NBA Power Rankings: Jerry Sloan and 10 Recent Coaches Who Most Deserve a Title
Jerry Sloan's resignation last week marked the end of an era in the NBA.
In his twenty-three years coaching the Utah Jazz, his teams had a consistent style —pick-and-roll basketball and a motion offense on one end and tough, hard-nosed defense on the other—and they consistently won—missing the playoffs only three times and finishing with less than 40 wins only once.
The NBA he left in 2011—where most American players learned the game in the free-for-all environment of AAU basketball as teenagers and with an ever-growing international influence—had little resemblance to the league he joined as a tough-nosed guard out of the University of Evansville in 1965.
But one thing hasn't changed: having a seven-footer who can dominate the paint is still the key to winning championships in a game involving throwing a ball through a cylinder raised 10-feet off the ground. And without that dominant seven-footer, it's almost impossible to win it all.
There's only so much a coach can do, even a first-ballot Hall of Famer like Sloan. During his twenty-three tenure, exactly six coaches won championships: Chuck Daly, Phil Jackson, Rudy Tomjanovich, Gregg Popovich, Larry Brown and Pat Riley.
But in America, where "if you ain't first, your last," a title is still seen as the ultimate vindication of a coaching career.
With that in mind, here are the 10 recent NBA coaches who most deserve that elusive ring:
10. Avery Johnson
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
His Bio: In five years coaching for the Dallas Mavericks and the New Jersey Nets, the 2006 NBA Coach of the Year has amassed an amazing 211-109 record. After taking over from Don Nelson in the middle of the 2005 season, he single-handedly changed the culture of the Mavericks from a youthful offensive-minded juggernaut to a veteran defensively-focused club.
His Best Chance At A Ring: The 2006 NBA Finals will forever be remembered for Dwyane Wade marching to the free-throw line over...and over... and over...and over again. But if Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs' MVP and an all-time great free-throw shooter, had just hit both of his free-throws at the end of Game 3, none of Wade's "heroics" would have mattered.
9. Rick Carlisle
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
His Bio: Despite looking like the spitting image of Jim Carrey, Carlisle has won consistently at every stop in his NBA coaching career. In Detroit, he got the ball rolling on the Ben Wallace/Chauncey Billups "Bad Boys II" era, winning 50 games his first two years before being unceremoniously dumped for Larry Brown.
He moved to Indiana, where his Pacers won 60 games his first year before the "Brawl in the Palace" ruined the Ron Artest/Jermaine O'Neal team. Now in Dallas, his Mavericks won at least 50 games his first two years and seem miraculously poised to return to elite status five years after their NBA Finals debacle.
His Best Chance At A Ring: While that night in Detroit will go down in NBA history for all the wrong reasons, lost amidst the furor was the 15-point beating the Pacers put on their long-time rivals. Those Pacers were coming off a 61-win season and had a 6-1 record before suspensions crippled them. It's a testament to their overall talent level that they still won 44 games and made the second round of the playoffs.
8. Nate McMillan
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
His Bio: Because he has spent the entirety of his coaching career in the Pacific Northwest, Nate McMillan has flown relatively under the national radar. He took over a 38-win team in Seattle and five years later had them giving the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs a great six-game series despite starting Jerome James at center.
In Portland, he took over a franchise crippled by the "Jail Blazer" era and has steadily guided them back to respectability. Most impressively, he has kept the franchise afloat despite an almost Biblical series of injuries the last two years that has cost Portland two franchise-caliber players.
His Best Chance At A Ring: Before the season started, Portland fans had reasons to be cautiously optimistic about their team's chances. They had a championship formula—two athletic seven-footers who could protect the rim, another 6'11" post with a great post-up game, two long perimeter defenders in Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews and an All-Star shot-creator in Brandon Roy.
Unfortunately, barring injury should be a disclaimer attached to any team depending on Greg Oden...
7. Stan Van Gundy
His Bio: Maybe it's because he resembles Ron Jeremy, maybe it's because Shaq christened him "The Master of Panic" or maybe it's the unceremonious way Pat Riley cut the cord with him before the Heat's 2006 NBA title, but Stan Van Gundy is one of the most underrated coaches in the NBA.
He's one of the game's pre-eminent tacticians, and his ability to turn Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu into defensive assets instead of the liabilities they had been most of their career was a key factor in Orlando's run to the 2009 NBA Finals.
His Best Chance At A Ring: It's hard to remember now, but the Heat almost won a championship in Shaq's first year in Miami. They were up in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons (who would go on to lose to the Spurs in a classic seven-game series) before Dwyane Wade strained a rib muscle going to the basket.
He wasn't the same the rest of the series, missing Game 6 and going 7-20 in Game 7.
6. Mike D'Antoni
Chris Trotman/Getty Images
His Bio: The 2004 NBA Coach of the Year, his revolutionary "Seven Seconds or Less" style of basketball turned Phoenix into a power-house, won Steve Nash an MVP, and made Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion millions upon millions of dollars.
More importantly, his brash offense-first, fast-breaking style was a breath of fresh air the NBA desperately needed after the "Brawl in the Palace." Now in New York, he has made the Knicks, a laughingstock for years, into front-page news once again.
His Best Chance At A Ring: D'Antoni's Suns never had an answer for Tim Duncan, losing to the Spurs in the playoffs three out of four years. For all the ink spilled over Amare's suspension in Game 5 of their 2007 second-round series, they still were 2-3 against San Antonio at full strength.
But the year before, the Dallas Mavericks did their dirty work for them, eliminating San Antonio in a classic seven-game series. The year before, the Suns had made quick work of Dallas, eliminating them in six games. But with Amare out with micro-fracture surgery that season, they had no answer for Dirk's offense, and were effectively finished when Nowitzki dropped 50 on them in Game 5 in Dallas.
5. Jeff Van Gundy
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
His Bio: The antithesis of the stylish D'Antoni, the perpetually frazzled looking Jeff Van Gundy preached a defensive-heavy, slow-it-down style of basketball. While it wasn't all that aesthetically pleasing, it got results, with Van Gundy improbably leading the eighth seeded Knicks to the 1999 NBA Finals. When he resigned from New York in 2001 the team had a winning record. Under interim coach Don Chaney, they lost 43 of 63 games.
He bounced back in Houston, building a formidable team led by Yao and T-Mac that was eventually undone by injuries.
His Best Chance At A Ring: Yao and T-Mac were almost never healthy at the same time, but when they were, they were always dangerous. In 2004, they won 52 games and jumped out to a 2-0 lead against the Dallas Mavericks in their first-round series, winning both games at Dallas. But they couldn't close out the Mavericks, who made an improbable come-back, winning four of the next five games, despite McGrady's inspired defense on Dirk Nowitzki.
4. Rick Adelman
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
His Bio: The ultimate NBA survivor, he first entered the spotlight coaching the Clyde Drexler-led Portland Trail Blazers, who would ultimately be one of many teams to lose to Michael Jordan's Bulls in the NBA Finals. He bounced back in Sacramento, where his free-flowing offensive scheme rejuvenated the career of Chris Webber and created one of the most aesthetically pleasing teams of all-time.
He's currently in Houston, where he's done miracles helping the team rebound from catastrophic injuries to Yao and T-Mac. Perhaps his most impressive accomplishment was the Rockets 22-game win streak in 2008, the second-longest in the history of the NBA.
His Best Chance At A Ring: The 2002 Western Conference Finals has gone down in history as one of the most controversially refereed playoff series of all-time. Even perpetual presidential candidate Ralph Nader got involved.
3. Hubie Brown
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
His Bio: Universally beloved in the NBA despite appearing to be mummifying on live television as an ESPN announcer, Brown is one of the great basketball minds of his generation. At the age of 69, he came out of retirement to win a Coach of the Year award for the Memphis Grizzlies.
His most impressive accomplishment was the institution of a 10-man rotation, getting his players to buy in despite its negative impact on their statistics, and in turn, their paychecks. He's still on ESPN, where's he's pioneered a unique style of broadcasting with the use of the second-person plural: "He's one of the best shooters we have in this league ..."
His Best Chance At A Ring: He won an ABA championship as the first-year head-coach of the Kentucky Colonels, but none of the rosters he had (the mid 80's Knicks or the mid 00's Grizzlies) ever had a chance of winning four playoff series in the modern NBA.
2. Jerry Sloan
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
His Bio: During Sloan's tenure in Utah, there were over 250 coaching changes around the rest of the NBA. You'll see a coach make a run at Phil Jackson's 11 championships before you will see another NBA coach lasting 23 years with one franchise.
He leaves behind a legacy of hard-nosed basketball, respect for the game and unimpeachable integrity. Of all the odes written to Sloan in the past few days, none sum up his career more than this observation offered by SI's Jack McCallum:
Over his quarter century of assistant and head coaching, Sloan has never (as far as I know) hung a player out to dry. On the record or deep-deep-off-the-record, I never heard him criticize anyone except himself.
His Best Chance At A Ring: After ten years of playoff heart-break in Utah, his Jazz made two consecutive NBA Finals. Unfortunately, a 6'6" guard from North Carolina stood in their way...
1. Don Nelson
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
His Bio: The NBA's winningest all-time coach, Don Nelson is one of the most misunderstood figures of the last twenty-five years. While his teams never won a championship, they always over-achieved and they always entertained.
More importantly, he was one of the great innovators in the history of the game. From the sixth man to the point forward to the seven-foot jump-shooter and "Nellie-ball", Nelson's fingerprints are all over the modern game.
His Best Chance At A Ring: Nothing sums up Nelson's career more than the 2003 Western Conference Finals, when he led a stacked Dallas team featuring two future MVP's (Dirk and Nash) as well as two All-Stars (Finley and Van Exel) against the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs.
The Mavs won Game 1 in San Antonio and seemed to have an edge against a Spurs team transitioning from the Twin Towers era to the Duncan/Parker/Ginobili era. But then Dirk went down with a knee injury in Game 3, and Nelson refused to play his star player, ignoring pleas from the Mavericks fan, Mark Cuban and even Nowitzki himself.
Even though it would be his last and best chance at winning a title and securing his legacy, he was more concerned about Dirk’s long-term health, and more worried about fulfilling a promise he made to Dirk’s parents when he drafted him, that he would look out for him as if he was own son.