Ranking the 10 Greatest NBA Coaches Currently in the League
When most people think of the NBA, they tend to think of marquee teams and superstars.
Yet, much of the success teams and players experience in the league is a result of superior coaching. The league has provided several incredible coaching examples in the past for current ones to follow, such as Lenny Wilkens, Red Auerbach, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson.
The NBA today consists of several of the best basketball coaches in the world. This article ranks the top 10 greatest NBA coaches currently in the league.
The rankings are based on overall winning records both in the regular season and the playoffs. In addition, considerations are given based on doing more with less talent and winning Coach of the Year awards and championships.
Feel free to share your opinions in the comments. Do you agree with the rankings or are some coaches unfairly ranked too high?
Honorable Mention: Monty Williams
Monty Williams and Carl Landry
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Current Team: New Orleans Hornets (2010 – present)
Record With Hornets: 46-36 (.561)
Overall Regular Season Record: 46-36 (.561)
Overall Playoffs Record: 2-4 (.333)
Monty Williams has quickly become one of the better coaches in the NBA. Following a career in the NBA spanning nine seasons with five teams, he was hired as an assistant coach for the Portland Trail Blazers working with Nate McMillan.
Despite the health issues to the Hornets’ two biggest stars in Chris Paul and David West this past season, Williams displayed his brilliance from the bench by leading his team into the playoffs and giving the vastly more talented Lakers some issues before bowing out.
He clearly has made the most with a team that has few above-average players besides West and Paul. Once Williams has an opportunity to coach a more talented group, don’t be surprised if he leads his team to the NBA Finals.
10. Erik Spoelstra
Erik Spoelstra and LeBron James
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Current Team: Miami Heat (2008 – present)
Record With Heat: 148-98 (.602)
Overall Regular Season Record: 148-98 (.602)
Overall Playoffs Record: 18-15 (.545)
After manning the point guard position at the University of Portland, Erik Spoelstra never played in the NBA. Starting in 1995, Spoelstra slowly worked his way up the Miami Heat’s staff until he became an assistant coach in 2001.
Finally in 2008, Spoelstra replaced Pat Riley as head coach of the Heat. Despite having few standout talents besides superstar Dwyane Wade, Spoelstra led the Heat to the playoffs in his first two years as head coach.
We all know what happened last summer as Chris Bosh and LeBron James joined the team. Despite dealing with all the issues resulting from such drastic roster changes, Spoelstra helped guide the Heat into the NBA Finals this year before losing to the Dallas Mavericks.
Spoelstra has proven to be one of the best defensive coaches in the NBA, and one should expect his teams to compete for the NBA championship every year for the next five or six seasons.
9. Scott Brooks
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Current Team: Oklahoma City Thunder (2008 – present)
Record With Thunder: 127-106 (.545)
Overall Regular Season Record: 127-106 (.545)
Overall Playoffs Record: 11-12 (.478)
Coach of the Year (2010)
Following his playing days for UCI and the Albany Patroons in the Continental Basketball Association, Scott Brooks played 10 seasons in the NBA as a journeyman between seven teams. He gained valuable experience while on the 1994 championship roster with the Houston Rockets.
After the firing of head coach P.J. Carlesimo in 2008, Brooks took over as interim coach for the Thunder before he was promoted to head coach. While the team posted a dismal record during his first season (22-47), part of that could be attributed to the exceptionally young core nucleus of talent on the team.
Brooks, however, showed his true talents by turning the team around with back-to-back 50-win seasons the next two years. During the past few years, Brooks has become known as one of the best offensive coaches in the league and was recognized by winning Coach of the Year honors in 2010.
With talented players such as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden in the mix, the Thunder may be the biggest challenge to the Miami Heat from the Western Conference. With Brooks’ abilities to develop young talent, it is evident that he’ll more than do his part in leading the team to the NBA Finals.
