Organizing the ten best NBA coaches of all time is not as straightforward as it seems. There are dozens of names to consider, including coaches from as far back as the first professional basketball league founded in 1946. However, in basketball's history, only a handful of men have dominated the league, inspired a generation, and changed the game for good.
Some of you might want to know, how did we come up with our list? We started by looking at the coaches with the best regular season and playoff records. Then we examined which coaches have won the most NBA titles and which teams dominated the league. We also considered the longevity of the coaches' careers, their impact on basketball as a whole, and how successful they were if they moved franchises.
If you enjoy basketball lists, there are several waiting for you at Bet Station. For those of you who only want to read about the greats, we have the 15 best basketball teams of all time and the 15 best players in NBA history. Plus, for anyone looking for something a little different, we covered the 15 worst players to play in the NBA.
10. Jerry Sloan
Starting off our list is legendary coach Jerry Sloan. Sloan was a player for the Baltimore Bullets and Chicago Bulls between 1965 and 1976. He became a scout and assistant coach for the Bulls before getting the top job in 1979. Unfortunately, it seems as if he wasn’t ready for management at that time, managing a record of 94 wins and 121 losses. He became an assistant in Utah and they eventually made him head coach for the Jazz in 1988. Sloan would stay as the head coach until 2011, thriving for 23 seasons with the franchise.
Sloan had some remarkable seasons with the Jazz, leading the franchise to over 1,000 victories. He was the first coach in NBA history to reach this milestone with one team, ahead of Gregg Popovich for the Spurs. With Sloan at the helm, Utah made 15 consecutive playoff appearances. He is one of four coaches to have 15 or more consecutive seasons with a winning record.
Unfortunately, Sloan never won the NBA Finals. The two times he came closest were in 1997 and 98 when a team led by Michael Jordan proved too much for “the Original Bull”. While he missed out on the biggest title of them all, what he achieved in Utah was remarkable. It’s just unfortunate that his best years were during the prime of the best player in basketball history.
- Games Won: 1,221
- Games Lost: 803
- Win-To-Loss Percentage: .603
- NBA Championships: 0
- Playoff Games Won: 98
- Playoff Games Lost: 104
- Playoff Win-To-Loss Percentage: .485
9. Lenny Wilkens
Lenny Wilkens was an NBA coach who had seven spells with franchises across the league. He started in 1969 with the Seattle SuperSonics before moving to Portland with the Trail Blazers. He then returned to the SuperSonics in 1977 for a lengthy stay before moving to the Cavaliers in 1986. Wilkens Moved again to Atlanta in 1993 to manage the Hawks, then in 2000 he moved to Toronto to manage the Raptors. To top off 32 season career, he had a final stint in New York with the Knicks before retiring in 2005.
Although his managerial career began in 1969, he did not stop playing until 1975. A couple of seasons after retiring as a player, he won his one and only NBA Final in 1979. Wilkens also won the Coach of the Year award in 1993, 14 years after his biggest triumph. Every team he was the full-time manager for, he took them to the playoffs at least once.
The American dream, to me, means having the opportunity to achieve, because I don't think you should be guaranteed anything other than opportunity.- Lenny Wilkens
He is the only person on our list to be included in the official 15 Greatest Coaches in NBA History and the 75th Anniversary Team as a player. Wilkens is third on the all-time list of regular season wins, behind Don Nelson and Gregg Popovich. Not only did Wilkens thrive in the NBA, but he led America to Olympic gold in 1996.
- Games Won: 1,332
- Games Lost: 1,155
- Win-To-Loss Percentage: .536
- NBA Championships: 1
- Playoff Games Won: 80
- Playoff Games Lost: 98
- Playoff Win-To-Loss Percentage: .449
8. Red Holzman
Next on our list is another man who started as a player-manager. Red Holzman managed the Milwaukee Hawks in 1953, who then moved to St. Louis in 1955. He then managed Leones de Ponce in Puerto Rico before moving back to the NBA in 1967. He took charge of the New York Knicks for two spells, between 1967 and 77 and then from 1978 to 82. When Holzman retired from coaching, he had the second-most career wins in NBA history.
