Ladies and gentlemen, it’s NBA Finals time. You know what that means. The best team from the East and West will be tipping off starting July 7th. And for both these teams, the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks, they’ve had their own unique journey to get to this point. But now let’s talk about the winningest and best NBA coaches of all time.
The Suns could get their first NBA title in history and the Bucks could get their first since 1971 and second overall. Both fanbases in Arizona and Wisconsin have been wanting their team to make it and now that they have, they’ll be cheering them on to win the whole thing.
Behind any good team is a good coach on the court who leads the team in the right direction towards basketball success. Both these teams had to find the right coach to lead its certain group of players, then build around that core, build around the players in place. The Bucks hired Mike Budenholzer, who started coaching the team in 2018. The Suns hired Monty Williams, who started coaching the team in 2019.
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Since then, they’ve helped lead their teams to right now, both making the NBA Finals.
And as we look back at the coaches who’ve paved the way for these coaches and more, who’ve set the bar, set the tone, and had success in the NBA leading and coaching, we will be looking at some of the best coaches in the game throughout history.
Any good team starts with good leadership. And it’s worth noting that it doesn’t always equate to wins and championships. You need the right formula, the right meshing in place of players, coaches, front office, and the chemistry of it all to truly have success win it comes the win column or Larry O’Brien trophy case.
In this case, though, instead of having a list where it could be subjective, decided to stick to just the numbers. So, for this list, the criteria are as follows:
- The top coaches have the most NBA Finals titles. This, obviously, is by far the hardest feat in sports, to get to the championship and win it. So, the coaches with more than one (multiple) NBA titles are first on the list. (Thanks to Hispanos NBA for compiling a list of the coaches with the most titles, which was a good reference for this).
- Then, after the multiple-winning NBA Finals coaches, it goes directly into the most regular season wins all-time, in order. (Thanks to Statmuse for compiling a list of coaches with the most wins, which was a good reference for this).
- This is to, in this case, keep it straight to the stats and number of wins and Finals as we go through:
The 25 Winningest and Best NBA Coaches Of All Time
25 – Rick Carlisle
Rick Carlisle’s got a NBA Finals title to his name with the Dallas Mavericks. You may know him from coaching Luka Doncic. Or you may know him from his time with the Detroit Pistons, coaching the team up to the 2003-04 year. That was when Larry Brown was hired as coach and helped lead the Pistons to the championship. You could say Carlisle helped in building that foundation of the ’04 Pistons title team, getting back-to-back 50-32 seasons before the ’03-’04 run.
24 – Jack Ramsay
Jack Ramsay had 864 regular season wins. That’s a lot of wins. In a 21-year NBA coaching career, he coached the Philadelphia 76’ers, the Buffalo Braves, the Portland Trail Blazers (who he led to a title in his first year with the team), and the Indiana Pacers.
23 – Dick Motta
The 1970-71 NBA Coach of the Year, he led the Washington Bullets to a title in 1978. Motta racked up 935 total regular season wins with the Chicago Bulls, the Bullets, the Mavs, the Sacramento Kings, and the Denver Nuggets.
22 – Bill Fitch
The 1975-76 and 1979-80 NBA Coach of the Year, he also led the Boston Celtics to a championship in 1981. With 944 regular season wins to his name, he also coached the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Houston Rockets, the New Jersey Nets, and the Los Angeles Clippers.
21 – Doc Rivers
What’s up, Doc! Still going strong, Doc Rivers keeps leading his teams to deep playoff runs. The 1999-00 NBA Coach of the Year in just his first year as an NBA coach, he got off to a good start. Rivers coached the Boston Celtics to an NBA Finals title in 2008 and has 992 regular season wins with an opportunity to get to 1,000 next season.
20 – Rick Adelman
In his 23 NBA coaching seasons, Rick Adelman had 1,042 regular season wins. Adelman coached the Trail Blazers, where he led them to two Finals appearances, then coached the Golden State Warriors, the Kings, the Houston Rockets, and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Adelman was recently inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall Of Fame (HOF) as a member of the 2021 class per the Basketball HOF.