8. Nate McMillan
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Current Team: Portland Trail Blazers (2005 – present)
Record With Trail Blazers: 246-246 (.500)
Overall Regular Season Record: 458-429 (.516)
Overall Playoffs Record: 14-20 (.412)
Nate McMillan had a decent career in the NBA, spending all 12 seasons with the Seattle Supersonics. He was known as one of the best defensive guards in the league and set a team record for assists with 25 as a rookie (which is also the NBA rookie record).
After five years of coaching the Sonics, McMillan has helped turn around the Portland Trail Blazers from a team with loads of off-court issues (hence, the “Jail Blazers” name) to one that continually makes the playoffs.
Even more amazing is how successful McMillan has been with the Blazers despite issues to key players over the past few years, such as Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, Nicolas Batum and Marcus Camby.
Now, imagine what McMillan would be capable with a healthy team consisting of Roy, Oden, Batum, Wesley Matthews, LaMarcus Aldridge and Gerald Wallace! After having 50-win seasons with so many key injuries, it is quite possible that McMillan could lead the team to even 60 victories.
A highly underrated coach by many, McMillan has truly made the most out of the hand given to him.
7. George Karl
George Karl and Raymond Felton
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Current Team: Denver Nuggets (2005 – present)
Record With Nuggets: 328-204 (.617)
Overall Regular Season Record: 1036-703 (.596)
Overall Playoffs Record: 75-97 (.436)
George Karl has had an amazing career in the NBA. With 1,036 wins, he ranks seventh all time among all coaches.
He had a brief playing career—two years—in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs as well as a few more seasons while the Spurs were in the ABA. Karl has coached five teams in the NBA, a career highlighted by leading the Supersonics to the NBA Finals in 1996—only to lose to the NBA record-setting Chicago Bulls with 72 wins.
He has dealt with a few health issues in recent years, including neck and throat cancer. But when it comes to teaching the fundamentals and experiencing success with many different rosters and situations, few have been better than Coach Karl.
Last season was quite impressive for Karl as he was able to help lead the Nuggets to 50 wins, despite all of the Carmelo Anthony drama and the ensuing trade that left the team with merely a bunch of role players.
While his coaching career is nearly over, George Karl still represents one of the finest coaching talents in the NBA.
6. Stan Van Gundy
Stan Van Gundy and Dwight Howard
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Current Team: Orlando Magic (2007 – present)
Record With Magic: 222-106 (.677)
Overall Regular Season Record: 334-179 (.651)
Overall Playoffs Record: 47-35 (.573)
Following a collegiate coaching career, Stan Van Gundy worked his way up from an assistant coach for the Miami Heat under Pat Riley to head coach of the Heat in 2003.
After a few successful years and barely missing a trip to the finals in 2005 (a rib injury to Dwyane Wade was a big factor in the team’s loss to the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals), it has been rumored that Pat Riley forced Van Gundy out of Miami.
Regardless of what happened, Van Gundy was one of the most successful coaches in the Miami Heat’s history. Since joining the Orlando Magic, he has continued his dominance at winning. Building his team around superstar center Dwight Howard, Van Gundy challenged him to become more of a defensive presence.
Over the past few years, Howard has continually won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year Award and has been among the league’s leaders in rebounds and blocks.
With Howard dominating in the middle, Van Gundy has utilized an inside-out offensive style. Some say the team has lived and died by the three-point shot, but the Magic has continually been among the NBA’s best teams.
In fact, Van Gundy has one of the highest winning percentages all time among NBA coaches (.651). Although Van Gundy’s team lost to the Lakers in the 2009 finals, it is evident that his teams will continue to rack up many more winning seasons in the years to come.
5. Tom Thibodeau
Tom Thibodeau and Derrick Rose
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Current Team: Chicago Bulls (2010 – present)
Record With Bulls: 62-20 (.756)
Overall Regular Season Record: 62-20 (.756)
Overall Playoffs Record: 9-7 (.563)
Coach of the Year (2011)
When one thinks of Tom Thibodeau, two things should come to mind. First, he has put in his time and has more than earned the right to coach in the NBA. Second, he should be considered as one of the best defensive-minded coaches in the league.