Holzman returned to the NBA with a score to settle after being fired by the Hawks. In 1969 he broke the NBA record set in 1946 for win streaks. He led the Knicks to an 18-game win streak, which is now the joint eleventh-best in NBA history. Holzman won two NBA Championships and the Coach of the Year award in 1970. He achieved multiple seasons with over 50 victories, including a record of 60-22 in 1970.
Looking at his win-to-loss percentage, his teams were ruthless. In the 1970 regular season, the Knicks had a .732 win percentage and in 1973, they had a .706 win-to-loss percentage in the playoffs. While many of his records have long since passed, Holzman inspired managers across the league and showed them what was possible in the NBA.
- Games Won: 696
- Games Lost: 603
- Win-To-Loss Percentage: .536
- NBA Championships: 2
- Playoff Games Won: 58
- Playoff Games Lost: 47
- Playoff Win-To-Loss Percentage: .552
7. John Kundla
The seventh-best NBA coach of all time is John Kundla. For those of you who don’t know, Kundla was the coach of three basketball teams in his career, but only one in the NBA. He started with St. Thomas in 1946 before getting a job with the Minneapolis Lakers in 1947. He stayed with the Lakers until 1959 when he joined the Minnesota men’s basketball team. Although Kundla only had 11 seasons with the Lakers, he achieved more than most coaches with double his experience.
Kundla took charge of the first season in Lakers history. They founded the team after several rival teams collapsed, allowing George Mikan to join the team. Kundla would lead the Lakers to five championships in his brief stay as a coach, achieving the first three-peat in basketball. The first six seasons in charge of the Lakers were Kundla’s best. In the 1950 season, his team had a regular season win-to-loss percentage of .750 and a record of 51 victories to 17 losses. His playoff record was even more impressive, with ten games won and only two lost, resulting in a .833 wins-to-loss percent.
While Kundla did not set any records for longevity, he started strongly with a brand-new franchise. When he took control of the Lakers, professional basketball was still in its infancy. When he left the NBA, there was a new level for all coaches to aim for.
- Games Won: 423
- Games Lost: 302
- Win-To-Loss Percentage: .583
- NBA Championships: 5
- Playoff Games Won: 60
- Playoff Games Lost: 35
- Playoff Win-To-Loss Percentage: .632
6. Chuck Daly
Next is Chuck Daly, a coach who led four NBA sides across a 14-season career. Before getting his break in the NBA, Daly started coaching high school teams, working his way to college-level squads. He got the chance to step up as an assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers. However, the job as head coach of the Cavs came too soon to Daly, who won nine of 32 games. After the Cavaliers came Daly’s best spell as Detroit Pistons head coach, followed by the Nets and Orlando Magic, before he retired.
Daly caught the attention of NBA franchises when he became a four-time consecutive Ivy League Champion and a five-time Big 5 champ. He led the Pistons to consecutive NBA Championships in 1989 and 1990, cementing the “Bad Boys” as one of the best basketball teams of all time. Plus, he was head coach of “the Dream Team”, the 1992 USA Olympic basketball team that won gold in Barcelona. Daly took over the Pistons in 1983 and led them to the playoffs every season he was in charge. He even continued his playoff run when moving the Nets. Daly had five seasons with 50 or more wins, including 1989, where he managed 63 wins and only 19 losses.
We had to include Chuck Daly in our list of the best NBA coaches of all time because he exemplifies the American dream. Starting as a high school basketball coach in the 50s, moving up to college-level teams, and then getting the chance in the NBA. Even with the progression through the leagues, nothing came to him on a silver platter. He worked exceptionally hard and deserved every opportunity he got. Just look at his record with Cleveland. How many of us would have given him another chance after that?
- Games Won: 638
- Games Lost: 437
- Win-To-Loss Percentage: .593
- NBA Championships: 2
- Playoff Games Won: 75
- Playoff Games Lost: 51
- Playoff Win-To-Loss Percentage: .595
5. Steve Kerr
Having Steve Kerr as the fifth-best NBA coach ever will ruffle some feathers. Not only is Kerr active in the NBA, but he has only nine seasons' worth of experience. He joined the Golden State Warriors in 2014 as the head coach and has since set the NBA alight. Kerr was in charge of multiple squads in our list of the greatest ever NBA squads of all time, and he has set several records. Even if they fired him and never coached an NBA team again, he still deserves a spot on our list.