19 – Larry Brown
Larry Brown coached those 2004 Pistons to a title showing defense and true teamwork can actually win championships. The team was built on tough, strong defense, while playing team ball. They pulled off won of the greatest upsets of all time, beating the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals, who were the heavy favorites. Brown was able to coach the team with the starting lineup of Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Richard ‘Rip’ Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and Chauncey Billups to that title in the blue collar-type ‘Goin’ to Work’ Pistons era. Brown had 1,327 total regular season wins as a head coach.
18 – George Karl
George Karl coached 27 seasons in the NBA. During that span, he coached six teams and had 1,175 total wins. Karl won coach of the year towards the latter part of his coaching career with the Denver Nuggets (2012-13).
17 – Jerry Sloan
Jerry Sloan had 1,221 total regular season wins. Most of those wins? With the Utah Jazz. If you recognize Sloan’s name, you may associate him with Utah and for good reason. Sloan coached the team 23 years and led them to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances. Sloan had seven NBA Coach of the Month awards and three Western Conference Coach of the Month nods.
16 – Lenny Wilkens
Another coach who won a lot was Lenny Wilkens who was the 1993-94 NBA Coach of the Year and led the Seattle Super Sonics to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances, winning the title in 1979. Wilkens had 1,332 total regular season wins coaching six teams in a 32-year span. Wilkens is second all-time in NBA coaching regular season wins per Statmuse.
The Naismith National Basketball Hall of Fame states that “Wilkens holds the rare distinction of having coached all the teams that he performed with in his 15 seasons as an NBA player – the Seattle Supersonics, Portland Trailblazers, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Atlanta Hawks. Starting his career as a player-coach, Wilkens utilized his knowledge and experience to methodically establish himself as one of the NBA’s premier coaches”.
15 – Don Nelson
Starting out the top 15 is the coach who has the record still for most regular season wins by any NBA coach (per Statmuse). A three-time NBA Coach of the Year, Nelson had 1,335 total regular season wins spanning 31 NBA seasons.
14 – Tom Heinsohn
Okay, ladies and gentlemen, now we’re getting into the list where we’re featuring the NBA coaches who’ve won multiple NBA Finals. Starting with Tom Heinsohn.
The 1972-73 NBA Coach of the Year, Heinsohn won two NBA championships as a head coach of the Boston Celtics (in ’74 and ’76).
NBA.com describes his coaching tenure: “During Heinsohn’s eight full seasons as coach, Boston won five Eastern Division titles in a row, took two NBA championships and compiled a 416-240 record…With no experience as a coach, Heinsohn was supposed to create a team that could carry on the winning ways Boston fans had grown to expect without the services of the greatest defensive center the game had ever seen, and with one of the greatest coaches of all time scrutinizing his every move.”
It’s safe to say he succeeded at the challenge that was presented to him when he was given the keys to lead the team as a head coach.
13 – Rudy Tomjanovich
Rudy Tomjanovich was a “Class of 2020 (Naismith National Basketball Hall of Fame) inductee” per the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen.
According to the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, “Rudy Tomjanovich was born in Hamtramck, Michigan and attended the University of Michigan where he was one of the Wolverines’ top players.”
In the NBA, he coached the Houston Rockets for 12 years and in those dozen years, coached the team to back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995.Per NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner: “Tomjanovich is one of only three coaches to win an NBA title and an Olympic gold medal, finally joining Chuck Daly and Lenny Wilkens in the Hall.”
12 – Red Holzman
The 1969-70 season was a good year for William ‘Red’ Holzman, when he won NBA Coach of the Year and a NBA championship with the New York Knicks. Holzman was able to coach the 1971-’72 and 1972-’73 Knicks to back-to-back title appearances, winning the Finals in 1973.
The Hall of Fame described Holzman as a “street-wise basketball gym rat…Holzman was the coaching genius behind the magic the New York Knicks brought to the NBA during the 1970s…(he was) (o)ne of the select few to win championships as both a player and coach”.
