Top 30 best NBA coaches of all time

Profile Picture: Ryan Murphy

Ryan Murphy

November 9th, 2020

It takes more than great talent to win in the NBA; you also need a great coach. The best bench bosses are teachers, motivators, strategists, and occasionally therapists. They know their x’s and o’s, of course, but they’re also adept at managing personalities and finding ways to motivate their players over the course of a long season.

Join us now as we salute the top 30 best NBA coaches of all time

30. Mike Budenholzer

Teams coached: Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks
Regular season record: 329-236 (.582)
Postseason record: 32-32 (.500)
NBA Championships: 0

This spot may seem a little high after Milwaukee was sent home early in Orlando, but "Coach Bud" deserves credit for coaching the Bucks to the best record in the NBA in back-to-back seasons. The 55-year-old Arizona native is a two-time Coach of the Year winner whose best moments are still ahead of him.

29. Del Harris

Teams coached: Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls, New Jersey Nets
Regular season record: 556-457 (.549)
Postseason record: 38-50 (.432)
NBA Championships: 0

The recipient of the 2020 Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award, Del Harris has spent the past 44 years in professional basketball, first as an assistant coach with the Utah Stars, and more recently as the vice president of the Mavericks' G League team, the Texas Legends. Although he never won a title, Harris did come tantalizingly close in 1981 when his Rockets fell to the Celtics in six games in the NBA Finals.

28. Rudy Tomjanovich

Teams coached: Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers
Regular season record: 527-416 (.559)
Postseason record: 51-39 (.567)
NBA Championships: 2

Rudy Tomjanovich’s coaching career wasn’t long, but it was spectacular. The former All-Star forward guided the Rockets to a pair of championships in his first three full seasons on the bench, and delivered one of the most memorable sound bites in NBA history when he encouraged fans to, "never underestimate the heart of a champion." It’s nearly impossible to watch that clip even now without getting goosebumps.

27. Doug Moe

Teams coached: San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers
Regular season record: 628-529 (.543)
Postseason record: 33-50 (.398)
NBA Championships: 0

Doug Moe wasn't the most successful coach in NBA history, but he was one of the more entertaining. The wisecracking North Carolina grad made no attempt to hide the fact that he didn’t bother drawing up plays or coming up with intricate strategies to stop the other team. "My plan is to just go out there, have a good time, and run around like a chicken with your head cut off," he once explained. "Make those stiffs run around and chase you on defense a little bit, and you too can win a few games."

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Head coach Hubie Brown of the Memphis Grizzles. (Photo by Icon Sports Media)

26. Hubie Brown

Teams coached: Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, Memphis Grizzlies
Regular season record: 528-559 (.486)
Postseason record: 31-32 (.492)
NBA Championships: 0

Plenty of men on our list have won multiple NBA Coach of the Year Awards, but Hubie Brown is the only one who captured his 26 years apart. That lengthy span speaks volumes about his longevity as well as Brown’s ability to relate to players from multiple generations. The former math teacher schooled his pupils in basketball fundamentals and took great pride in ensuring his squads were always well prepared.

25. Mike Fratello

Teams coached: Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Memphis Grizzlies
Regular season record: 667-548 (.549)
Postseason record: 20-42 (.323)
NBA Championships: 0

If this were a list of the top toupees in sports Mike Fratello and his immaculate mane would come in first, but it’s a compendium of the top 30 NBA coaches of all time, so he slots in at No. 25 instead. "The Czar of the Telestrator" is a former Coach of the Year and first rate tactician who guided the Hawks to four straight 50-win seasons from 1986-89.

24. John MacLeod

Teams coached: Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks
Regular season record: 707-657 (.518)
Postseason record: 47-54 (.465)
NBA Championships: 0

A member of the Suns Ring of Honor, John MacLeod compiled a stellar 579-543 with Phoenix from 1973-87 and led the team to the NBA Finals in 1976. That particular trip didn’t result in a trophy, but it did help cement his place as the most popular coach in franchise history.  

