Most Underrated Coach in Each NBA Team's History
Behind every great basketball team is a great coach pulling the strings. Throughout NBA history, coaches like Phil Jackson (pictured) and Larry Brown have guided teams to championship glory and have forever cemented a spot in the game's annals.
Yet, what about the coaches that everyone forgets about? Looking at each NBA team, one would be surprised at how many coaches have taken a squad (or squads) to winning records yet fall under the radar. More often than not, fans remember the Phil Jacksons and Red Auerbachs more and not so much the Paul Silases.
That being said, let's give these men their due credit and recognize the most underrated coach in each NBA team's history.
Atlanta Hawks: Alex Hannum
Today's generation of fans may know the Atlanta Hawks as a team that used to be absolutely awful, but now is good enough to make the playoffs on a regular basis. However, believe it or not, the team actually won a championship back in 1958. At the time, they were known as the St. Louis Hawks.
The coach of that team was then 35-year-old Alex Hannum, an ex player who had spent 10 years in the NBA. He coached the Hawks to an NBA championship over the heavily favored Boston Celtics. Oddly enough, he did not return to the team next season.
Yet, Hannum wasn't done winning championships. In 1967, he won another NBA title with the Philadelphia 76ers. In 1969, he moved to the ABA and in his lone season there, won a championship with the Oakland Oaks.
Hannum was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1998, his career coaching record of 649-564 helping him achieve that status.
Boston Celtics: K.C. Jones
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When people hear the term "Boston Celtics coach," they will almost definitely think of Red Auerbach first. That's not surprising, considering how the man coached the team to nine championships, including eight in a row. As a result, I often feel bad for Doc Rivers as he and anyone who coaches the team will always seem to be in Auerbach's shadow.
Yet, while Rivers is good, he has not matched the excellence of K.C. Jones. Jones only coached the Celtics for five years (1983-1988), but made the most of his time there. In four of those seasons, his teams reached the NBA Finals and won twice.
Oddly enough, Jones made the Hall of Fame as a player and not a coach. That is strange considering his career coaching record, spent with three teams, is an astounding 522-252.
Charlotte Bobcats: None
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Seeing as how the Charlotte Bobcats have only been an active team since the start of the 2004-2005 season, not to mention the fact that they only have had four coaches since joining the league. That being said, it's too early to call any of those who have manned the helm for the team underrated.
Hopefully, the already underrated Paul Silas can guide them to a playoff berth next season.
Chicago Bulls: Doug Collins
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Today, he is the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. Yet, Doug Collins' first head coaching job came in 1986 for the Chicago Bulls. In three seasons, Collins turned the Bulls around, from playoff losers to playoff winners.
In each of those three years, Collins took the Michael Jordan-led Bulls to the playoffs and got as far as the Conference Finals before being replaced with Phil Jackson. The rest, as they say, is history.
Still, though he has never won an NBA championship, Collins deserves his due credit because without him, Jordan and the Bulls never would have become perennial contenders. If you think about it, he was the first architect of those first three championships Jackson won.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Bill Fitch
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Considering how he was the team's first coach, it surprises me how little recognition Bill Fitch gets both in Cleveland and in NBA history. Here is a man who has nearly 30 years of head coaching experience with five different teams, including a championship with the Boston Celtics.
Yet, to start his coaching career, Fitch spent nine seasons in Cleveland and actually took the young franchise to the Conference Finals in 1976 and two more playoff appearances following that. He then left Cleveland to coach the Boston Celtics.
His career record is less than average at 944-1,106, but it should be noted that Fitch usually took jobs with failing teams and usually turned them around to some degree. Strangely enough, he is not in the Hall of Fame.
Dallas Mavericks: Avery Johnson
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The Dallas Mavericks have only had nine head coaches in their history, so picking an underrated coach is tough. Yet, compared to current head coach Rick Carlisle and former coach Don Nelson, Avery Johnson kind of falls into the background.
Keep in mind, Johnson's record as head coach of the Mavs was an astounding 194-70, not to mention he took the team to its first NBA Finals in 2006. However, for the next two seasons after that, Dallas was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs and Johnson was unfairly let go.
He is currently the head coach of the New Jersey Nets and in time, he will hopefully take them back to the playoffs.
Denver Nuggets: Doug Moe
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Following the NBA-ABA merger, the Denver Nuggets brought in Doug Moe to be the head coach. He spent 10 seasons with the team and clinched playoff berths in all but one of them, even making the Conference Finals in 1985. In 1988, he was named NBA Coach of the Year.
