Best NBA Coaches of All Time: Top 5 Team Leaders in NBA History, According to Critics, Fans

Coaching in the National Basketball Association (NBA) is a grueling job that takes discipline, attention to detail, and a leadership mentality. The best NBA coaches of all time have mastered these skills to guide their teams to victory on a nightly basis. Obviously, the best teams and best players in the history of the NBA have mostly had a great coach at the helm and likewise. The best NBA coaches have led some of the greatest NBA players and teams to historic careers and championships. 

Speaking of championships and great players, researchers at Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel recently analyzed individual stat lines gleaned from nearly 2,000 NBA postseason games with the hopes of understanding how players perform when their season is on the line – in playoff elimination games. The study found that NBA players actually perform worse when the pressure is on to win or go home. Using mathematical models to analyze performance in elimination games, researchers found that home teams that won 65 percent of their home games during the postseason, only won about 55 percent of their games when facing elimination. Researchers say that this drop in performance can help workplace leaders better manage their employees, creating a work environment that takes the pressure off of employees and allows them to produce their best work. 

On-court performance aside, NBA coaches might also want to monitor their players’ use of social media, especially on nights before big games. Another recent study found that NBA players tend to perform worse after tweeting late at night. Researchers at Stony Brook University examined 112 NBA players’ Twitter accounts from 2009 through 2016 and then analyzed their game-by-game statistics using Yahoo Sports. Researchers specifically looked for tweets posted between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. The study found that NBA players who tweeted late at night experienced a 1.7 percent drop in their shooting percentage and averaged 1 point less. Of course, NBA coaches aren’t babysitters and the impacts of late night tweeting will need to be monitored by the players themselves. 

So, which team leaders are among the greats in basketball? StudyFinds did the research, consulting 10 NBA and sports-oriented websites in an effort to bring you a consensus best NBA coaches of all time. Our list is comprised of the five most frequently listed coaches from across these sites. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below! 

image of basketball coach arguing with refs
A coach and a referee arguing (Photo by KeithJJ on Pixabay)

The List: Best NBA Coaches of All Time, According to Fans

1. Phil Jackson

Easily topping the lists of the best NBA coaches of all time is none other than the ‘Zen Master,’ Phil Jackson. Phil Jackson has coached some of the best NBA players in history including Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal. Jackson has won 11 championships, which is more NBA titles and rings than he has fingers. 

Phil Jackson at Los Angeles Lakers Owner Jerry Buss's ceremony for his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Phil Jackson at Los Angeles Lakers Owner Jerry Buss’s ceremony for his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (Photo by s_bukley on Shutterstock)

“No one comes close to Phil Jackson when it comes to winning championships. Jackson is the most winningest coach in NBA history with a postseason record of 229-104 and a whopping 11 titles under his belt. He won two three-peats with the Bulls in the 90s, one three-peat with the Lakers in the 00s, and a back-to-back title with the Lakers in the ’09 and ’10. There’s not much debate that he deserves to sit atop the greatest NBA coaches of all time,” explains Franchise Sports

Phil Jackson is also a great regular-season NBA coach. Jackson’s 70 percent winning percentage during the regular season is the best in NBA history. But, Phil Jackson is known as the ‘Zen Master’ for his ability to motivate players beyond the X’s and O’s of coaching. 

“In order to be a great coach in college you need to be an excellent tactician and recruiter, but in order to excel in the NBA you need to be an excellent mediator. Phil Jackson understands this better than anyone on our list, and was able to parlay his deep knowledge of the human psyche into 11 championships. He taught Michael Jordan to trust his teammates, he brokered countless peace treaties between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal and, perhaps most impressively, he prevented Kobe from throttling Smush Parker every time he turned over the ball. Frankly it’s amazing he never won the Nobel Prize,” adds Twinspires.

Don’t be confused, though, Phil Jackson knows basketball better than most other coaches and he has the regular season records and NBA championships to prove it. Even though Phil Jackson’s career as a front office executive didn’t go as planned, experts say he should be remembered for his work as a coach. 

“Phil Jackson’s teams were perennial NBA betting favourites, and deservedly so. Some of that was the roster, but plenty was down to Jackson’s basketball philosophy and his ability to connect with superstar players. Younger fans will remember Jackson’s dodgy spell in the Knicks’ front office, but there’s no question he’s the greatest NBA coach of all-time. His tally of 11 rings [in] 20 seasons is the best ever, and he owns the best winning percentage of anyone to have coached over 1,000 games,” furthers 888sport

2. Gregg Popovich

Coming in next on the list of the best NBA coaches of all time is the current head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, Gregg Popovich. He has been the coach of the Spurs for years, and it doesn’t look like he’s calling it quits anytime soon. 

