil Jackson's shadow lurking in Los Angeles for most of Pop's run in San Antonio. Even with the Zen Master's dominance, Popovich's Spurs have been a force to be reckoned with.
As the torch has been passed to the league's young bucks such as Kevin Durant and LeBron James, Popovich and company have proven they can still compete.
Popovich's legacy is only trumped by the game's heaviest hitters. It shouldn't be seen as a slight at all. If anything, it can be recognized as the only time Gregg Popovich has finished third in anything since taking over the Spurs.
2. Red Auerbach
Red Auerbach was the head coach of the greatest dynasty basketball has ever seen: the 1960s Boston Celtics. From 1958 to 1966, Boston won an unprecedented eight straight titles and never won less than 52 games.
During that run, Auerbach's Celtics, led by defensive stalwart Bill Russell, did battle with legends like Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor. Overall, Auerbach won nine championships as a head coach and finished his career with 1,037 victories (regular season and playoffs) between the NBA and BBA,
When Red retired as a coach in 1966, the idea of his accomplishments being trumped seemed unfathomable. While nobody has come close to his eight consecutive titles in the pros, Auerbach's nine rings have been surpassed by only one man.
Still, Auerbach's track record is amazing. He won nearly 66 percent of his regular season games during his NBA career and 60 percent in the playoffs. His Celtics dominated an era filled with Hall of Famers. He coached legends like Bill Russell, Kevin McHale and Larry Bird and managed to keep all of those egos in check.
With his trademark cigar, Auerbach was the gold standard of coaching for the better part of three decades. He is as much the face of Boston basketball as Russell or "Larry Legend..
Given the era he dominated and that remarkable eight-year championship run, the case can be made for Red at the top spot. Regardless of where you stand on that debate, there is no arguing that he is one of the two greatest coaches to ever live.
1. Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson versus Red Auerbach for the top spot on this list is a debate that can go on for hours. Inevitably, it is hard to argue against a man with 11 championships and three three-peats to his name. Jackson has also made 13 Finals appearances as a head coach with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers.
Detractors of the Zen Master will point to the fact that Jackson had arguably the two greatest players of their respective generations, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, to help him achieve his success.
Great coaches need great players to succeed. That is true of any successful team in any sport.
Red needed Russell and Bird. Gregg Popovich needed Duncan. Erik Spolstera needs LeBron and Phil Jackson needed Kobe, Shaq and MJ.
Beyond just the titles, Jackson's track record is pretty impressive. He made the playoffs every season as a head coach, dating back to his debut with Bulls in 1989-90. His teams have finished worse than second just once (third-place finish in 1994-95) during his coaching career.
In 20 seasons as a head coach, Jackson has won 70 percent of his regular season games and just under 69 percent in the playoffs. Both of those winning percentages are tops among all NBA head coaches. His 1,155 regular season wins are good for fifth all-time in NBA history.
He also has the most playoff wins of any NBA coach with 229 victories.
On every level of the criteria for this list, Jackson scores highly. He dominated the '90s in Chicago with Jordan and Scottie Pippen. He took over again in Los Angeles during the 2000s. He won three titles with Shaq and Kobe, then won another two with "The Black Mamba" leading the show.
The most important testament to Jackson's legacy was his ability to manage egos. During the 1995-96 season, Jackson led a team with conflicting personalities such as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman to an NBA record 72-10 regular season record.
He also managed to keep Shaq and Kobe together long enough to make four Finals visits. He then molded Bryant from a selfish scorer to a well-rounded player capable of leading his team to championships.
In a league where reigning Coach of the Year winners are getting canned in the offseason, it will be tough for any coach to touch Jackson's 11 titles. The same can be said for his astonishing win percentages and that great 72-win season.
With a full trophy case, a laundry list of unbreakable records and a reputation for taking great players to a higher level, it is tough to make the case for anyone on top of this list other than Phil Jackson.