Greatest Head Coach of All Time for All 30 NBA Teams
Few sports careers have a shorter shelf life than that of an NBA player, but being the head coach of an NBA team is right up there.
For all 30 NBA franchises, you can track their rise and fall over the decades to not only their star players but also their head coaches. If you look at the great NBA dynasties, you'll find a common thread — one coach throughout.
With the rule that each team must have a different coach — no doubling up — here's a look at the greatest head coaches of all time for every NBA team.
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Atlanta Hawks: Mike Fratello
Born: Feb. 24, 1947 (North Haledon, New Jersey)
NBA head coaching career: Atlanta Hawks (1983-90), Cleveland Cavaliers (1993-99), Memphis Grizzlies (2004-06)
Career highlights: NBA Coach of the Year (1986), NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (1988), Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award (2022)
Bottom line: Mike Fratello caught a shooting star when he was hired as the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks in 1983 in that he showed up one year into the career of power forward Dominique Wilkins. With Fratello and Wilkins leading the way for the rest of the 1980s, the Hawks were one of the most exciting teams in the NBA — the only problem was, in that stretch, they never made it past the Eastern Conference semifinals, lost in the first round of the playoffs three times and missed the playoffs entirely twice.
Four head coaches in franchise history — Red Holzman, Red Auerbach, Lenny Wilkens and Mike Budenholzer — have won NBA championships as head coaches with a different franchise.
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Boston Celtics: Red Auerbach
Born: Sept. 20, 1917 (Brooklyn, New York)
Died: Oct. 28, 2006, 89 years old (Washington, D.C.)
NBA head coaching career: Tri-Cities Blackhawks (1949-50), Boston Celtics (1950-66)
Career highlights: Nine-time NBA champion (1957, 1959-66), NBA Coach of the Year (1965), 11-time NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (1957-67)
Bottom line: Red Auerbach won nine NBA championships as head coach of the Boston Celtics, including eight consecutive titles from 1959 to 1966.
And get this: Auerbach was just as good as an executive, winning another seven NBA titles as general manager/president of the Celtics. His 16 NBA championships are the most of any individual in NBA history.
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Brooklyn Nets: Byron Scott
Born: March 28, 1961 (Ogden, Utah)
NBA head coaching career: New Jersey Nets (2000-04), New Orleans Hornets (2004-09), Cleveland Cavaliers (2010-13), Los Angeles Lakers (2014-16)
Career highlights: NBA Coach of the Year (2008), two-time NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (2002, 2008)
Bottom line: Byron Scott's inclusion on this list speaks more to the abject failure of the Brooklyn Nets as a whole than to Scott's coaching skills. Scott led the Nets to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003, but his players found his personality so grating that he was fired the following year.
Time has proven Scott to be a pretty terrible coach — in 10 more full NBA seasons with three different teams, he missed the playoffs eight times and lost in the first round once. All the more reason why being a Nets fan must be miserable.
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Charlotte Hornets: Paul Silas
Born: July 12, 1943 (Prescott, Arkansas)
Died: Dec. 10, 2022, 79 years old (Denver, North Carolina)
NBA head coaching career: San Diego Clippers (1980-83), Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets (1999-2003), Cleveland Cavaliers (2003-05), Charlotte Bobcats (2010-12)
Career highlights: None
Bottom line: The Charlotte Hornets may officially have the mantle as the most miserable franchise in NBA history, but in 12 mostly miserable years as an NBA head coach for four different franchises, Paul Silas had the most success with the Hornets.
Silas' heyday was a stint from 1999 to 2003 with the franchise that saw him make the playoffs each of the four years, with the last year being when the team moved from Charlotte to New Orleans.
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Chicago Bulls: Phil Jackson
Born: Sept. 17, 1945 (Deer Lodge, Montana)
NBA head coaching career: Chicago Bulls (1989-98), Los Angeles Lakers (1999-2004, 2005-11)
Career highlights: 11-time NBA champion (1991-93, 1996-98, 2000-02, 2009, 2010), four-time NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (1992, 1996, 2000, 2009), NBA Coach of the Year (1996)
Bottom line: Phil Jackson won a staggering 11 NBA championships as head coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers and two more championships as a player for the New York Knicks in the early 1970s. Jackson's ethereal coaching style — he was nicknamed "The Zen Master" — seemed to bring together ever the most diverse sets of personalities.
Fun fact: Jackson also won a CBA championship as head coach of the Albany Patroons in 1984.
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Cleveland Cavaliers: Tyronn Lue
Born: May 3, 1977 (Mexico, Missouri)
NBA head coaching career: Cleveland Cavaliers (2016-18), Los Angeles Clippers (2020-present)
Career highlights: NBA champion (2016), NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (2016)
Bottom line: Tyronn Lue took over as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers for David Blatt midway through the 2015-16 NBA season and helped lead his team to the most stunning comeback in NBA Finals history, rallying from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the defending-champion Golden State Warriors.
Lue, who also won two NBA titles as a player for head coach Phil Jackson on the Los Angeles Lakers, has been the head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers since 2020.
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Dallas Mavericks: Rick Carlisle
Born: Oct. 27, 1959 (Ogdensburg, New York)
NBA head coaching career: Detroit Pistons (2001-03), Indiana Pacers (2003-07), Dallas Mavericks (2008-21), Indiana Pacers (2021-present)
Career highlights: NBA champion (2011), NBA Coach of the Year (2002), NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (2004)
Bottom line: Rick Carlisle's longevity as an NBA head coach shouldn't come as a surprise — he learned under greats like Red Auerbach, K.C. Jones, Bill Fitch and Chuck Daly. Carlisle seemed like he might be a footnote to history after the Detroit Pistons fired him after two seasons and then won the NBA championships the next season, but he grinded his way back to the top and won an NBA title with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011.
In the 12 years since winning the title, none of Carlisle's teams have made it past the first round of the playoffs.
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Denver Nuggets: Michael Malone
Born: Sept. 15, 1971 (Queens, New York)
NBA head coaching career: Denver Nuggets (2015-present)
Career highlights: NBA champion (2023), two-time NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (2019, 2023)
Bottom line: Michael Malone — don't call him Mike — backed up the Denver Nuggets' investment in him and his own tough talk by delivering the first NBA championship in franchise history in 2023.
Malone is the definition of a basketball lifer and spent 22 years as an assistant coach for high school, college and NBA teams before getting his first opportunity as a head coach on any level with the Denver Nuggets in 2015 at 44 years old.
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Detroit Pistons: Chuck Daly
Born: July 20, 1930 (Kane, Pennsylvania)
Died: May 9, 2009, 78 years old (Jupiter, Florida)
NBA head coaching career: Cleveland Cavaliers (1981-92), Detroit Pistons (1983-92), New Jersey Nets (1992-94), Orlando Magic (1997-99)
Career highlights: Two-time NBA champion (1989, 1990), NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (1990)
Bottom line: One of the most-loved head coaches in NBA history, the late Chuck Daly became most well known for his decade with the Detroit Pistons, where he led the franchise to back-to-back NBA championships in 1989 and 1990 and another NBA Finals appearance in 1988.
Following his time with the Pistons, Daly was most famously the head coach of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team that won a gold medal in Barcelona and had brief stints with the New Jersey Nets and Orlando Magic before retiring in 1999.
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Golden State Warriors: Steve Kerr
Born: Sept. 27, 1965 (Beirut, Lebanon)
NBA head coaching career: Golden State Warriors (2014-present)
Career highlights: Four-time NBA champion (2015, 2017, 2018, 2022), NBA Coach of the Year (2016), two-time NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (2015, 2017)
Bottom line: One of the great winners in NBA history, Steve Kerr is the only NBA player to win four consecutive NBA titles since 1969 — three with the Chicago Bulls and one with the San Antonio Spurs — winning five NBA championships in total as a player.
Kerr spent the first decade following his retirement as an NBA commentator and then as the general manager of the Phoenix Suns before being hired as head coach of the Golden State Warriors in 2014. With the Warriors, Kerr has crafted one of the greatest pro sports dynasties of all time, winning four NBA titles in the last decade.
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Houston Rockets: Rudy Tomjanovich
Born: Nov. 24, 1948 (Hamtramck, Michigan)
NBA head coaching career: Houston Rockets (1992-2003), Los Angeles Lakers (2004-05)
Career highlights: Two-time NBA champion (1994, 1995), NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (2003)
Bottom line: Rudy Tomjanovich had a coaching style that seemed to blend two eras perfectly — he worked himself and his coaching staff to the point of exhaustion but was well-known for his easygoing nature with his players.
Tomjanovich won back-to-back NBA championships with the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995 — the only two titles in franchise history — and won an Olympic gold medal coaching the United States in 2000.
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Indiana Pacers: Larry Bird
Born: July 17, 1932 (Terre Haute, Indiana)
NBA head coaching career: Indiana Pacers (1997-2000)
Career highlights: NBA Coach of the Year (1998), NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (1998)
Bottom line: The only head coach on this list who can also say he's one of the greatest players in NBA history, Larry Bird only coached the Indiana Pacers for three years, but in that time, they made the Eastern Conference Finals twice and the NBA Finals once.