11 – Alex Hannum
The 1963-64 NBA Coach of the Year, Alex Hannum also won two NBA titles (along with an American Basketball Association title and American Basketball Association Coach of the Year award). Hannum coached the 1957-58 St. Louis Hawks and the 1966-67 76’ers to NBA title wins.
The Hall of Fame stated that “Alex Hannum had the uncanny ability to transform floundering teams into contenders. Hannum was the first coach in history to win both an NBA and ABA championship…In 1967, he led the Philadelphia 76ers, considered one of the greatest teams in NBA history, to the NBA title.”
10 – K.C. Jones
Five NBA Finals appearances and two titles, whenever K.C. Jones would lead an NBA team, it usually resulted in wins and deep playoff runs all the way to the title. In just ten seasons where he was a head coach, Jones led three different teams (the Capital Bullets, the Washington Bullets, the Celtics) to overall winning records and a fourth team (the Sonics) to an overall .500 record.
The Hall of Fame stated: “Dressed in green and white, Jones played admirably on eight consecutive NBA championship teams, making a huge impact as a scrapping, hustling player. Jones coached Boston to the 1984 and 1986 NBA championships, and earned 12 NBA championship rings in his distinguished career.”
9 – Chuck Daly
Three NBA Finals appearances in a row, winning two of them back-to-back (’89, ’90), Chuck Daly led the Detroit Pistons to success.
It was the ‘Bad Boys’ era with Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, Dennis Rodman, Vinnie ‘The Microwave’ Johnson, John Salley, and the crew, bolstering one of the best lineups in all of basketball. They played with a different rough-and-tough, grind-it-out, defensive game that took the NBA by storm. The team was able to win two titles with their team basketball and style of play with Chuck Daly at the helm.
The Hall of Fame describes Daly as:
“…coach of the legendary Olympic Dream Team in 1992, but long before Barcelona and the gold medal, the respected NBA coach established his legacy as one of the game’s premier mentors. A player’s coach, Daly’s success at all levels was built around his ability to take diverse personalities and create a harmonious, winning team. In 1983, the stylish Daly became coach of the Detroit Pistons, a club that had never before recorded back-to-back winning seasons. Daly changed that when he led the Pistons to nine straight winning seasons and nine straight playoff appearances…He is the also the first coach to win both an NBA championship and an Olympic gold medal. In 1996, he was voted as one of the Top Ten Coaches in NBA history.”Naismith National Basketball Hall of Fame: ‘Charles J. ‘Chuck’ Daly’
8 – Erik Spoelstra
Coach ‘Spo’ is still going strong with the Miami Heat. You may know him from being the head coach of the ‘Big 3’ of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh when he led the team to four straight NBA Finals appearances with back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013. That team needed a coach to be able to figure out how to best utilize three of the best in the game’s skills together so it could become a cohseive team unit. Spo figured out a way to do so.
And to show even more of his coaching accumen, without a ‘big 3’, he led the Heat last year to the NBA Finals to face LeBron and the Lakers in the Disney World’s NBA ‘bubble’.
The Heat describe Spo’s stats: “In 11 seasons at the helm, Spoelstra has already established his place in the HEAT record book as the winningest coach in franchise history. He holds the franchise postseason records for victories (71), winning percentage (.602), series won (15) and games coached (118)…(and is already) ninth place on the NBA’s all-time postseason winning percentage list (minimum 50 games coached) and second among active head coaches”.
Spo is also half-Filipino, as his “mother is from San Pablo, Philippines” according to Bleacher Report’s Leo Reyes.
7 – Bill Russell
You know the name because every NBA Finals MVP receives the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP trophy (per NBA.com). And you know him because Russell was one of the best players to ever play the game. Some even consider him the best to ever play. That’s a debate for another day. For now, game recognizes game for Russell as a player and as a coach.
