All athletes need their head coaches. The success on the field of play is dictated by the demeanor and vision of the man with the clipboard. There is no sport that this is more true of than in the NBA.
Head coaches in the Association are always on the chopping block. It is a quickly played sport and results are measured in between timeouts. The pace of a game requires a keen eye to identify exhaustion, mismatches, as well as players with a hot hand.
Head coaches also need to be mentors and counselors in the locker room, many times needing to assuage a player after a bad game. The Los Angeles Lakers have had the luxury of some of the finest minds to coach roundball. Here is my list of the top 10.
Mike Dunleavy had the unenviable task of following Pat Riley. While he never brought home a championship the way his predecessor did, he proved to be a worthy successor. The theme to the 1990-1991 season was to steady the ship. With Riley’s departure came a sense of foreboding that the glory years were at an end.
His first year in, however, saw no signs of derailment, and he coached his way to the Finals. But his success would end there as he was ultimately bested by both the greatest player of all time, Michael Jordan, and the Association's greatest coach, Phil Jackson.
In a way he was doomed before he ever took over: he followed a guy who was the epitome of the Los Angeles Lakers. Pressure from the front office forced Dunleavy out in 1992.
Mr. Clutch could do no wrong as a player. One of the greatest guards to ever play the game, his broken down body forced him to retire in 1974. His great need for competition did not allow him to sit idle for very long. A few short years later he would become the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
In three years he did what is always expected from Lakers brass, he made the playoffs and amassed a winning record, 145-101. While his brief stint as head coach goes largely unheralded, it typifies what kind of man West is, a winner.
Del Harris was a bridge for the Lakers organization. After Magic Johnson’s fateful news conference in 1991, the Lakers would suffer some of their more miserable campaigns. While Mike Dunleavy kept the Lakers afloat for a couple of seasons, Los Angeles was a figment of its former self under Randy Pfund.
The Lakers lacked the prototypical marquee player they had grown accustomed to having on their roster. The rosters between 1993 and 1996 boasted no Hall-of-Famers and little to no “great” players. Yet somehow, Del Harris was able to form a playoff team in his first season as head coach. This was right after a pitiful season where the team won a laughable 33 games the year before.
Then Del was given a gift and a curse in 1996. The signing of Shaquille O’Neal ushered in a new era of hope for the Laker faithful. When Harris squandered two years of O’Neal’s dominance, he was fired.
“Butch” van Breda Kolff was a fantastic collegiate coach. So much so that in 1968 the Lakers came calling for his services. He took the team to the Finals both years that he was coach and finished his Lakers career with a 107-57 record.
His downfall came in the form of a feud between he and Lakers star Wilt Chamberlain. His benching of Chamberlain is argued to be the reason the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in 1969. The loss was too much for him and he resigned shortly thereafter.
Another victim of in-fighting was Paul Westhead. As far as results, no one could deny that Westhead was the man for the job. In his first season, Westhead brought a championship to Los Angeles. He breezed through the playoffs with a 12-4 record and all should have been right in the world.
As it turns out a mutiny was brewing despite the success. Many believed that Magic Johnson was the sole proprietor of Westhead's firing. What we now know is that it was a unified feeling throughout the team that Westhead needed to go. In this case, Westhead will be known as a championship coach that was hated by his players.
He is the best Lakers coach to have never won a title. It was not for a lack of trying. During his tenure, he took the Lakers to seven consecutive playoff appearances, winning five conference titles.
The lack of ultimate success was due to the green Celtic wall he ran into every year. Given a different decade, Schaus would be a champion several times over. Not without an eye for talent, he assembled the 1972 team that eventually won the title.
Bill Sharman coached the Lakers for five years and went 246-164. The stat Lakers fans will always remember from his years at the helm, however, is this one: The World Championship they clinched in 1972.
The 1971-72 season is arguably the greatest effort the purple and gold ever laid on the hard floor. It was a magical season that included a still record 33-game win streak. The Lakers also finished the season at 69-13, a record that would stand until the 72-win Chicago Bulls.
Let me take a liberty here and include John Kundla. Though he helmed the Minneapolis Lakers, he did so with such success that he must be noted as one of the greatest Lakers coaches, period.
With the most dominant player of his era, George Mikan, Kundla ripped off five titles in six years. When you look at the Laker organization and the prestige it holds around the league, you can safely say that it all started with John Kundla.
You can probably guess who I have slotted at the number one spot now. Let me tell you that this one was a close race. You can argue that had Riley stayed, the Lakers might have taken the 1991 series.
What Riley did well was to get the most from his team. He is renowned for his hard stance on practice and sweat. His demands have sometimes proven to be counter-intuitive. It is the main reason that I knocked the man who beat the Celtics to the No. 2 spot.
Before the 1989 series with Detroit, Byron Scott was injured during practice. Rumblings from behind the scene insinuated that Pat Riley continually over worked his team. Scott’s absence in the first two games helped Detroit take a two games to none lead, one they would not relinquish.
Minus the overworking of his players, Riley will always be the first coach that many Lakers fans think of when they are asked to name their favorite coach. But his bitter departure to the New York Knicks and my feeling that he missed out on one more title during his tenure have me putting him squarely in the No. 2 spot.
The first part of my argument is that Phil Jackson is arguably regarded as the greatest NBA coach ever. This being a Lakers article we must delve into his results on the bench for the purple and gold. They are astounding.
His first three years as head coach solidified the Lakers comeback to NBA Prominence. He picked up where he left off in Chicago and steered the very talented Lakers to three straight championships. His ability to guide egos is second to none. With bickering between his two stars that would later become public, he still manged to guide his players in one direction. That is where his genius shines through.
Many argue that he is given talented rosters to work with. But as we have seen, other teams deteriorate at the first sight of discontent. His Lakers teams have forged through and have many times over earned a parade through Los Angeles in June.
When the team unraveled in 2004, he stepped aside. When the right time came, he returned to the Lakers for the 2005-2006 season. This is the period that seals his enshrinement atop all other coaches. He had to rebuild a team for the first time in his Lakers career. Nothing came easy. His success would come in the form of back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010. He is only the second Lakers coach to hold five championship rings for the organization.
As we enter the 2010-2011 campaign, we are comforted that he has a great chance to make that six.