Cleveland Cavaliers: 10 Best Coaches in Team History
The Cavaliers have been led by 18 different head coaches during its 41 year history, including three of the NBA’s top 10 coaches of all-time. The Cavs’ head coaching position has been used as a stepping stone, a proving ground and a last stop for different coaches throughout the years, leaving fans wanting to see the emergence of a championship winning coach.
While Cleveland is still waiting for that coach to emerge, here is a list of the top 10 coaches who have made the best attempts at taking the Cavaliers to the NBA Championship promise land.
10. John Lucas
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“Coach Luc” was the final remnant of the pre-LeBron Cavs, coaching the Cavalier “bigs” to a record of 37-84 before being removed in 2003. At one of the lowest points in franchise history, the Cavs were an NBA worst 8-34, handing the team over to an unproven Keith Smart to close out the season.
Firing John Lucas was seen as unpopular move at the time with LeBron James. One report cited a source as, “I tell you what, LeBron will never play for the Cavs.”
Well that didn’t happen, and it’s no surprise that the article is from a New York newspaper, already suggesting that LeBron sit out a year and re-enter the draft the next year.
9. Randy Wittman
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The Cavs were in the process of cleaning up the failed Shawn Kemp experiment during Wittman’s stay in Cleveland, resulting in two straight losing seasons. His final record of 62-102 and an inability to communicate with players was cited for moving on, a trait that certainly does not point to getting the most out of one’s players.
8. Tom Nissalke
Nissalke is one of the few coaches to be named Coach of the Year in the NBA and ABA, and in a strange bit of trivia, was the commissioner of the National Basketball League in Canada from 1993-94.
Nissalke led the Cavs at the end of his coaching career, having previously worked for the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz. The 1983-84 Cavs were having their best season in years, albeit still a dismal one, so it came as a surprise to Nissalke that the Cavs wanted to go in a different direction.
Nissalke finished with a record of 51-113, one of nine coaches to struggle during a six-year stretch from 1978 to 1984.
7. Stan Albeck
Albeck bounced around the coaching ranks, from college to pro, including stints in the NBA and ABA. Albeck landed in Cleveland for the 1979-80 season, to become only the second coach in franchise history, taking over for Bill Fitch.
The team improved from the previous year with a record of 37-45, leading to Albeck’s departure for a position in San Antonio. Former owner Ted Stepien suggested tampering charges be raised against the Spurs, as he had previously signed the coach to a three-year contract.
6. Paul Silas
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Silas had the opportunity to be ranked higher in the annals of the Cavs’ history, being the first to coach LeBron James, but problems with Eric Snow, Jeff McInnis and a derogatory comment made to Carlos Boozer may have led to his demise.
Facing the possibility of missing the playoffs after a post All-Star break skid of nine losses in 12 games, Dan Gilbert decided to pull the plug on Silas’ tenure. Silas’ record of 69-77 puts him at the fourth-highest winning percentage in team history.
5. George Karl
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He might have only been around for two years and is better known for being the coach of the SuperSonics and Nuggets, but George Karl is still one of five Cavaliers’ coaches to make the playoffs. The Cavs gave the 33-year-old Karl his start in the head coaching ranks in 1984 with a resume of two CBA Coach of the Year awards with the Montana Golden Nuggets. The Cavs made an eight win improvement in 1984-85 under Karl’s guidance and an enhanced role for Roy Hinson.
Karl was fired the next season due to “the fact that he (was) actively interviewing for another position.” The disruption at head coach might have ultimately cost the Cavaliers a playoff spot, but it was the decision to avoid signing Karl to a long-term contract that led to his departure.
4. Mike Fratello
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Despite a constantly changing roster, Mike Fratello won basketball games. Fratello guided the 1994-95 Cavs to the playoffs after losing Daugherty and Nance, and returned the following year after losing Price and Hot Rod. In total, Fratello made four trips to the playoffs during his six seasons with the Cavs.
“The Czar of the Telestrator” amassed a winning record of 248-212, one of only three Cavs coaches to stay on the positive side of .500.
3. Bill Fitch
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The Cavs’ first coach held the franchise’s longest tenure of nine seasons, winning 304, but also losing 434. Although the franchise struggled at times, Fitch was at his peak during the 1975-76 Miracle of Richfield year that led to him being named the NBA Coach of the Year.
In reaction to the award, Fitch responded by saying, “That real nice, I guess.”
Bill Fitch might have been the Rex Ryan of the era, consistently giving great one-liners to be printed in the next day’s newspaper, even in the face of negative results. When asked about fan support during one of those difficult years, Fitch stated, “You mean all those people who show up disguised as empty seats.” If only Bill Fitch was the Cavs’ coach for every losing season.
The former U.S. Marine Corps drill instructor ranks fifth all-time in wins with 944 over his entire 25-year career, having won Coach of the Year and an NBA title after leaving Cleveland.
2. Mike Brown
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He didn’t win the ultimate prize in the NBA, but Mike Brown coached some of the great Cavalier teams in franchise history to an overall record of 272-138 in five seasons. Good coaching, or maybe good fortune, has given Brown the highest winning-percentage in franchise history.
Brown was brought into coach the Cavaliers based on his focus on the defensive end of the court. Under Brown’s guidance, the Cavs made their first NBA Finals in 2007, attributed not only to the great play of LeBron James, but by beating the Detroit Pistons at their own strength of defense.
Brown was named NBA Coach of the Year in 2009 after the Cavs turned in one of the great regular seasons in NBA history with a record of 66-16.
1. Lenny Wilkens
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Lenny Wilkens is not only one of the winningest coaches in NBA history, but he also stands as the greatest Cavalier coach of all time. Wilkens received a team that only won 31 games in his first season, and turned around to visit the playoffs in the next five out of six years.
Wilkens was not only a great coach for the Cavs, but also played for Cleveland from 1972 to 1974. His 15-year career as a player left him as the NBA’s second all-time leading passer with 7,211 at the time of his retirement. Wilkens was later honored as one of the 50 Greatest Players of All Time by the NBA.
Wilkens’ record of 316-258 holds the most wins and second-highest winning-percentage in franchise history. Unable to defeat Michael Jordan and the Bulls, Wilkens resigned in 1993, later accepting a position with the Atlanta Hawks.