Since 1981, Thibodeau has had various roles at the collegiate and pro levels, mostly as a scout or assistant coach. From 2004-2007, Thibodeau (as the defensive coach) helped turn the Houston Rockets into one of the best defensive teams.
The Boston Celtics recognized his talent and wisely hired him to serve next Doc Rivers. Over the next couple of seasons, the Celtics were known as the best defensive team in the league.
His coaching helped Kevin Garnett earn his only Defensive Player of the Year award while vastly improving the individual defensive capabilities of Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kendrick Perkins.
Just as expected, in his first season as a head coach with the Chicago Bulls, Thibodeau led his team to the best record in the NBA en route to earning Coach of the Year honors. With a solid core group of players surrounding MVP Derrick Rose and Thibodeau at the helm, the Bulls should experience success for at least the next few seasons.
4. Mike Brown
Mike Brown and LeBron James
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Current Team: Los Angeles Lakers (2011 – present)
Record With Lakers: 0-0 (.000)
Overall Regular Season Record: 272-138 (.663)
Overall Playoffs Record: 42-29 (.592)
Coach of the Year (2009)
In order to be the best, sometimes it helps to train with the best. Mike Brown had an advantage over other coaching candidates when he had the opportunity to work as an assistant coach for the Spurs while being mentored by Gregg Popovich in the early 2000s.
After a stint with the Indiana Pacers as assistant coach, Mike Brown became the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2005. Some people may knock Brown and his incredible winning record because he always had LeBron James, but that is an unfair assessment.
Popovich almost always has had Tim Duncan, Phil Jackson has always had Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant and Red Auerbach had Bill Russell and countless other Hall of Famers.
Clearly, it’s what coaches do with the talent given to them that matters most. While Brown’s Cavaliers teams ultimately fell short in the NBA finals (2007) and in years where they had the best record (2009 and 2010), he still proved himself to be one of the best defensive coaches in the league.
In part due to his coaching abilities, Brown helped turn LeBron James into one of the best defenders in the league. In addition, the fact that his teams earned the best record in the NBA two years in a row, despite having mostly marginal talents surrounding James is equally impressive.
Now with the Los Angeles Lakers, Brown will have to prove that he is still one of the best in the business with a talented core including Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest.
With the team aging quickly, Brown will have to work quickly in order to help the team deliver another championship before the Kobe Bryant era is over. Improving on last year’s defensive schemes is a start, and Brown should have that part covered.
3. Rick Carlisle
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Current Team: Dallas Mavericks (2008 – present)
Record With Mavericks: 162-84 (.659)
Overall Regular Season Record: 443-295 (.600)
Overall Playoffs Record: 53-46 (.535)
Coach of the Year (2002)
NBA Champion (2011)
Like Tom Thibodeau, Rick Carlisle won Coach of the Year honors in his rookie coaching campaign with the Detroit Pistons. A year later, due to issues with team management, they thanked Carlisle by firing him.
In 2004, Carlisle led the Indiana Pacers to the league’s best record and was helped establish his team as perhaps the best defensive squad in the league.
After missing out on the Pistons’ championship run in 2004, Carlisle had the good fortune to witness the “Malice at the Palace” and injuries that depleted his team of key players such as Stephen Jackson, Ron Artest, Jamaal Tinsley and Jermaine O’Neal.
After his run with the Pacers, Carlisle has led the Mavericks to an impressive record (.659 winning percentage) over the past three seasons including the franchise’s first championship in 2011.
Despite losing Caron Butler (one of the team’s best defenders and scorers) for most of last season, he was able to build a sound defensive philosophy with the Mavericks that centered around Jason Kidd’s leadership, Tyson Chandler manning the middle and the hounding defense of DeShawn Stevenson.