In a career that also included stints with the San Antonio Spurs and a brief forgettable stop with the Philadelphia 76ers, Moe went 628-529 and was easily one of the greatest offensive coaches of his time.
Detroit Pistons: Rick Carlisle
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Though he recently cemented his place in NBA history in winning a championship for the Dallas Mavericks, Rick Carlisle cut his teeth in coaching with two years at the helm for the Detroit Pistons. He won Coach of the Year his first season as the Pistons made the Conference Semifinals. The following year, the Pistons made the Conference Finals.
For some reason, after that year, team management fired Carlisle and replaced him with Larry Brown. He supposedly wasn't getting along with team management, but the fact that his accomplishments with the team tend to go unnoticed is just a shame.
Golden State Warriors: Al Attles
In their long history, the Golden State Warriors have only won two NBA championships. The most recent one happened in 1975 and the man coaching the team was Al Attles.
Considering how he coached the Warriors for 14 years, it's surprising how little recognition Attles gets. Those 14 seasons with the Warriors are the only years he has spent as a head coach and in that time, he was 557-518.
His coaching resume may not be all that impressive, but a title is a title. The man deserves more respect among the elite.
Houston Rockets: Tom Nissalke
Besides having quite possibly the creepiest mustache in NBA history, Tom Nissalke actually had a few decent seasons with the Houston Rockets. He spent three years with the team and made the playoffs in two of them, finishing with a postseason record of 6-8.
Nissalke also had coaching jobs around the ABA, most notably with San Antonio, and had NBA stops in Seattle, Houston, Utah and Cleveland. His overall record was an unimpressive 371-508, but his time in Houston was the lone bright spot of his otherwise unimpressive NBA career.
Indiana Pacers: Larry Bird
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Though he is probably better known for his electrifying shooting as a star forward for the Boston Celtics, Hall-of-Famer Larry Bird actually spent three seasons coaching the Indiana Pacers. Oddly enough, when he first took the job, he said that he would only hold the position for three years.
Bird made the most of those three years, making the Conference Finals his first two years and losing in the NBA Finals his last. For his entire coaching career, he posted an impressive record of 147-67.
Considering how the Pacers have been coached by the likes of Rick Carlisle, Dr. Jack Ramsay and Larry Brown, Bird is vastly underrated.
Los Angeles Clippers: None
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Let me put it this way. The Los Angeles Clippers have been around since 1970 and in their history, have only played in 47 playoff games. The only coach in team history that has a record above .500 is Mack Calvin, and he only coached the team for two games and thus doesn't count.
A case could be made for Mike Dunleavy, but he only made the playoffs in one of six-and-a-half seasons with the team. Thus, until the team starts winning consistently, no coach gets recognized.
Los Angeles Lakers: Del Harris
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Del Harris has 12 seasons and change experience head coaching in the NBA. He spent four-plus seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers and made the playoffs each year, save for his last one. That year, he was fired after just 12 games and posting a 6-6 record. The year before, he had taken the Lakers to the Conference Finals.
On top of that, it should be noted that Harris took the Houston Rockets to the NBA Finals in 1981 and lost.
His 556-457 career record may not be impressive compared to former Lakers coaches Pat Riley and Phil Jackson, but the fact that the Lakers were able to compete under him is impressive in itself. One year after he was fired, Phil Jackson took his place and the rest is history.
Memphis Grizzlies: Hubie Brown
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The Memphis Grizzlies are a fairly young team, having debuted as the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1995, but Hubie Brown deserves recognition despite only spending two-plus seasons with the team. The Grizzlies were the last stop on his Hall-of-Fame career that also included stops with the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks.
Why does Brown get recognition here? Well, he was the coach who brought the Grizzlies to their first postseason. In 2003-2004, Brown led the team to a 50-32 record. They lost in the first round, but there appeared to be light at the end of the tunnel.
Since then, while still young and developing, the Grizzlies have turned into a team that is slowly but surely becoming a contender in the tough Western Conference.
Miami Heat: None
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The Miami Heat debuted in 1988 and were one of the jokes of the NBA in their first few years of existence, despite one playoff appearance under coach Kevin Loughery. Once Pat Riley took over, the team became perennial contenders and have seen a multitude of good coaches at the helm.
Yet, when it comes to Riley, Stan Van Gundy and Erik Spoelstra, none is truly underrated. In terms of their predecessors, nobody really impresses. Moving right along...
Milwaukee Bucks: Larry Costello
Larry Costello was the first coach in Milwaukee Bucks history. He is also the only coach to win a championship with the team, in 1971.
Costello coached the Bucks from 1968-1977, posting a record of 410-264. Apart from a forgettable stint with the Chicago Bulls in 1978-1979, that is his only head coaching experience to date.
Considering how the likes of Don Nelson, Scott Skiles and George Karl have coached the Bucks since then, it is easy for a great basketball mind like Costello to fall through the cracks.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Flip Saunders
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Before Flip Saunders, the Minnesota Timberwolves were one of the NBA's worst. He took over in 1995 after the firing of Bill Blair and became the most beloved coach in team history.
In each of his full seasons as coach, Saunders made the postseason but usually lost in the first round. He only made it past there once, when the Timberwolves made the Conference Finals in his last full season.
Since then, he has coached the Detroit Pistons and is currently trying to turn around the Washington Wizards. He may not have any championship rings or NBA Finals experience, but there's no denying that Saunders is a great coach.
New Jersey Nets: Stan Albeck
He only coached the Nets for two years, but Stan Albeck made the most of his time in New Jersey. His record there was a respectably average 87-77 and in his first season, he took the team to the Conference Semifinals.
Albeck also had coaching jobs with the San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers. For his career, his coaching record is a decent 307-267.
His career on the NBA sidelines may have been brief, but he made the most of them. In seven NBA seasons, Albeck made the playoffs six times.
New Orleans Hornets: Paul Silas
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Paul Silas coached the Hornets back when they still played in Charlotte and also coached them their first season in New Orleans. Taking over in 1999, he turned the Hornets into contenders and took them to the Conference Semifinals twice.
He went 208-155 in four-and-a-half seasons with the team and while they may not have been among the league's best teams, they most certainly played with the most heart. In fact, it was Silas who turned Baron Davis into a star point guard.
New York Knicks: Rick Pitino
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He may be better known for his coaching in the college ranks, but Rick Pitino actually has some NBA experience as well. His first NBA gig came with the New York Knicks in 1987 and while his record in his first season was a below average 38-44, he still took the team to the playoffs and lost in the first round.
The following year, Pitino took the Knicks to a 52-30 record and first place in the Atlantic Division. That postseason, the Knicks lost in the Conference Semifinals and he then left to take the head coaching job at Kentucky.
His stint in New York may have been brief, but it's no secret that Pitino surely left a mark in his time with the Knicks.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Bernie Bickerstaff
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Here we have another case of a coach being part of a team before it relocated. Before they moved to Oklahoma City, the Thunder were known as the Seattle SuperSonics and one of their most underrated coaches is Bernie Bickerstaff.
Bickerstaff coached the Sonics from 1985-1990 and posted a 201-203 record over that stretch. In the playoffs, his teams went 12-15.
The sad part here is that Seattle turned into a powerhouse shortly after Bickerstaff left his post. In 1993, the Sonics made the NBA Finals and lost to the Chicago Bulls, but were led by some players who started their careers being coached by Bickerstaff. The best example of one of these men is Shawn Kemp, who was a dominant power forward in his prime.
Bickerstaff has since had coaching jobs in Washington, Charlotte and Denver. He has not enjoyed the same success since his time in Seattle, but has done a decent job nonetheless.
Orlando Magic: Stan Van Gundy
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When Stan Van Gundy took over the coaching duties for the Orlando Magic in 2007, he was inheriting a team that had been awful for the past four seasons. In the four seasons since then, Van Gundy has gone 222-106 and has taken the Magic to the NBA Finals once. They have also made the Conference Finals once.
That being said, how is Van Gundy underrated compared to former Magic coach Brian Hill, who led the Magic to their first NBA Finals? Well, it should be noted that while he is a good coach, Van Gundy's offense is very one-sided. More often than not, the plan to score points is usually something along the lines of "Get the ball to Dwight Howard."
As I have said many times before, basketball is a team game and squads that rely on one player don't usually do well. Considering how the Magic have been able to be successful in relying a lot on Howard and even get to the NBA Finals on his back, Van Gundy deserves a lot of credit.
Philadelphia 76ers: Dr. Jack Ramsay
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Dr. Jack Ramsay's coaching career spans over 30 years. He won a title with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1977 and made the playoffs in all but four of the seasons he was a head coach. Yet, one of the stops on his coaching trail that many overlook is that in Philadelphia.
Ramsay only spent four seasons with the Sixers, but they were significant for a couple of reasons. First, it was his first NBA coaching job. Second, he posted a respectable record of 174-154 with the team. The only downside was that his playoff record with Philadelphia was an abysmal 5-12.