Leading the Boston Celtics to back-to-back NBA Finals titles in ’68 and ’69, Russell just knew how to win. Both as a player and coach. And both. Literally. Russell was a player-coach for both of those title runs (per USA Today Sports Celtics Wire’s Thomas Neumann). And, per Neumann, was “voted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach (already being) inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player in 1975.”
“(Russell) became the first Black head coach in NBA history when he took over for Red Auerbach on the Celtics bench in 1966”.USA Today Sports Celtics Wire’s Thomas Neumann: ‘Bill Russell voted into Basketball Hall of Fame as coach’
Per the Hall of Fame: “During Russell’s career, Boston won eleven NBA championships, including eight consecutive titles from 1959 to 1966.
6 – Steve Kerr
Now moving on this list to coaches who’ve had two titles to more than that, Steve Kerr is one of just six NBA coaches who’ve had three or more NBA title wins as a head coach (per Hispanos NBA).
Along with Coach Spoelstra, Kerr is one of the coaches on this list still coaching and coaching successfully. Inheriting a team that Mark Jackson worked hard to instill a winning culture into with Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson, Kerr won an NBA title with the Golden State Warriors in his first year as an NBA head coach in 2015. Then, he led Dub Nation to four more straight Finals appearances after that with two more championships. Chalk that up as three titles.
The 2015-16 NBA Coach of the Year also has five NBA titles as a player with the Chicago Bulls.
5 – John Kundla
From three to five. Three coaches have won five NBA titles and are tied for third-most all-time (per Hispanos NBA).
One of those coaches was John Kundla.
In July 2017, The AP’s Jon Krawczynski via NBA.com stated: “Before Phil Jackson and Pat Riley, before Gregg Popovich and Larry Brown, even before Red Auerbach, there was John Kundla. Kundla, the Hall of Fame coach who led the Minneapolis Lakers to five NBA championships, died (Son Tom Kundla said his father died at an assisted living facility in Northeast Minneapolis that he called home for years). He was 101.”
What a blessing to have a long life and have that type of success early on. And even with that, it wasn’t just about basketball for Kundla.
Krawczynski also reported, “He also was a trailblazer during those racially tense seasons, often turning down hotels that refused to house black players when the team was on the road. When he later coached at the University of Minnesota, Kundla was on the bench when the first black players arrived at the school.”
“At the tender age of 31, John Kundla was named coach of the newly formed Minneapolis Lakers. Despite his youth, he displayed sound judgement and was keenly aware of the game’s ebb and flow. Even though he was only a few years older than some of his players, the humble and quiet Kundla always kept an even demeanor on the court and his style easily adapted to the changing breed of professional athletes. During his time in Minneapolis, Kundla coached six Hall of Famers – Elgin Baylor, Clyde Lovellette, Slater Martin, George Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen, and Jim Pollard.”Naismith National Basketball Hall of Fame: ‘John A. Kundla’
4 – Pat Riley
A three-time NBA Coach of the Year, Pat Riley also won five NBA titles. Four with the Lakers and one with the Heat. Riley led the Lakers to four straight Finals appearances from ’82-’85 then three straight Finals appearances from ’87-’89. Riley led the New York Knicks to a Finals appearance, as well.
Per the Hall of Fame: “…skillful at adapting system to personnel, but his true strength was his innate ability to connect with players from any generation. The Riley mantra of hard work, discipline, and unselfish play resonated well with young players and veterans alike, resulting in five NBA championships as a head coach and seven overall.”
3 – Gregg Popovich
Twenty-five NBA seasons as a head coach. All with the San Antonio Spurs. It’s a sustained, consistent success and winning culture that Coach ‘Pop’ has brought to this franchise. Pop has led Spurs teams to six NBA Finals appearances, winning five of them. With five NBA titles and 1,310 total regular season wins, you already know Popovich is one of the best coaches this game has ever seen.
The three-time NBA Coach of the Year, Popovich will be coaching Team USA’s Olympic basketball team this year at Tokyo (per USA Basketball).