When Bird took the job as Indiana's head coach, his commitment was only for three years, but he served as team president until 2012 and has served in an advisory capacity with the franchise since then.
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Los Angeles Clippers: Doc Rivers
Born: Oct. 13, 1961 (Chicago, Illinois)
NBA head coaching career: Orlando Magic (1999-2003), Boston Celtics (2004-13), Los Angeles Clippers (2013-20), Philadelphia 76ers (2020-23)
Career highlights: NBA champion (2008), NBA Coach of the Year (2000), three-time NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (2008, 2011, 2021)
Bottom line: Doc Rivers didn't have his best years as an NBA head coach with the Los Angeles Clippers, but the Clippers had their best years as an NBA franchise with Rivers as the head coach. The Clippers, largely thought of as the worst franchise in NBA history for the league's first 75 years, made the postseason six consecutive seasons after Rivers took over, including two trips to the Western Conference Semifinals.
Keep in mind that the franchise made the playoffs just nine times in the previous 33 seasons and never more than two times in a row.
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Los Angeles Lakers: Pat Riley
Born: March 20, 1945 (Rome, New York)
NBA head coaching career: Los Angeles Lakers (1981-90), New York Knicks (1991-95), Miami Heat (1995-03, 2005-08)
Career highlights: Five-time NBA champion (1982, 1985, 1987, 1988, 2006), three-time NBA Coach of the Year (1990, 1993, 1997), nine-time NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (1982, 1983, 1985-90, 1993)
Bottom line: Former Los Angeles Lakers reserve guard/forward Pat Riley was hired as a fill-in assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979 following a bicycle accident that sidelined head coach Jack McKinney and took over the team two years later. It kicked off a run that would include four titles in the next seven years as head coach.
Riley, who won another title as the Miami Heat head coach in 2006, has been to the NBA Finals as a player, head coach, assistant coach or team executive 19 times — approximately 25 percent of all the finals in NBA history.
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Memphis Grizzlies: Lionel Hollins
Born: Oct. 19, 1953 (Arkansas City, Kansas)
NBA head coaching career: Memphis Grizzlies (2009-13), Brooklyn Nets (2014-16)
Career highlights: None
Bottom line: If you want to sum up what the Memphis Grizzlies have been as an NBA franchise, you could do a lot worse than pointing to what happened with former head coach Lionel Hollins. He only coached the Grizzlies for four seasons but led the franchise to the playoffs in the final three, including the first playoff win, first playoff series win, and first and so far only Western Conference Finals appearance in 2013.
Following the 2012-13 season, the Grizzlies didn't renew Hollins' contract and let him go to the Brooklyn Nets. There you go.
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Miami Heat: Erik Spoelstra
Born: Nov. 1, 1970 (Evanston, Illinois)
NBA head coaching career: Miami Heat (2008-present)
Career highlights: Two-time NBA champion (2012, 2013), two-time NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (2013, 2022)
Bottom line: If his two NBA championships in 2012 and 2013 and four consecutive NBA Finals appearances from 2011 to 2014 hadn't cemented Erik Spoelstra's place among the greatest NBA head coaches of all time, two more NBA Finals appearances in the last four years appears to have sealed the deal.
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Milwaukee Bucks: Don Nelson
Born: May 15, 1940 (Muskegon, Michigan)
NBA head coaching career: Milwaukee Bucks (1977-87), Golden State Warriors (1988-95, 2006-10), New York Knicks (1995-96), Dallas Mavericks (1997-2005)
Career highlights: Three-time NBA Coach of the Year (1983, 1985, 1992), two-time NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (1992, 2002)
Bottom line: By far the hardest team to pick a head coach for was the Milwaukee Bucks. Two coaches have led the Bucks to NBA championships — Mike Budenholzer and Larry Costello — and neither was the choice.
The man for this spot is Don Nelson, who held the record for NBA coaching wins for 12 years until it was broken by Gregg Popovich in 2022. Nelson, who won five NBA titles as a player, spent the first 12 years of his coaching career with the Bucks and made the playoffs nine times, including two trips to the conference finals.
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Minnesota Timberwolves: Flip Saunders
Born: Feb. 23, 1955 (Cleveland, Ohio)
Died: Oct. 25, 2015, 60 years old (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
NBA head coaching career: Minnesota Timberwolves (1995-2005, 2014-15), Detroit Pistons (2005-08), Washington Wizards (2009-12)
Career highlights: Two-time NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (2004, 2006)
Bottom line: The best run in Minnesota Timberwolves franchise history came with the late Flip Saunders as head coach and Kevin Garnett as the star. That run included eight consecutive playoff appearances that ended with seven consecutive first-round exits, followed by a Western Conference Finals appearance in 2004.
The Timberwolves have only made the playoffs three times in the last 19 years, including a 13-year stretch with no postseason appearances from 2004 to 2017.
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New Orleans Pelicans: Monty Williams
Born: Oct. 8, 1971 (Fredericksburg, Virginia)
NBA head coaching career: New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans (2010-15), Phoenix Suns (2019-23), Detroit Pistons (2023-present)
Career highlights: NBA Coach of the Year (2022), NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (2022)
Bottom line: Monty Williams led the New Orleans Pelicans to two playoff appearances in five seasons — kind of a miracle, all things considered — but was fired after the second of those appearances.
In retrospect, it was kind of a knee-jerk reaction by the Pelicans' management because that 2015 playoff loss came at the hands of the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors. Williams led the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals as head coach in 2021 and was hired as head coach of the Detroit Pistons in 2023.
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New York Knicks: Red Holzman
Born: Aug. 10, 1920 (New York, New York)
Died: Nov. 13, 1998, 78 years old (New Hyde Park, New York)
NBA head coaching career: Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks (1953-57), New York Knicks (1967-77, 1978-82)
Career highlights: Two-time NBA champion (1970, 1973), NBA Coach of the Year (1970), two-time NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (1970)
Bottom line: Red Holzman toiled away for a decade as an assistant coach for the New York Knicks before being named head coach in 1967, leading the franchise to two NBA championships in 1970 and 1973.
But Holzman's legacy extends beyond his own career. After all, it was his influence on one of his players who decided to go into coaching and become perhaps the greatest head coach in the history of professional team sports — 11-time NBA champion head coach Phil Jackson.
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Oklahoma City Thunder/Seattle SuperSonics: Lenny Wilkens
Born: Oct. 28, 1937 (Brooklyn, New York)
NBA head coaching career: Seattle SuperSonics (1969-72, 1977-85), Portland Trail Blazers (1974-76), Cleveland Cavaliers (1986-93), Atlanta Hawks (1993-2000), Toronto Raptors (2000-03), New York Knicks (2004-05)
Career highlights: NBA champion (1979), NBA Coach of the Year (1994), four-time NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (1979, 1980, 1989, 1994)
Bottom line: Lenny Wilkens was just a few months shy of his 40th birthday when he led the Seattle SuperSonics to the only NBA championship in franchise history in 1977 with an upset of the heavily favored Washington Bullets in the NBA Finals.
Wilkens was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame three different times — as a player, as a coach and as an assistant coach on the 1992 Olympic Dream Team.
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Orlando Magic: Stan Van Gundy
Born: Aug. 26, 1959 (Indio, California)
NBA head coaching career: Miami Heat (2003-05), Orlando Magic (2007-12), Detroit Pistons (2014-18), New Orleans Pelicans (2020-21)
Career highlights: Two-time NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (2005, 2010)
Bottom line: Stan Van Gundy wasn't just good with the Orlando Magic in five seasons from 2007 to 2012 — he was great. He won almost 70 percent of his games with the Magic and led them to the NBA Finals in 2009.
But Van Gundy's time with the team was overshadowed by a bizarre incident with star center Dwight Howard. In one of the more uncomfortable interview moments ever caught on film, Van Gundy confirmed to reporters he'd been told by Magic executives that Howard had asked to have him fired, and moments later, Howard came up to Van Gundy and hugged him as if nothing had happened. Van Gundy was fired not long after.
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Philadelphia 76ers: Billy Cunningham
Born: June 3, 1943 (New York, New York)
NBA head coaching career: Philadelphia 76ers (1977-85)
Career highlights: NBA champion (1983), four-time NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (1978, 1980, 1981, 1983)
Bottom line: Billy Cunningham won an NBA championship as a player for the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967 and then returned to coach the team for eight seasons from 1977 to 1985, leading them to another NBA title in 1983.
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Phoenix Suns: Paul Westphal
Born: Nov. 30, 1950 (Torrance, California)
Died: Jan. 2, 2021, 70 years old (Scottsdale, Arizona)
NBA head coaching career: Phoenix Suns (1992-95), Seattle SuperSonics (1998-2000), Sacramento Kings (2009-12)
Career highlights: Two-time NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (1993, 1995)
Bottom line: Paul Westphal played the majority of his NBA career with the Phoenix Suns then returned to be the team's head coach in 1992.
While Westphal only coached for Phoenix for three seasons, he won almost 70 percent of his games and led the franchise to the NBA Finals for just the second time ever in 1993, when they lost to the Chicago Bulls.
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Portland Trail Blazers: Jack Ramsay
Born: Feb. 21, 1925 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Died: April 28, 2014, 89 years old (Naples, Florida)
NBA head coaching career: Philadelphia 76ers (1968-72), Buffalo Braves (1972-76), Portland Trail Blazers (1976-86), Indiana Pacers (1986-88)
Career highlights: NBA champion (1977), NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (1978)
Bottom line: One of the most-respected coaches in NBA history, Jack Ramsay led the Portland Trail Blazers to the only NBA championship in franchise history behind a young Bill Walton in 1977.
Ramsay coached 30 years in the NBA for four different teams, but he was best known for his time in Portland, where he never missed the postseason in 10 seasons.
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Sacramento Kings: Rick Adelman
Born: June 14, 1946 (Lynwood, California)
NBA head coaching career: Portland Trail Blazers (1989-94), Golden State Warriors (1995-97), Sacramento Kings (1999-2006), Houston Rockets (2007-11), Minnesota Timberwolves (2011-14)
Career highlights: Three-time NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (1991, 2001, 2003), Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award (2023)
Bottom line: Following a seven-year NBA playing career, Rick Adelman spent six years as the head coach at Chemeteka (Ore.) Community College before being hired as an assistant coach by the Portland Trail Blazers.
For the first 20 years of his NBA coaching career, Adelman made the playoffs 18 times, including two NBA Finals appearances, but perhaps his best coaching job was in his seven seasons with the Sacramento Kings. This is where he made the playoffs all seven years and somehow made the team a national brand for a brief period, including an epic, seven-game loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2002 Western Conference Finals.
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San Antonio Spurs: Gregg Popovich
Born: Jan. 28, 1949 (East Chicago, Indiana)
NBA head coaching career: San Antonio Spurs (1996-present)
Career highlights: Five-time NBA champion (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014), three-time NBA Coach of the Year (2003, 2012, 2014), four-time NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (2005, 2011, 2013, 2016)
Bottom line: Gregg Popovich has been the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs since 1996 and won five NBA championships in that time — making him one of the greatest head coaches, not just in NBA history but in the history of professional team sports.
Popovich's final act seems like it could be the most interesting of them all after the Spurs won the NBA Draft lottery in 2023 and selected 7-foot-4 French center Victor Wembanyama, who is widely considered to be the best NBA prospect since LeBron James.
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Toronto Raptors: Nick Nurse
Born: July 24, 1967 (Carroll, Iowa)
NBA head coaching career: Toronto Raptors (2018-23), Philadelphia 76ers (2023-present)
Career highlights: NBA champion (2019), NBA Coach of the Year (2020), NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (2020)
Bottom line: Nick Nurse's journey to NBA head-coaching stardom is one of the more unlikely stories in league history. Nurse spent 17 years as an assistant coach or head coach in lower-level leagues or small colleges in the U.S. and overseas before catching on as a head coach in the NBA G-League in 2006. He then spent six seasons in the G-League before putting in five seasons as an assistant coach and then being hired as head coach by the Toronto Raptors in 2018.
Nurse won one of the most unlikely NBA championships of all time in 2019 with the Raptors and made the playoffs each of his five seasons with the team before being hired by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2023.
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Utah Jazz: Jerry Sloan
Born: March 28, 1942 (McLeansboro, Illinois)
Died: May 22, 2020, 78 years old (Salt Lake City, Utah)
NBA head coaching career: Chicago Bulls (1979-82), Utah Jazz (1988-2011)
Career highlights: Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award (2017), two-time Western Conference champion (1997, 1998)
Bottom line: Jerry Sloan carved out a reputation as one of the toughest players in NBA history in the 1960s and 1970s before becoming a head coach, first in a brief stint with the Chicago Bulls and then 23 years as head coach of the Utah Jazz.
Sloan, who somehow never won NBA Coach of the Year, led the Jazz to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in 1997 and 1998.
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Washington Wizards: Dick Motta
Born: Sept. 3, 1931 (Midvale, Utah)
NBA head coaching career: Chicago Bulls (1968-76), Washington Bullets (1976-80), Dallas Mavericks (1980-87), Sacramento Kings (1990-91), Denver Nuggets (1996-97)
Career highlights: NBA champion (1978), NBA Coach of the Year (1971), NBA All-Star Game Head Coach (1979)
Bottom line: Dick Motta made his name in the coaching community at Weber State in the 1960s when he won three Big Sky championships in his last four seasons before being hired away by the Chicago Bulls.
That kicked off a career that spanned four decades and 1,952 games as an NBA head coach, with the pinnacle being an NBA championship with the Washington Bullets in 1978.
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