Furthermore, Carlisle helped turn around Dirk Nowitzki from a soft perimeter player to the league’s best clutch performer. Last season, the lessons of good shot selection were clearly evident in Nowitzki’s game.
Carlisle should have a strong change to get Dallas another championship over the next year or two if the team can stay intact and healthy. Regardless of the outcome, Rick Carlisle has proved himself as one of the very best coaches over the course of his career.
2. Doc Rivers
Doc Rivers and Paul Pierce
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Current Team: Boston Celtics (2004 – present)
Record With Celtics: 336-238 (.585)
Overall Regular Season Record: 507-406 (.555)
Overall Playoffs Record: 51-44 (.537)
Coach of the Year (2000)
NBA Champion (2008)
Doc Rivers had a decent career in the NBA. As a defensive-minded point guard, he transitioned his floor general skills into one of the best coaching resumes in the business.
Similar to Tom Thibodeau and Rick Carlisle, Doc River won the Coach of the Year award in his first year as head coach (the NBA certainly seems to make it a habit of handing these awards out to rookies!).
Like those other two coaches, Rivers is also known for having strong defensive teams. More importantly, he has been able to blend many dynamic personalities into a cohesive unit, especially with his recent stint with the Boston Celtics that culminated with the 2008 NBA Championship.
While many think of his recent success with Boston, one should not forget about Rivers’ days coaching the Orlando Magic early in his career. One of the reasons he won the Coach of the Year award is that he took a team with less talent (the Magic’s best player was Darrell Armstrong) and led it to a 41-win season.
Like Carlisle and Mike Brown, Rivers is now faced with a team that is aging quickly. On top of that, losing Tom Thibodeau to the Bulls and Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder were blows that evidently hurt the team, as the Celtic’s defensive abilities were exposed in the playoffs last year.
The team is still one of the better defensive units in the league, but it is clear that Boston is not as dominant defensively as it once was a few seasons back.
Still, Rivers has consistently made his teams into winners, and there is no reason to doubt his abilities going forward.
1. Gregg Popovich
Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan
Marc Serota/Getty Images
Current Team: San Antonio Spurs (1996 – present)
Record With Spurs: 797-383 (.675)
Overall Regular Season Record: 797-383 (.675)
Overall Playoffs Record: 108-73 (.597)
Coach of the Year (2003)
NBA Champion (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007)
When one thinks of the best NBA coaches over the history of the league, one usually thinks of Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach and Pat Riley among others. However, Gregg Popovich’s name should be placed right near that prestigious group.
As a counter to the dominant Lakers teams of the new millennium, Popovich’s Spurs teams formed “the other dynasty” of the past 12 seasons. Since 1997, no team in North American professional sports has had a better winning percentage. In addition, Popovich is currently tied with Larry Brown for third place all time in NBA playoff wins.
His success has in part led to his long tenure with the same team, currently the longest in the NBA. First in building the team around the “twin towers” of David Robinson and Tim Duncan only to be followed by the “Big Three” of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, Popovich’s teams for most of his tenure have been among the top three in defense.
Of course, it helped having defensive aces in Bruce Bowen, Tim Duncan and David Robinson. However, Popovich did much more in creating suffocating team defensive schemes.
On offense, Popovich always emphasized teamwork and ball movement, which is one reason why Tim Duncan never became one of the top scorers in the league.
He also had a knack for getting players to have some of their best three-point shooting seasons over the course of their careers while with the Spurs. Popovich’s ability to work with their shooting and get them open looks within the offense helped create more room on the interior for Duncan to operate more effectively.
With the Tim Duncan era coming to an end soon, Popovich may decide to follow suit and retire. But if he doesn’t end his coaching days, it would be an incredible honor for any team to have Gregg Popovich as a coach.
More from the Author
If you liked this article, feel free to check out these other pieces by Ethan S.: