Who are the 15 Greatest Coaches in NBA History? Honorable Mentions

 

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Throughout the offseason, Pick and Popovich will rank the top 15 coaches in NBA history. Here are the honorable mentions

Rick Adelman:

Why he’s great: Consistently developed championship-caliber teams that simply peaked at the wrong time. His best Kings team ran into Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers, while his three best Blazer groups were defeated by Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.

His offenses were as diverse as the personnel required, building a system that ran largely through Clyde Drexler in Portland due to his incredible scoring, but switching to an egalitarian ball-movement scheme with the Kings thanks to the great passing of his big men. The one consistent piece was speed, Adelman caught on to the idea of pacing and spacing before just about anyone else and nearly rode it to a championship.

Why he misses the list: Aside from never winning a championship? Adelman’s lackluster tenures in Golden State and Minnesota just barely knock him out. His Warriors won only 66 games in two years despite having most of the same talent from Don Nelson’s 50-win 1994 squad, and his failure to develop young players (besides Kevin Love) in Minnesota doomed him to the lottery in all three of his seasons.

That’s his secret weakness. Adelman was a brilliant coach for veterans who never quite could teach younger players. Player development is arguably the most important part of coaching, and Adelman struggled too much there to make the list.

Larry Bird:

Why he’s great: The Pacers improved by 19 wins during Bird’s first season and declined by 15 in their first year without him. He saved Jalen Rose’s career and nearly ended Reggie Miller’s with a championship. His teams finished first in offensive efficiency twice and never lower than fourth. He also coaxed a top-5 defense out of the 1998 group. In his three seasons with Indiana, he was very nearly a perfect basketball coach.

Why he misses the list: He believes that a coach’s message gets stale, so after three seasons he retired rather than risk ruining what he’d built. No coach deserves to make this list on only three years of work, not even Bird.

Steve Kerr:

Why he’s great: He took over a young No. 6 seed and turned it into a potential dynasty. He brought his own ideas (benching Andre Iguodala for Harrison Barnes) without being too egotistical to ignore his assistants (bring Iguodala back in for Andrew Bogut in the 2015 Finals) or raw meritocracy (moving Draymond Green into the starting lineup). Like Bird, he’s done just about everything right as coach of the Warriors.

Why he misses the list: Also like Bird, his tenure was too short to be seriously considered. Should he continue on this trajectory, though, he’ll make it in a few years.

Lenny Wilkens:

Why he’s great: Besides the expansion Sonics in 1970, Wilkens joined six separate teams as head coach and all six saw their records improve after his hiring. In many cases, such as his second tenure in Seattle or his stint in Atlanta, their win total improved by double digits under Wilkins. Few coaches in NBA history can claim such a remarkable record in turning around teams, a testament to the approachability of Wilkens’ schemes and personality.

Why he misses the list: He never found a permanent home. Wilkens’ message often grew stale in five years or so, turning him into a poor man’s version of Larry Brown. He was also far from a brilliant tactician, his schemes growing tired particularly in his later years. Oh, and he has also lost more NBA games than any coach in history. So there’s that.

Bill Sharman:

Why he’s great: Understood Wilt Chamberlain on a level few others ever did, managing to use him to give Jerry West his first NBA championship. Kept his players motivated enough to win 33 games in a row, a feat that has not been matched since. He also invented the morning shootaround, a staple of NBA game preparation that is still used by every single team today.

Why he misses the list: A combination of longevity and X’s and O’s. Sharman was great at keeping his players up and motivated while also managing egos, but without Jerry West managing the team on the court Sharman couldn’t keep the Lakers above water. In his final season, he finished below .500 despite having Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on his team.

Erik Spoelstra:

Why he’s great: Kept perhaps the most scrutinized team in NBA history afloat while they found their identity. Once they did, he let them run with it, becoming arguably the best small-ball team of all time. Managed to build a championship-caliber offense around two high-usage wings who aren’t known for their three-point shooting. Only Phil Jackson can say the same. And his hair is magnificent.

Why he misses the list: He’s notoriously slow on adjustments, almost choking away two straight championships by stubbornly playing a traditional point guard and center with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh until an injury to Bosh forced his hand. It’s also fair to wonder how much credit any coach would deserve considering LeBron may have been the greatest player ever during his Heat tenure.

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