He may not have had his name etched in the history books until a few years later, when in Portland, but the fact that one of the game's greatest coaches and his time in Philadelphia is so often overlooked deserves at least some recognition.
Phoenix Suns: John MacLeod
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Though they are now known as a team that scores a lot of points, but not much else, the Phoenix Suns were actually a pretty decent squad a long time ago. In 1976, they made the NBA Finals and lost to the Boston Celtics in six games. The coach of that team was John MacLeod.
For his entire 14-year stint in Phoenix, MacLeod gained a reputation as a coach whose teams were great during the regular season, but choked in the playoffs. The man went 579-543 during the regular season, but a less-than-average 37-44 in the postseason.
Following his departure after the 1986-1987 season, MacLeod spent time with the Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks. Yet, he will always be remembered (or not) for his time with the Phoenix Suns.
Portland Trail Blazers: Mike Schuler
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In two-plus seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, Mike Schuler posted a very impressive career record of 127-84. The only problem was that he never performed in the playoffs, going just 2-6. He was fired in the middle of his third season and replaced with Rick Adelman, who today is one of the best coaches in the NBA.
Still, the fact that Schuler was able to have such success during the regular season is impressive. Keep in mind, he had big shoes to fill. His predecessor was Dr. Jack Ramsay.
He spent a forgettable season-and-a-half coaching the Los Angeles Clippers after being fired from the Blazers and has not coached since.
Sacramento Kings: Jack McMahon
Jack McMahon coached the Kings back when they were known as the Cincinnati Royals. He made the Conference Finals in his first season and lost to the Boston Celtics. His tenure with the team lasted just four seasons, but he made the playoffs each year.
With the Royals, McMahon went 187-134 during the regular season and a forgettable 8-15 in the playoffs.
The remainder of his coaching career was highlighted by underwhelming stints with the San Diego Rockets and Pittsburgh Condors of the ABA.
San Antonio Spurs: Bob Hill
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Though he may be considered by most to be a mediocre coach, Bob Hill actually had a decent two year run as the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs. In his two full seasons with the team, he won 62 and 59 games, making the Conference Finals once. In his third season, he started 3-15 and was fired.
Yet, he finished his time with the Spurs with an amazing 124-58 record. That's a winning percentage of .681, not too shabby.
Still, mediocre stints with the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers and Seattle SuperSonics overshadow his success in San Antonio.
Toronto Raptors: Sam Mitchell
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As of now, Sam Mitchell's four-plus seasons with the Toronto Raptors are his only head coaching experience. In that time, he went 156-189 and his playoff record was a weak 3-8.
Yet, it should be noted that Mitchell took the Raptors to the playoffs minus the electrifying Vince Carter, instead having Chris Bosh lead the team. In 2007, he was named Coach of the Year.
He was fired after a slow start in 2008 and is currently an assistant with the New Jersey Nets. Yet, there's no denying that the man can coach and it is only a matter of time before he is patrolling the sidelines again.
Utah Jazz: Frank Layden
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Before there was Jerry Sloan, there was Frank Layden. The former Niagara University coach was in charge of the Jazz on the sidelines and in the front office for seven-and-a-half seasons.
His first three years were marred by inconsistency, though he finished 45-37 in his third year. Then, in 1984, he drafted point guard John Stockton. The next year, he drafted power forward Karl Malone. These two would become the mainstay of the franchise for nearly 20 years.
Layden's teams improved each of his final four years as head coach before he stepped down to concentrate solely on his front office duties. His career record as coach was 277-294 in eight seasons and 18-23 in the playoffs.
He may not have been on the sidelines for it, but he laid the groundwork for the teams that made consecutive NBA Finals in the 1990s.
Washington Wizards: Gene Shue
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Gene Shue coached the Wizards back when they were known as the Baltimore/Washington Bullets. He had two stints with the team, the first from 1966-1973 and the second from 1980-1986. Each of those stints with the team, he won the NBA Coach of the Year Award.
Shue went 291-257 his first time with the team, taking over for a handful of coaches who were unable to bring the team to a winning record. The second time around, however, Shue had some big shoes to fill. He was replacing Dick Motta, who had won a championship for the Bullets in 1978.
He went 231-248 in that time and finished with a career record with the Bullets/Wizards of 522-505. In the playoffs, he was just 19-36.
Still, there's no denying that Shue was one of the most beloved coaches in team history and it is unfortunate that he falls under the radar.