“In the 2021-22 season, he passed Don Nelson for the top spot all-time in coaching wins. Now, Popovich holds the record the all-time record for most coaching wins in the regular season with 1,344 and still counting. In the postseason, Popovich also proved that he’s one of the best. He led San Antonio to the playoffs for 22 straight seasons and won five championships in that span while coaching all-time greats such as David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Popovich’s greatness transcends his own records and accolades. Notable names such as Ime Udoka, Mike Budenholzer, Monty Williams, Taylor Jenkins, and Steve Kerr were all on his coaching staff before. Thanks to Popovich’s mentorship, their own teams are flourishing in the NBA,” writes Franchise Sports

Popovich’s coaching tree is extensive, but more on that later. For now, Popovich has five NBA rings and holds the all-time record for most NBA regular season wins. And basketball fans agree, Popovich is perhaps the best, or worst, interviewee in the history of the NBA. 

“Pop might hate answering silly questions during the heat of the game, but man, is he an excellent coach. His numbers are startling. He guided the Spurs to the playoffs for 22 seasons in a row, winning five titles, and becoming the benchmark of consistent success all coaches across the globe now try to reach. Popovich’s success goes beyond wins and losses. Some folks believe he’s had more sway on today’s game than any other human being alive. 11 former ‘Pop’ assistants have gone on to coach their own squad, bringing Popovich’s coaching style and playbook with them,” adds Fadeaway World

For two decades, Popovich’s Spurs were a lock to make the playoffs and threaten for another NBA title. “Having once led the Spurs to at least 50 wins in 20 straight seasons, he happened to help them reach the playoffs in every season he coached them. And most significantly, he guided the franchise to five NBA title wins, becoming one of five coaches to have won the title at least a record five times. He won the NBA Coach of the Year award three consecutive times and was head coach [of] the All-star team four times. Popovich still coaches the Spurs presently and [is] also the franchise’s president,” adds Sporty Tell

3. Red Auerbach

Boston Celtics legend, Red Auerbach was Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich several decades ahead of schedule, in terms of winning and coaching stats. Auerbach brought Boston a staggering nine NBA championships in 10 years and at the time of his retirement, Red was the NBA’s all-time leader in regular-season victories. 

“Auerbach was the ‘Godfather of the NBA.’ He was the man of the Boston Celtics for over 30 years as a coach and an executive. In his career as a coach, he led the Celtics to an amazing nine championships, including an unfathomable eight consecutive titles from 1959 until 1966. He had a record of 823-426 and a .659 winning percentage. He also has a career playoff record of 91-60, with a winning percentage of .603. He also won the NBA Coach of the Year Award in 1965. Finally, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1969,” explains Bleacher Report

Auerbach’s Boston Celtics were a dominant team in the late ’50s and ’60s. Auerbach coached Boston to a whopping nine NBA titles in 11 Finals appearances during his illustrious career“He helped Boston win nine out of eleven championships during that era, including eight straight titles from 1959 to 1966. Auerbach was a force to be reckoned with both in the regular season and the playoffs. He had a regular-season record of 823-426 and a playoff record of 91-60. He was also awarded the NBA Coach of the Year in 1965. Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and Tom Heinsohn were some of the all-time greats he coached during this era of dominance. Russell, Jones, and Heinsohn went on to become head coaches after their playing careers,” adds Franchise Sports

Auerbach’s players went on to be coaches under his tutelage and Bill Russell is widely considered one of the best NBA centers in history. Still, Auerbach coached in a different era, and his experience as a coach was much different than it is today. 

“Red Auerbach is known for his nine straight conference titles and eight straight NBA Championships, but here’s another number you should know about the Celtics legend: zero. That’s the number of assistants Auerbach had on his staff during his entire tenure in Boston. The Brooklyn native coached games, ran practices, oversaw player development and, on occasion, even taped up ankles prior to game time. His ability to wear so many hats is extraordinary in today’s era of increased specialization,” explains Twinspires

4. Pat Riley

Riley is the legendary coach of the Heat, Lakers, and Knicks, but he is also currently one of the NBA’s best executives working for the Miami Heat. Riley got his start coaching the ‘Showtime’ Lakers teams of the ’80s and early ’90s, winning four NBA championships in that time, and his impressive list of accomplishments keeps going. 

“In a 24-year career as coach of the Lakers, Knicks, and Heat, he has won five championships (four with the Lakers and one with the Heat). He has also compiled a 1210-694 record, winning games at an impressive .636 clip. He also won the NBA Coach of the Year Award three times in 1990, 1993, and 1997. He led his teams to the playoffs every season of his career except for one and that was his last season with the Heat. He ranks second in playoff wins with 171,” writes Bleacher Report

Pat Riley the coach
(“Pat Riley” by Keith Allison is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Riley coached some of the best players to ever wear a uniform in the NBA including Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, and Patrick Ewing. However, Riley’s unique, player-led approach is what helped him transform his teams into instant contenders.  

“Few coaches have shown a greater ability to adapt their style to their personnel than Pat Riley. The three-time Coach of the Year rose to fame as the architect of the Showtime Lakers, whose aesthetically pleasing fastbreak approach led to four championships. He then spent four seasons with the Knicks, whom he moulded into the toughest, dirtiest team in recent memory. There were times where it appeared Anthony Mason and Charles Oakley were playing rugby while everyone else was playing basketball. It was seldom pretty, but New York’s down-and-dirty approach lead to a .680 winning percentage and an Eastern Conference Championship,” adds Twinspires

Those Lakers teams were truly a sight to behold. Their fast pace was exciting and led to some of the best sports highlights in history. Regardless, Riley was willing to adapt his style to fit his players, not the other way around, making him beloved by players and teams. 

“Still, no coach has ever changed their style of play as Riley did. He allowed the Showtime Lakers to run loose and fast with Johnson at the helm. Then when Riley arrived in New York in the early 90s, he played a slow-paced, grind-it-out style of basketball with Ewing as his offensive centerpiece. Finally, in Miami, Pat Riley played a half-court-oriented brand of basketball, allowing Shaq and Wade to pick apart teams throughout the entire 24-second clock. We’ve seen many coaches (Mike D’Antoni) throughout the NBA’s history flounder as they doggedly use one system, even if it’s wrong for their current personnel. Pat Riley’s adaptability makes him lauded across the NBAverse,” adds Fadeaway World

5. Steve Kerr

The current coach of the Golden State Warriors, Steve Kerr comes from Gregg Popovich’s coaching tree and he played for Phil Jackson, so he brings the best of both coaching styles to his team. Although Kerr hasn’t been coaching as long as some of the other names on this list, he’s compiled a long list of accomplishments in his time with the Warriors. 

“After winning his fourth championship with the Warriors, Steve Kerr deserves to be included in the top five of the best NBA coaches ranked list. Why? Because he’s already sixth all-time in championships won and it’s just his ninth season. Despite being relatively new compared to other names on this list, Kerr isn’t entirely new when it comes to winning. As a player, he won three championships with the Bulls and another two titles with the Spurs. Kerr already has a solid coaching resume after nine seasons in the league. He is a four-time NBA champion and former Coach of the Year. Expect him to add more achievements in the next few seasons,” raves Franchise Sports

In his playing days, Kerr played point guard for the Cavaliers, Bulls, and Spurs and played alongside some of basketball’s greatest players including Michael Jordan. “Kerr’s genius lies in his ability to keep things light and positive, even when his players are fighting under some of the most intense, pressurized situations a human being can endure. Without Steve Kerr’s ability to bring the joy of simply playing basketball out of his players, encouraging them to enjoy the moment instead of breaking down inside it, the Warriors never would have won three titles, regardless of their overall gifts,” explains Fadeaway World

As a coach, Kerr is responsible for the best NBA regular season record of all time with a mark of 73-9 in the 2015-2016 NBA season. As a player, Kerr was part of the 1996-1997 Bulls team that went 72-10 in the regular season and set the record he broke as a coach. But, those are just records. Steve Kerr focuses on putting his players in the best position to succeed, and that’s exactly what they’ve done. 

“The emphasis on ball movement, the use of Draymond Green as a playmaker on offence and a centre on defence, made the Warriors beautiful to watch as well as effective. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have gone from talented college players to the greatest backcourt in league history under Kerr’s guidance. He navigated some challenging man management issues during Kevin Durant’s time, and has built a brilliant relationship with his players. The Warriors dynasty doesn’t happen without Kerr. Who knows, there might be more titles to come,” adds 888sport

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