Career Rankings of NBA Head Coaches

In “The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers,” Bill James devised a rather simple six-point system to assign a score to each season of a manager’s career. The system is not particularly sophisticated, but it produces what I think are reasonable results.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so — as I often do — I have decided to take one of James’ ideas and apply it to the NBA.

Within each season, I decided to award one point to the head coach for achieving each of the following:

  • Finishing with a winning record (i.e., more wins than losses)
  • Finishing with a winning percentage of .625 or higher
  • Finishing with a winning percentage of .750 or higher
  • Making the playoffs
  • Reaching the NBA Finals
  • Winning the NBA Finals

That’s a total of six points for each season.*

* You might be wondering “Aren’t the first three cutoffs rather arbitrary?” My answer is “Yes, but I think they’re reasonable.”

Based on this system, a “perfect” season would be winning the NBA Finals after posting a winning percentage of .750 or higher during the regular season. Fourteen different coaches have had at least one perfect season:

Name Count
Phil Jackson 6
Red Auerbach 3
Pat Riley 3
K.C. Jones 2
Larry Costello 1
Billy Cunningham 1
Chuck Daly 1
Bill Fitch 1
Alex Hannum 1
John Kundla 1
Gregg Popovich 1
Doc Rivers 1
Bill Sharman 1
Erik Spoelstra 1

As you can see, Jackson is the runaway leader, with as many perfect seasons as Auerbach and Riley combined.

Anyway, that’s the system. Let’s move on and take a look at some results. We’ll start with the career leaders by total score:

Name Yrs Score
Phil Jackson 20 75
Pat Riley 24 73
Red Auerbach 20 64
George Karl 25 59
Gregg Popovich 18 59
Jerry Sloan 26 59
Lenny Wilkens 32 52
Don Nelson 31 49
Rick Adelman 23 47
Larry Brown 26 47

This is a good start, but it does tend to over-reward coaches who have coached for a long time. For example, Karl and Sloan both end up with the same career score as Popovich, but:

  1. Popovich has coached 18 seasons compared to 25 and 26 for Karl and Sloan, respectively.
  2. Popovich has won five NBA championships as a head coach, while Karl and Sloan have zero.

One way to adjust for career length is to look at average score per season rather than total career score:

Name Yrs Score Avg
Phil Jackson 20 75 3.75
Billy Cunningham 8 28 3.50
Erik Spoelstra 6 21 3.50
Larry Bird 3 10 3.33
Gregg Popovich 18 59 3.28
Red Auerbach 20 64 3.20
K.C. Jones 10 31 3.10
Pat Riley 24 73 3.04
Ed Macauley 2 6 3.00
Tom Thibodeau 4 12 3.00

But this list has a problem as well, as coaches with fewer than five seasons end up making the cut. We might be able to solve that by requiring a minimum of 10 seasons as a head coach:

Name Yrs Score Avg
Phil Jackson 20 75 3.75
Gregg Popovich 18 59 3.28
Red Auerbach 20 64 3.20
K.C. Jones 10 31 3.10
Pat Riley 24 73 3.04
John Kundla 11 29 2.64
George Karl 25 59 2.36
Chuck Daly 14 33 2.36
Jerry Sloan 26 59 2.27
Rick Adelman 23 47 2.04

That’s better, but in my opinion Riley’s average score of 3.04 in 24 seasons is much more impressive than Jones’ average score of 3.10 in 10 seasons. We need a way to account for that.

My solution? Multiply the coach’s career total by his career average (the “Product” column in the table below):

Name Yrs Score Avg Product
Phil Jackson 20 75 3.75 281.3
Pat Riley 24 73 3.04 222.0
Red Auerbach 20 64 3.20 204.8
Gregg Popovich 18 59 3.28 193.4
George Karl 25 59 2.36 139.2
Jerry Sloan 26 59 2.27 133.9
Billy Cunningham 8 28 3.50 98.0
K.C. Jones 10 31 3.10 96.1
Rick Adelman 23 47 2.04 96.0
Larry Brown 26 47 1.81 85.0

This system is obviously far from perfect, but I think that looks about right. If numerous NBA experts were asked to create a Mount Rushmore of head coaches, I think a significant majority would choose Jackson, Riley, Auerbach, and Popovich. And as you can see in the list above, those four stand head-and-shoulders above the rest of the pack.

A few notes:

  • Three coaches on this list — Karl, Sloan, and Adelman — did not win an NBA championship. Karl coached one conference champion, while Sloan and Adelman piloted two conference champions each.
  • Cunningham is rarely mentioned when the subject of great NBA head coaches is brought up, but his eight-season run in Philadelphia was very impressive. His teams won 52 or more games in seven of his eight seasons, with a low of 47 wins in 1978-79. And in the postseason, the Sixers advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals six times, made three appearances in the NBA Finals, and won a championship in 1983.
  • Brown coached nine different NBA teams, the same number as the top four coaches combined.

Let me close by stating something that should be obvious, but probably needs to be said: There are many, many things which should be taken into consideration when evaluating a head coach, most of which are not included here:

  • Did the coach’s teams frequently exceed or fall short of expectations
  • How much did players improve under this coach?
  • Was this coach a good in-game decision maker?

However, even if not directly addressed, many of these things will be reflected in the coach’s cumulative record.

Most of all, though, this is meant to be fun. This system should merely be a conversation starter, not stopper.

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2 thoughts on “Career Rankings of NBA Head Coaches

  1. I like your methodology. Perhaps there can be a way to factor in innovations conceived or developed which impacted the game, and also, maybe, it would be good to factor in immediate impacts on teams in there first year at the helm. Coaches like Larry Brown, Doug Collins, Hubie Brown, Don Nelson and other have a reputation for quickly turning around teams after they’re hired

  2. Excellent article! I like Jimbo Welsh’s comment too.

    But what about each coach’s level-of-talent player-wise? How much do such as Jackson, Riley, Popovich & Aurebach benefit from having better-than-average talent?Heck, Red had a virtual “All-Star” Team (I’m not denying he was also head and shoulders above all his contemporaries as BOTH coach and GM; still he had to have head the highest percentage of the entire League’s top players of any coach ever; being a super-GM will tend to do that for you.)

    Conversely, how much does this penalize coaches with clearly less-than-average talent; or at least, less-than-top-quality talent?

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