Kerr is already a four-time NBA Champion, not including the five Championships he won as a player. He coached several of the most dominant teams to play in the NBA. He managed over 50 wins in each of his first five seasons, including making the playoffs five seasons in a row. In 2016, Kerr had one of the best NBA seasons of all time. He had a regular season record of 73 wins and only nine losses, resulting in a win-to-loss percentage of .890; the best regular season record in basketball history. The next season the team managed 67 wins to 15 losses, but they excelled in the playoffs. They won 16 games and only lost one, ending with a win-to-loss percentage of .941.
It’s different as a coach because you feel responsible for a lot of people. Even though you don’t take a shot, you don’t get a rebound; you feel like you want people to succeed and you want to help them in any way you can.- Steve Kerr
While many would argue Kerr is too young or too inexperienced to be in the top ten coaches in NBA history, we have to disagree. Given what he has achieved already and what he could do in the future, Kerr could end up challenging for the top spot in a few years. Plus, when you consider the tactics and players at his disposal, we might even have to reconsider his position after a couple of seasons.
- Games Won: 473
- Games Lost: 238
- Win-To-Loss Percentage: .665
- NBA Championships: 4
- Playoff Games Won: 99
- Playoff Games Lost: 41
- Playoff Win-To-Loss Percentage: .707
4. Pat Riley
Next on our list is Pat Riley, a man whose coaching career began in 1981 with the Los Angeles Lakers. He was immensely successful with the Lakers during the 80s before moving to the Knicks in 1991. Riley then joined Miami Heat in 1995, where he had two spells. The first ended in 2003, and the second stint began in 2005 and lasted until 2008. Several managers on our list have only won the NBA Championship with one franchise, But Riley did it with two.
In his first season in charge, Riley won his first of five NBA Championships. He would win four of the NBA Finals with the Lakers before winning with the Heat in 2006, 24 years after his first NBA title. Riley was a three-time NBA Coach of the Year and nine-time NBA All-Star Game head coach. He was the first to win the NBA as a player, assistant coach, head coach, and executive, leaving him with nine NBA titles. Riley had some remarkable seasons, even with the Nets. Unfortunately, the time he was in charge overlapped with the dominance of the best NBA team of all time, the Chicago Bulls. While he did not beat the Bulls in 1992, he took them to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals; a lot better than the clean sweep in 1991.
Riley deserves a top spot on our list because he led immense NBA teams in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. He managed the best NBA players of all time, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and Shaquille O’Neal. Motivating and inspiring the best players takes a unique skill most of us will never understand. Plus, his excellence as an executive just shows how impressive Riley was as a leader.
- Games Won: 1,210
- Games Lost: 694
- Win-To-Loss Percentage: .636
- NBA Championships: 5
- Playoff Games Won: 171
- Playoff Games Lost: 111
- Playoff Win-To-Loss Percentage: .606
3. Gregg Popovich
Now that we are towards the top end of the list, we only have coaching greats to talk about. Narrowly missing out on the second spot for the greatest NBA coach of all time is Gregg Popovich. Unlike many names on our list, Popovich has only ever coached one side in the NBA. He began coaching in 1973 at the United States Air Force Academy. From there he was the head coach at Pomona-Pitzer and assistant at Kansas until 1988. He got an assistant coach job at the San Antonio Spurs till 1992 and then took the same role at the Golden State Warriors. In 1996, he got the chance to coach the Spurs and has remained in charge ever since.
Popovich has managed 27 seasons in charge of the Spurs, which has resulted in some records. He is the current longest-serving coach in the league and the longest-serving manager across all sports across America. Plus, he holds the record for most wins in the NBA and most consecutive winning seasons in basketball history. Popovich led his team to 22 consecutive playoff appearances during his tenure, including five NBA Championships; the only championships the franchise has won. He also coached the American Olympic Basketball team to gold at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
It's not about any one person. You've got to get over yourself and realize that it takes a group to get this thing done- Gregg Popovich
Popovich is not just a five-time NBA Champion, but he received the Coach of the Year award on three occasions as well. Plus, he was the NBA All-Star Game head coach four times since 2005. Looking at his regular season records, Popovich has been behind some monstrously powerful teams. The second time he made the playoffs, he won the NBA Championship with a win-to-loss percentage of .882. His 2016 squad made our list of the best basketball teams of all time, only losing 15 games and winning 67.
We don’t need more evidence to support Popovich’s inclusion in our list. However, in the past four seasons, the Spurs have missed out on a playoff spot. The 2023 season ended with 60 defeats and a win-to-loss percentage of .268. While there is a consensus that he is losing his touch, he started his coaching career with a record even worse than that. But, at the start of his career, he was 48. Now, at 74 years of age, IS Popovich’s reign coming to an end?
- Games Won: 1,366
- Games Lost: 761
- Win-To-Loss Percentage: .642
- NBA Championships: 5
- Playoff Games Won: 170
- Playoff Games Lost: 114
- Playoff Win-To-Loss Percentage: .599
2. Red Auerbach
The second-best NBA coach of all time is Red Auerbach. His coaching career began in 1940 with St. Albans School and Roosevelt High School. Auerbach then managed the Washington Capitols in 1946 before moving to the Tri-Cities Blackhawks in 1949. In 1950, he got the chance to coach the Celtics, where he revolutionized the side. He took Boston to their first NBA title in 1957 and won the big prize nine times in his 16 seasons in charge.
Auerbach is a basketball icon for several reasons. For starters, he helped break the color barrier by drafting the first African-American NBA player. Many credit Auerbach for being the pioneer of modern basketball. He introduced the fast break and showed how to dominate a game with a powerful defense and outstanding team play. After serving as the head coach, he moved up to president and saw another seven NBA titles under his tenure. That means he has the most NBA Finals wins in history with 16, making him the most successful team official in the history of sport across America.
Many will remember Auerbach for leading the Celtics to eight consecutive NBA titles from 1959 to 1966. That is the most consecutive championships of any team in NBA history by some margin. Thanks to the foundations placed by Auerbach, Boston has become one of the most successful teams in basketball.
- Games Won: 938
- Games Lost: 481
- Win-To-Loss Percentage: .661
- NBA Championships: 9
- Playoff Games Won: 99
- Playoff Games Lost: 69
- Playoff Win-To-Loss Percentage: .589
1. Phil Jackson
Finally, the number one coach in NBA history is Phil Jackson. This should not surprise most basketball fans; after all, he was behind some of the best NBA teams of all time. His coaching career began with the New Jersey Mets in 1978 as an assistant. He then moved between several teams, including the Albany Patroons, Piratas de Quebradillas, and Gallitos de Isabela; both Puerto Rican teams. He came back to the NBA in 1987 as an assistant coach for the Chicago Bulls before getting the top job in 1989.
Jackson brought unbelievable consistency to the NBA. Since taking charge of the Bulls in 1989, he never missed out on the playoffs for every team he coached. During this time, Jackson would set the record for most NBA Championships as a coach, ending up with 11 titles across the Lakers and Bulls. If you look at the best teams in NBA history, he coached four teams making the top 15. That includes the best team of all time, the Chicago Bulls 1995-96. In this season, Jackson’s side won 72 games and only lost ten. They had a .878 win-to-loss percentage in the regular season and .833 in the playoffs.
Looking at Jackson throughout his career, managed 20 seasons in the NBA. Of those seasons, he only recorded three with less than 50 victories. He was the NBA Coach of the Year in 1996 and a four-time NBA All-Star Game head coach. Plus, Jackson never had to wait over two seasons for his side to either win the NBA Championship or the Western Conference. He is the only manager in our top ten with a career win-to-loss percentage higher than .700.
- Games Won: 1,155
- Games Lost: 485
- Win-To-Loss Percentage: .704
- NBA Championships: 11
- Playoff Games Won: 229
- Playoff Games Lost: 104
- Playoff Win-To-Loss Percentage: .688
It was a straightforward decision to rank Phil Jackson as the number one NBA coach of all time. He achieved two three-peat victories with the Bulls and another with the Lakers. Plus, he brought out the best in players such as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Kobe Bryant. If you were searching for the coach who had the biggest impact on the NBA, it has to be Jackson.
However, no list at Bet Station is complete without paying our respects to the honorable mentions. This is where we highlight a few names that narrowly missed out on our list of the ten best NBA coaches of all time. All the men listed below were excellent coaches that we would like to celebrate. They all helped provide several iconic moments we will never forget.
- Doc Rivers
- Erik Spoelstra
- Jack Ramsay
- Larry Brown
- Don Nelson
- Rudy Tomjanovich