23. Gene Shue

Teams coached: Baltimore Bullets, Philadelphia 76ers, San Diego Clippers, Washington Bullets, Los Angeles Clippers
Regular season record: 784-861 (.477)
Postseason record: 30-47 (.390)
NBA Championships: 0

Don’t let Gene Shue’s 861 career losses and sub .500 record fool you into thinking he was a second-rate coach. The former All-Star and two-time Coach of the Year specialized in taking over floundering teams and turning them into playoff contenders. That was especially true in Philadelphia, where he inherited a 73-loss team in 1973 and turned it into a 50-win juggernaut four years later.

21. Red Holzman

Teams coached: Milwaukee Hawks, St. Louis Hawks, New York Knicks
Regular season record: 696-603 (.536)
Postseason record: 58-47 (.552)
NBA Championships: 2

The New York Knicks have won two NBA Championships since 1946 and Red Holzman is responsible for both of them. The Hall of Famer retired with the second most career victories in league history and continued to influence the game for decades later as his protégé, Phil Jackson, won 11 titles while tapping into his vast teachings and defensive schemes.

20. Bill Sharman

Teams coached: San Francisco Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers
Regular season record: 333-240 (.581)
Postseason record: 35-27 (.565)
NBA Championships: 1

One of just two men to win NBA and ABA Championships as a coach, Bill Sharman makes it onto our list for the masterful job he did with the 1971-72 Lakers. The eight-time All-Star led L.A. to 33 consecutive wins and the franchise’s first title in 19 years. Yes, he inherited a team full of Hall of Famers, but Sharman was also a tremendous communicator and innovator who was responsible for inventing the morning shootaround.

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Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra. (Photo by Rich Kane/Icon Sportswire)

19. Erik Spoelstra

Teams coached: Miami Heat
Regular season record: 567-392 (.591)
Postseason record: 85-54 (.612)
NBA Championships: 2

Erik Spoelstra is a man who knows about putting in his dues. The Evanston native began his NBA career in 1995 as a lowly video coordinator with the Heat and slowly, but surely, worked his way up the organization until he became the franchise’s sixth head coach in 2008. He has since led Miami to five conference titles and a pair of NBA Championships. His squad may have fallen to the Lakers in the 2020 NBA Finals, but his future remains as bright as ever.

18. Cotton Fitzsimmons

Teams coached: Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks, Buffalo Braves, Kansas City Kings, San Antonio Spurs
Regular season record: 832-775 (.518)
Postseason record: 35-49 (.417)
NBA Championships: 0

You didn’t think we were going to forget about a guy with a name like "Cotton" did you? The Hannibal, Missouri native is still a very big deal in Phoenix, where he led the Suns to a 341-208 record and five straight playoff appearances. Fitzsimmons never did bring a title to the dessert, but he’s revered by fans as the second most successful coach in franchise history.

17. Dick Motta

Teams coached: Chicago Bulls, Washington Bullets, Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings, Denver Nuggets
Regular season record: 935-1,017
Postseason record: 56-70 (.444)
NBA Championships: 1

It may seem counterintuitive, but you have to be an exceptional coach (or exceptionally good at blackmail) to lose 1,000 games. The well-traveled Motta was a former Coach of the Year who enjoyed his finest moment in 1978 when he led the underdog Washington Bullets past the Seattle SuperSonics to capture the franchise’s first – and thus far only - NBA Championship.

16. Bill Fitch

Teams coached: Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Houston Rockets, New Jersey Nets, Los Angeles Clippers
Regular season record: 944-1,106 (.460)
Postseason record: 55-54 (.505)
NBA Championships: 1

Bill Fitch was the antithesis of another coach on our list, Phil Jackson. While Jackson was a self-styled hippie who liked to burn sage in the locker room and encouraged his players to mediate, Fitch was a former U.S. Marines Corps drill instructor with a penchant for screaming until he was blue in the face. His methods may not work in today’s NBA, but they allowed him to win 944 games and a championship during his heyday in the 70s and 80s.

15. Jack Ramsay

Teams coached: Philadelphia 76ers, Buffalo Braves, Portland Trail Blazers, Indiana Pacers
Regular season record: 864-783 (.525)
Postseason record: 44-58 (.431)
NBA Championships: 1

You don’t need to have a doctorate to coach in the NBA, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Just ask Jack Ramsay, who earned a PhD in education before becoming one of the most respected coaches in the NBA. Many of Dr. Jack’s records have been broken since he retired in 1988, but his ability to pull off wide lapels and checkered slacks will never be equaled.

14. Rick Adelman

Teams coached: Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings, Houston Rockets, Minnesota Timberwolves
Regular season record: 1,042-749 (.582)
Postseason record: 79-78 (.503)
NBA Championships: 0

Just how good was Rick Adelman? The four-time NBA Coach of the Month guided the Portland Trail Blazers to 57.5 wins per season from 1990-93. That memorable stretch included three trips to the Western Conference Finals and two appearances in the NBA Finals.

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Head coach Rick Carlisle of the Dallas Mavericks. (Photo by Javier Rojas/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

13. Rick Carlisle

Teams coached: Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Dallas Mavericks
Regular season record: 794-659 (.546)
Postseason record: 60-66 (.476)
NBA Championships: 1

Rick Carlisle has won close to 800 games and has guided his teams to the playoffs 13 times, but he’ll forever be remembered for being the man that coached the Dallas Mavericks to their first NBA Championship in franchise history. Their 2011 title is all the sweeter because the Mavs were heavy underdogs who overcame a 2-1 deficit to the star-studded Heat to win the NBA Finals in six games.

13. Mike D’Antoni

Teams coached: Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets
Regular season record: 672-527 (.560)
Postseason record: 54-56 (.491)
NBA Championships: 0

Few coaches have done more to change the way the game is played than Mike D’Antoni. His high-octane "Seven Seconds or Less" offense in Phoenix supercharged the pace of play, while his inventive small ball lineups in Houston prompted other teams to abandon centers and spread the court with five shooters. His tactics have yet to produce a championship, but they have led to three 60-win seasons and a pair of NBA Coach of the Year awards.

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Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr looks on during a NBA game between the Warriors and Clippers. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

12. Steve Kerr

Teams coached: Golden State Warriors
Regular season record: 337-138 (.709)
Postseason record: 77-28 (.733)
NBA Championships: 3

Steve Kerr’s resume is still being written, but it’s already among the most impressive in NBA history. The former three-point specialist has guided the Warriors to five conference titles and three NBA Championships during his first six seasons on the bench. There’s no question that Kerr inherited a stacked squad, but he’s managed to get the most out of his charges by improving the team culture and empowering each and everyone of his players.

11. Larry Brown

Teams coached: Denver Nuggets, New Jersey Nets, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks, Charlotte Bobcats
Regular season record: 1,327-1,011 (.568)
Postseason record: 120-115 (.511)
NBA Championships: 1

There may not be much to like about Larry Brown himself, but there’s a lot to like about his accomplishments. The acerbic basketball lifer is the only coach in history to win an NCAA title and an NBA Championship. His commitment to playing "the right away" has helped turn around the fortunes of previously woebegone franchises like the Nets, Spurs, Clippers, and Pacers. Unfortunately, his insistence on always being right has led to strained relationships and pink slips. Don’t be surprised if "Next Town Brown" comes to a city near you soon.

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Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers. (Photo by Ringo Chiu/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

10. Doc Rivers

Teams coached: Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Clippers
Regular season record: 943-681 (.581)
Postseason record: 91-89
NBA Championships: 1

A former Coach of the Year and NBA Champion, Rivers would be much higher on our list were it not for the fact that he’s also the only coach in NBA history to lose three playoff series in which his team was up 3-1. That’s a tremendous black mark on an otherwise dazzling CV. Hopefully Rivers will have more success in Philadelphia after accepting a job with the 76ers in October.

9. George Karl

Teams coached: Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors, Seattle SuperSonics, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings
Regular season record: 1,175-824 (.588)
Postseason record: 80-105 (.432)
NBA Championships: 0

Few coaches picked up more Air Miles during their career than George Karl, who was employed at various times by the CBA, NBA, and Spain’s Liga ACB. His ability to understand and adapt to each league’s stylistic quirks made him a huge success everywhere he went and led to eight division titles, three 60-win seasons, and too many player feuds to count.

8. Jerry Sloan

Teams coached: Chicago Bulls, Utah Jazz
Regular season record: 1,223-803 (.603)
Postseason record: 98-104 (.485)
NBA Championships: 0

We’ll be the first to admit that Jerry Sloan wasn’t the flashiest or most inventive coach. He relied more on traditional lineups and pick-and-roll sets than anyone else on our list. However, he was remarkably consistent. Sloan guided the Jazz to 47 wins or more for every season from 1990-98. That streak, which included two trips to the NBA Finals, would have continued for three more years were it not for a lockout in 1999. Sloan passed away on May 22, 2020, but a banner celebrating his 1,223 career victories still hangs from the rafters at Vivint Smart Home Arena.

7. Lenny Wilkens

Teams coached: Seattle SuperSonics, Portland Trail Blazers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, New York Knicks
Regular season record: 1,332-1,155 (.536)
Postseason record: 80-98 (.449)
NBA Championships: 1

No one in NBA history has coached more games than Lenny Wilkens, whose 2,487 game career mark is well ahead of everyone on our list. Although he only won one championship during that span, he did guide his teams to the playoffs 20 times and was an outstanding communicator who excelled at relating to players of all ages and backgrounds.

6. Chuck Daly

Teams coached: Detroit Pistons, New Jersey Nets
Regular season record: 638-437 (.593)
Postseason record: 75-51 (.595)
NBA Championships: 2

Most coaches are obsessed with wins and losses, but Chuck Daly was equally concerned with lapels and cuffs. "Daddy Rich" was so committed to being the best dresser in the NBA that he used to send out scouts for the express purpose of reporting on what rival coaches were wearing. You would think that level of preoccupation would have affected his ability to focus on the sidelines, but Daly still managed to win a pair of championships and guided the Dream Team to gold at the 1992 Summer Olympics.

5. Don Nelson

Teams coached: Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors, New York Knicks, Dallas Mavericks
Regular season record: 1,335-1,063 (.557)
Postseason record: 75-91 (.452)
NBA Championships: 0

Long before Mike D’Antoni arrived on the scene, Don Nelson was the NBA’s resident mad scientist. The progressive bench boss turned Paul Pressy into the league’s first "point forward", he frequently ran out three-guard sets long before it became commonplace, and he eschewed traditional pivot-clogging centers in favor of fast-paced lineups capable of scoring points in bunches. "Nellie Ball" didn’t produce any championships, but it did make Nelson the league’s career leader in regular season wins.

4. Pat Riley

Teams coached: Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Miami Heat
Regular season record: 1,210-694 (.636)
Postseason record: 171-111 (.606)
NBA Championships: 5

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.

3. Gregg Popovich

Teams coached: San Antonio Spurs
Regular season record: 1,277-614 (.675)
Postseason record: 170-114 (.599)
NBA Championships: 5

Gregg Popovich may not be much of an interview, but he is one hell of a coach. The three-time Coach of the Year led the Spurs to the playoffs for 22 straight seasons from 1998 to 2019 and is responsible for all five of the franchise’s NBA Championships. Having David Robinson and Tim Duncan on his roster certainly helped, but "Pop" is also an exceptional manager of talent who has consistently found ways to unify players from all over the globe. His influence can be seen in his impressive coaching tree which includes 11 former assistants who have gone on to coach their own NBA teams.

2. Red Auerbach

Teams coached: Washington Capitals, Tri-Cities Blackhawks, Boston Celtics
Regular season record: 938-479 (.662)
Postseason record: 99-69 (.589)
NBA Championships: 9

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.

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Head coach Phil Jackson of the Los Angeles Lakers. (Photo by Matt A. Brown/Icon Sportswire)

1. Phil Jackson

Teams coached: Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers
Regular season record: 1155-485 (.705)
Postseason record: 229-104 (.688)
NBA Championships: 11

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.

Honorable mentions: Al Attles, Mike Dunleavy, K.C. Jones, John Kundla, Flip Saunders, Brad Stevens, Stan Van Gundy