Top 5 coaches in NBA history

There are a lot of ways to judge success, having all those “GOAT” discussions and most times who you pick (and the reasoning behind it) points to your basketball preference. This list is different in a sense it is quite straightforward, we are looking at top 5 coaches according to a total number of wins.

5. Pat Riley, 1210 wins

  • 24 seasons as head coach
  • total – 1904 games; 1210/694, 63,6%, 5 x NBA champions
  • LA (’81/’82 – ’89/’90) – 533/194, 73.3%, 4 x NBA champions
  • NYC (’91/’92 – ’94/95) – 328/223, 68%
  • MIA (’95/’96 – ’07/’08) – 849/454, 53,5%, NBA champions
  • 3 x NBA coach of the year

Pat Riley is the only man in NBA history to have won a championship as a player (LA ’71), assistant coach (LA ’80), coach (LA ’82, ’85, ’87, ’88; Miami ’06) and as an executive (Miami ’06, ’12, ’13). He won Coach of the Year with all three teams he coached and has a winning record with all of them.

Truth be told, he always coached a team that had star power, starting with the Showtime Lakers in the 80s where he coached Magic and Kareem, Knicks in the 90s with Ewing and the Heat with Wade and Shaq.

As a coach, Riley excelled at managing big egos and developing a style of play that suited the players he head. He didn’t have a system he enforced wherever he went but tailored the system to the players he had.

In 2008 he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach, and in 2012 he received the Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award.

4. Gregg Popovich, 1211 wins

  • 23 seasons as head coach
  • total – 1765 games, 1210/555, 68.6%, 5 x NBA champions
  • SA (’96/’97 – still coaching), 1210/555, 68.6%, 5 x NBA champions
  • 3 x Coach of the Year

Gregg Popovich is the longest tenured active coach not just in basketball but in all major sports in the USA. Pop has been synonymous with San Antonio Spurs for the last 23 years. Widely considered to be the best coach ever, in his 23 years as a head coach, he only had one losing-record season, and that was in ’96/’97 when he coached 64 games.

From ’88 to ’92 Pop was an assistant coach for Larry Brown in San Antonio, but when the entire staff was fired by owner Red McCombs, he had a short stint with the Warriors as an assistant. In 1994 Peter Holt purchased the Spurs and hired Popovich as a GM.

After a slow start in ’96/’97, Pop fired coach Bob Hill and named himself head coach of the Spurs. With David Robinson out due to a broken foot, Pop performed a strategy that would be taken to the extreme many years by the 76ers, he tanked. Once again, many years ahead of his time. The Spurs ended with a 20 – 62 record which landed them the no.1 pick in the NBA draft. They drafted a 6’11 power forward from Wake Forest by the name of Tim Duncan, a player that will mark Pop’s career.

As Pop worked very closely with the front office and had a say in every decision made by GM R.C. Buford, he also gets credit for the Spurs being at the forefront of scouting and drafting international players, which leads us to Emanuel Ginóbili (57th pick, ’99) and William Anthony Parker (28th pick, ’01).

A common theme in this ranking, Pop never slaved to a singular concept of play but developed different systems to maximize his player’s strengths. The First title in 1999 put the big men duo of Robinson and Duncan at the forefront in the center of the system. As Robinson aged, the Spurs adapted and built the game around their Big 3 in Tim, Tony, and Manu.

If one word can describe Pop, it is “change.” While he does insist on specific values and culture being non-negotiable, the Spurs were the first to develop international scouting, emphasize the three or rest entire starting 5s for recovery purposes.

The pinnacle of Spurs basketball was the redemptive ’13/’14 season when the Spurs came back from a heartbreaking loss in the Finals against the Miami Heat and played the closest thing to basketball perfection ever to be played on an NBA court.

3. Jerry Sloan, 1221 wins

  • 26 seasons as head coach
  • total – 2024 games, 1221/803, 60.3%,
  • CHI (’79/’80 – ’81/’82), 94/121, 43.7%, 
  • UTA (’88/’89 – ’10/’11), 1227/682, 62.3%

If you looked at raw stats, Jerry Sloan would seem like the odd man out. Never won a title as a coach, never won a Coach of the Year award (????); this is where context matters. 

Coach Sloan is Mr.Utah, where he coached for 23 consecutive seasons. In all that time, the Jazz were below .500 only once!!! His greatest teams were the Stockton-Malone teams of the late 90s that went to the Finals and lost to Jordan and the Bulls in two consecutive years.

The best season to portray his skills was the 03/04 season. Stockton retired, Malone signed with the Lakers, and everyone predicted that the Jazz would be the worse team in the league. The Jazz finished 42-40 and missed out the playoffs, finishing 9th in the West. That marked the end of a fantastic streak; before that coach Sloan’s teams made the playoffs for 16 consecutive seasons.