2 – Red Auerbach
And then there were two. With all the success every coach has had on this list, these two guys also had a lot of success. And they stand out amongst the crowd with title after title after title. If you’re an NBA fan, you’ve heard of these coaches. Let’s start with Red Auerbach.
Auerbach led that historic, talented Boston Celtics team to a whopping eight NBA Finals wins in a row. That’s right, eight! From 1959 to 1966, the Celtics dominated.
And just two seasons previous to that ’58-’59 season, he led the Celtics to a title in ’57. That’s nine titles in 10 years. Every season besides one in those ten years, the Celtics won a title. That’s a 90% NBA title winning era of a decade with this franchise. And 100% if you’re just counting those eight years of the Finals where they literally won every year during that span.
“Red Auerbach was the architect and mastermind behind one of the most dominant franchises in professional sports history, the Boston Celtics. The cigar-chomping Auerbach expertly steered the Celtics to eight straight NBA championships, a streak unmatched in NBA history. Aggressive, demanding, and often volatile on the bench, Auerbach was the first coach in NBA history to win 1,000 games, his coaching brilliance showcased in a winning streak of eleven straight All Star contests. Under Auerbach’s watchful eye, the Celtics took ten Eastern Division titles in 16 years.”Naismith National Basketball Hall of Fame: ‘Arnold J. ‘Red’ Auerbach’
1 – Phil Jackson
And coming in as the NBA coach with the most NBA Finals wins is Phil Jackson with 11 and he’s the only coach in history to have double-digit title wins (per Hispanos NBA).
The eleven championships happened in Jackson’s 20 seasons of NBA head coaching. That means he won NBA titles more than half of the time he coached in his career. So, if you were playing on a Phil Jackson-coached team (like Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Michale Jordan, and Scottie Pippen did), you had an incredible shot at making and winning that Larry O’Brien trophy.
From ’91 to ’93, Jackson led the Bulls to a three-peat. From 1996 to 2002, Jackson led teams to Finals wins six years in a row. Three with the Bulls, three with the Lakers. Then, in 2004, he ran into those Goin’ To Work Pistons who upset the Lakers in a remarkable series to give Detroit another title.
Jackson wasn’t done with nine Finals, though, as he’d coach the Lakers to three consecutive Finals appearances from 2008-2010, winning back-to-back titles.
You may recognize Jackson from that ‘Last Dance’ series a lot of people watched, showing behind-the-scenes footage of a documentary about Michael Jordan and that Bulls winning franchise.
“Jackson holds the NBA record for NBA championships as a coach and is the fastest coach in NBA history to reach 900 wins.”Naismith National Basketball Hall of Fame: ‘Phil Jackson’
There you have it, folks! We’ll see if Williams or Budenholzer can add an NBA title to their impressive NBA coaching careers and eventually make a list like this.
Hope you enjoyed this list. Let me know who you think the best coaches are, either on this list or not on this list. It could be your team’s current coach or another coach in history you respect.
In the meantime, have yourself a wise, well-coached (via a mentor, parent, guardian, pastor, family member, friend), incredible day!
- 1 The 25 Winningest and Best NBA Coaches Of All Time
- 2 25 – Rick Carlisle
- 3 24 – Jack Ramsay
- 4 23 – Dick Motta
- 5 22 – Bill Fitch
- 6 21 – Doc Rivers
- 7 20 – Rick Adelman
- 8 19 – Larry Brown
- 9 18 – George Karl
- 10 17 – Jerry Sloan
- 11 16 – Lenny Wilkens
- 12 15 – Don Nelson
- 13 14 – Tom Heinsohn
- 14 13 – Rudy Tomjanovich
- 15 12 – Red Holzman
- 16 11 – Alex Hannum
- 17 10 – K.C. Jones
- 18 9 – Chuck Daly
- 19 8 – Erik Spoelstra
- 20 7 – Bill Russell
- 21 6 – Steve Kerr
- 22 5 – John Kundla
- 23 4 – Pat Riley
- 24 3 – Gregg Popovich
- 25 2 – Red Auerbach
- 26 1 – Phil Jackson
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