Sloan was also an amazing player for the Chicago Bulls. His tenaciousness earned him “the Original Bull” nickname and his no. 4 jersey was the first one to be retired in the Bulls history.

2. Lenny Wilkens, 1332 wins

  • 32 seasons as head coach
  • total – 2487 games, 1332/1155, 53.6%,
  • SEA (’69/’70 – ’71/’72; ’77/’78 – ’84/’85), 478/402, 54.3%, NBA Champions
  • POR (’74/’75 – ’75/’76), 75/89, 45.7%, 
  • CLE (’86/’87 – ’92/’93), 316/258, 55.1%
  • ATL (’93/’94 – ’99/’00), 310/232, 57.2%
  • TOR (’00/’01 – ’02/’03), 113/133, 45.9%
  • NYC (’03/’04 – ’04/’05), 40/41, 49.3%
  • NBA coach of the year

One of the most interesting things about Coach Wilkens is that for the first stint in Seattle and his first season in Portland he was also player Wilkens. Yep, for those four years, Lenny Wilkens was a player-coach. 

He left the biggest mark in Seattle where he started his full time coaching career and leading them to an NBA championship in ’78/’79, a team with Jack Sikma, Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams. This was the only championship SuperSonics ever won. 

Wilkens was inducted into the Hall of Fame three times: as a player in 1989, as a coach in 1998 (he was still coaching at the time!), and as a member of the Dream Team in 2010.

1. Don Nelson, 1335 wins

  • 31 seasons as head coach
  • total – 2398 games, 1335/1063, 55.7%
  • MIL (’76/’77 – ’86/’87), 540/344, 61.1%
  • GSW (’88/’89 – ’94/’95; ’06/’07 – ’09/’10) 422/433, 48.8%
  • NYC (’95/’96) – 34/25, 57.6%
  • DAL (’97/’98 – ’04/’05), 339/251, 57.5%
  • 3x Coach of the Year

Don Nelson, known to most as Nellie was a five-time NBA champion as a player with the Boston Celtics. He then started coaching in Miluwakee where he pioneered several basketball principles we see in everyday basketball today. He was also known for a very aggressive style of trading and retooling his roster (most of his career he also had the GM role).

He was the first one to practice the concept of a point-forward (think LeBron). This was the first time a guard wasn’t the primary initiator of offense. He also started pulling his center to mid-court to draw out the defending big-man away from the rim and create attacking lanes (spacing). The system was named “Nellieball.” His results with the Bucks are even more excellent when taking into account he took over after a certain Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, you may know him better as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

After coaching the Bucks, he decided to accept the offer and coach the Warriors. There he continued innovation and playing with three guards, in this case, Richmond, Hardaway, and Marciulionis with Mullin and Higgins (6’8) at center. The trio of Richmond, Hardaway, and Mullin became known as the Run TMC for their run-and-gun style of offense. This team won the highest-scoring regulation game in NBA history, a season opener against the Nuggets in 91/92 season. The final score was 162 – 158 for the Warriors. In this stint with the Warriors he traded to draft Chris Webber who didn’t like Nelson playing him so much at center, and after the Warriors traded Webber, he left the team. 

In his short stint with the Knicks, Nelson had a winning record but suggested trading Patrick Ewing so the Knicks could make an offer for Shaquille O’Neal who was rumored to be interested in New York. He was replaced by his assistant Jeff Van Gundy.

In 1997 he took over the Mavs, again as both coach and GM. After his first year with the team, he traded away draft rights for Robert Traylor and Pat Garrity which led to the Mavs drafting Dirk Nowitzki and acquiring Steve Nash. He realized the team needs more interior strength to deal with Shaq, so he introduced the world to “Hack-a-Shaq.” After Mark Cuban decided not to match the offer the Phoenix Suns gave to Steve Nash, Nelson gave up on the team and would resign in March of 2005. 

In 2006 he returned to the Warriors and made a turnover with the team getting to the playoffs as the 8th seed. Their matchup was Nelson’s last team, the Mavericks. Here he coached the greatest upset in playoff history when the 42 – 40 Warriors eliminated the 67 – 15 Mavericks. This was the most significant underdog according to wins winning in Playoff history. His last significant move was to ignore the skeptics and agree to draft Wardell Stephen Curry II. with the 7th pick in the 2009 draft.

So, the man came up with: point-forwards, spacing, Hack-a-Shaq and always like the idea of an undersized, mobile big that can play on the perimeter. The man was creating and coaching 2018 teams since the late 70s.

He lives in Maui where he grows cannabis and hosts poker games which are attended by Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson, and Owen Wilson.

all stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference