Most Underrated NBA Coaches of All Time
Did you wait with bated breath for the NBA to announce its top 15 coaches in history? Good. That makes one of us.
The list was as predictable as the sunrise. It includes four former Celtics and four active guys (one an ex-Celtic) who the association can market for a while. Meanwhile, only one candidate (Red Auerbach) was around in the pre-expansion era, and he was — get ready for it — a Celtic!
Well, leave it to your snarky hoops maven to right the wrongs. Here are the coaches who are underappreciated if not criminally underrated, the top three of whom belong on the GOAT list.
30. Dave Joerger
Career: 6 seasons (2013-19)
Teams: Memphis Grizzlies (2013-16), Sacramento Kings (2016-19)
Regular season record: 245-247 (.498)
Postseason record: 9-13 (.409)
Bottom Line: Dave Joerger
In each of his six seasons, Joerger had a record that metrics say exceeded the expected win probability.
C'mon, Mr. GM, make this man an offer he can’t refuse!
29. Kevin McHale
Career: 7 seasons (2004-05, 2008-09, 2011-16)
Teams: Minnesota Timberwolves (2004-05, 2008-09), Houston Rockets (2011-16)
Regular season record: 232-185 (.556)
Postseason record: 13-16 (.448)
Bottom Line: Kevin McHale
OK, McHale wasn’t a certified genius like, say, Hubie Brown — hey, just ask him — but the guy checked a lot of boxes.
He had the kahunas to make tough decisions (see James Harden), got the most out of his reserves, and his teams rarely underperformed.
28. Mike Brown
Career: 9 seasons (2005-14, 2022-present)
Teams: Cleveland Cavaliers (2005-10, 2013-14), Los Angeles Lakers (2011-13), Sacramento Kings (2022-present)
Regular season record: 347-216 (.616)
Postseason record: 47-36 (.556)
Bottom Line: Mike Brown
We're not here to tell you that Brown reinvented roundball, just that he was the victim of bloated expectations.
He did well to get flawed Cavaliers and Lakers teams past the first round in six consecutive postseasons. Brown is in the middle of a career resurgence in 2023 after having led the Sacramento Kings into the NBA Playoffs for the first time in 16 years in his first season. For his efforts, Brown was the first person to be a unanimous pick as the NBA Coach of the Year.
27. Scott Brooks
Career: 13 seasons (2008-21)
Teams: Oklahoma City Thunder (2008-15), Washington Wizards (2016–21)
Regular season record: 521-414 (.557)
Postseason record: 49-48 (.505)
Bottom Line: Scott Brooks
That rap against Brooks was that he couldn’t get Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook over the top. We contend that Wonderdog did well to get such a combustible mix to the second round four consecutive times and the NBA Finals once.
He also took rather mediocre Wizards teams to the playoffs on three occasions.
26. Flip Saunders
Career: 17 seasons (1995–12, 2014-15)
Teams: Minnesota Timberwolves (1995-2005, 2014-15), Detroit Pistons (2005-08), Washington Wizards (2009-12)
Regular season record: 654-592 (.525)
Postseason record: 47-51 (.480)
Bottom Line: Flip Saunders
Saunders guided good Timberwolves teams to the playoffs in eight straight seasons. Then, he took very good Pistons teams to the conference finals three consecutive times.
If the definition of a successful coach is one who gets the most out of his talent, then this one passes muster.
25. Brett Brown
Career: 7 seasons (2013-20)
Teams: Philadelphia 76ers
Regular season record: 221-344 (.391)
Postseason record: 12-14 (.462)
Bottom Line: Brett Brown
After a long and painful tank job, err, rebuild, Brown delivered when he had a real team to coach.
Since his premature departure, the Sixers have done no better with Doc Rivers at the controls.
24. Mark Jackson
Career: 3 seasons (2011-14)
Teams: Golden State Warriors (2011-14)
Regular season record: 121-109 (.526)
Postseason record: 9-10 (.474)
Bottom Line: Mark Jackson
Jackson laid the foundation for the Warriors mini-dynasty before he was canceled because of his thorny personality and overzealous religious practices. That’s what we were told, anyway.
It’s open to debate whether the Dubs would have won it all with him.
23. Paul Westphal
Career: 10 seasons (1992-96, 1998-2001, 2009-12)
Teams: Phoenix Suns (1992-96), Seattle SuperSonics (1998-2001), Sacramento Kings (2009-12)
Regular season record: 318-279 (.533)
Postseason record: 27-22 (.551)
Bottom Line: Paul Westphal
The decision to fire Westphal after a 177-69 record, two Pacific Division titles and one NBA Finals appearance in three seasons was not a great moment in Suns history.
It took the franchise years to recover from it.
22. Doug Collins
Career: 11 seasons (1986-89, 1995-98, 2001-03, 2010-13)
Teams: Chicago Bulls (1986-89), Detroit Pistons (1995-98),
Washington Wizards (2001-03), Philadelphia 76ers (2010-13)
Regular season record: 442-407 (.521)
Postseason record: 22-33 (.411)
Bottom Line: Doug Collins
Michael Jordan and his supporting cast weren’t always champions. It was Collins who helped nurture the baby Bulls to the brink of greatness.
Then, Collins was branded as a Point A-to-Point B guy while successor Phil Jackson reaped almost all the credit.
21. Bill Fitch
Career: 25 seasons (1970-1992, 1994-98)
Teams: Cleveland Cavaliers (1970-79), Boston Celtics (1979-83), Houston Rockets (1983-88), New Jersey Nets (1989-92), Los Angeles Clippers (1994-98)
Regular season record: 944-1,106 (.460)
Postseason record: 55-54 (.505)
Bottom Line: Bill Fitch
Sports analyst Bill Simmons is a Boston native who has Fitch one spot behind Phil Jackson on his GOAT list.
We wouldn't go that far, but his work with the Cavaliers deserves some love despite his deceptively blah record.
20. Stan Van Gundy
Career: 13 seasons (1992-96, 1998-2001, 2009-12)
Teams: Miami Heat (2003-06), Orlando Magic (2007-12), Detroit Pistons (2014-18), New Orleans Pelicans (2020-21)
Regular season record: 554-425 (.566)
Postseason record: 48-43 (.527)
Bottom Line: Stan Van Gundy
Granted, the Van man was crustier than leftover pizza at a seniors food festival, not to mention brutally frank.
But the guy was the Home Depot of construction projects. He inherited losers in Miami (25-57), Orlando (40-42) and Detroit (29-53) and turned them into playoff teams within two seasons.
19. Brian Hill
Career: 9 seasons (1993–2000, 2005-07)
Teams: Orlando Magic (1993-97, 2005-07), Vancouver Grizzlies (1997-2000)
Regular season record: 298-315 (.486)
Postseason record: 18-22 (.450)
Bottom Line: Brian Hill
After Hill led one of the youngest teams in the league to the NBA Finals, he was rewarded with a short leash.
Take away his time with the expansion Grizzlies, and the guy won 58 percent of his games in the regular season.
18. Doug Moe
Career: 15 seasons (2005-14)
Teams: San Antonio Spurs (1976-80), Denver Nuggets (1980-90), Philadelphia 76ers (1992-93)
Regular season record: 628-529 (.543)
Postseason record: 33-50 (.398)
Bottom Line: Doug Moe
Moe freely admitted that the best coaches had the most talent around them — and many a peer despised the Brooklyn renegade because of it. His game plan was twofold — run those stiffs ragged and have fun in the process.
To those who say Moe couldn’t coach, we say that only 25 stuffed suits won more regular-season games in league history.
17. Mike D’Antoni
Career: 16 seasons (1998-99, 2003-14, 2016-20)
Teams: Denver Nuggets (1998-99), Phoenix Suns (2003-08), New York Knicks (2008-12), Los Angeles Lakers (2012-14), Houston Rockets (2016-20)
Regular season record: 521-414 (.557)
Postseason record: 49-48 (.505)
Bottom Line: Mike D’Antoni
While most coaches took the CYA approach, D’Antonio dared to think outside the box. His Seven Seconds or Less offense in Phoenix was all the rage for four seasons.
In Houston, he was the master of small-ball lineups. His creativeness didn’t translate as well in the postseason, as critics pointed out, but a lot of coaches would take six division titles and three conference finals appearances.
16. Joe Mullaney
ABA-NBA Career: 8 seasons (1969-77)
Teams: Los Angeles Lakers (1969-71), ABA Kentucky Colonels (1971-73), ABA Utah Stars (1973-74), ABA Memphis Sounds (1974-75), ABA Spirits of St. Louis (1975-76), Buffalo Braves (1976-77)
Regular season record: 322-244 (.569)
Postseason record: 39-39 (.500)
Bottom Line: Joe Mullaney
Mullaney had visions of a Corvette Stingray with Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West in the same lineup. He wound up with a Subaru 360 — the three played 14 games together.
Critics labeled the former Providence coach as a softie, but he was tough enough to led three teams in two leagues to the championship round in a span of five seasons.
15. Rick Adelman
Career: 23 seasons (1988-2014)
Teams: Portland Trail Blazers (1988-94), Golden State Warriors (1995-97), Sacramento Kings (1998-2006), Houston Rockets 2007-2011), Minnesota Timberwolves (2011-14)
Regular season record: 1,042-749 (.582)
Postseason record: 79-78(.503)
Bottom Line: Rick Adelman
Adelman advanced to the conference finals more times than Don Nelson, won more games than K.C. Jones and Doc Rivers, all o-ver-rat-ed Celtics who made the NBA GOAT list.
If the guy had some green in his background, how much do you wanna bet that he would be there, too?
14. Avery Johnson
Career: 8 seasons (2004-13)
Teams: Dallas Mavericks (2004-08), New Jersey-Brooklyn Nets (2010-13)
Regular season record: 254-186 (.577)
Postseason record: 23-24 (.489)
Bottom Line: Avery Johnson
In his three full seasons, Johnson boasted a 74 percent success rate in the regular season plus an NBA title. Then New Jersey.
Why hasn’t The Little General been given another chance with a real NBA team? Discuss.
13. Dick Motta
Career: 25 seasons (1968-87, 1989-92, 1994-97)
Teams: Chicago Bulls (1968-76), Washington Bullets (1976-80), Dallas Mavericks (1980-87, 1994-96), Sacramento Kings (1989-92), Denver Nuggets (1996-97)
Regular season record: 935-1,017 (.479)
Postseason record: 56-70 (.444)
Bottom Line: Dick Motta
It took Motta all of two seasons to accomplish what K.C. Jones and others could not do before him — lead the Bullets to their first (and most recent) NBA championship.
Under his watch, the Bulls became relevant for the first time in franchise history.
12. Joe Lapchick
Career: 7 seasons (1949-56)
Teams: New York Knicks
Regular season record: 268-197 (.576)
Postseason record: 26-25 (.510)
Bottom Line: Joe Lapchick
In nine seasons, the first two in the Basketball Association of America, Lapchick never lost more games than he won.
If not for George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers, his Knicks might have been three-peat champions and the first league dynasty.
11. Billy Cunningham
Career: 8 seasons (1977-85)
Teams: Philadelphia 76ers (1977-85)
Regular season record: 454-196 (.698)
Postseason record: 66-39 (.629)
Bottom Line: Billy Cunningham
Cunningham was Phil Jackson before Phil Jackson. He understood that a coach couldn’t win big without big talent.
So, he hitched his wagon to Julius Erving and Moses Moses and became one of three coaches to win at least 60 percent of his games in the regular season and playoffs. Shrewd guy, that Billy C.
10. Rudy Tomjanovich
Career: 13 seasons (1991-2005)
Teams: Houston Rockets (1991-2003), Los Angeles Lakers (2004-05)
Regular season record: 527-416 (.559)
Postseason record: 51-39 (.567)
Bottom Line: Rudy Tomjanovich
Some discount the back-to-back Rockets championships because Michael Jordan didn’t play a full season in either one. But we're not so sure that Jordan and his supporting cast would have beaten Clutch City given their advanced age and shaky emotional state at the time.
Rudy T. deserves more credit for seven consecutive playoff appearances, three trips to the Western Conference finals and, yes, those well-earned league titles.
9. Les Harrison
Career: 7 seasons (1948-55)
Teams: Rochester Royals (1948-55)
Regular season record: 295-181 (.620)
Postseason record: 19-19 (.500)
Bottom Line: Les Harrison
Harrison is the Branch Rickey of basketball even if almost nobody knows it. In 1946, as Royals owner in the National Basketball League, he signed Dolly King, who along with Pop Gates (Tri-City Hawks), were the first blacks in pro ball.
Five years later, with Lucky Les as coach, the champion Royals upset the mighty Minneapolis Lakers to interrupt what would have been a five-year championship run.
8. Al Cervi
Career: 10 seasons (1949-59)
Teams: Syracuse Nationals (1949-57), Philadelphia Warriors (1958-59)
Regular season record: 326-241 (.575)
Postseason record: 33-26 (.559)
Bottom Line: Al Cervi
Here’s another golden oldie who time has forgotten.
Few had more success as a player, player-coach and head coach than Cervi, whose combination of basketball smarts, hyper-competitiveness and well-timed humor put him on the shortlist of best in any era.
7. Al Attles
Career: 14 seasons (1969-83)
Teams: San Francisco-Golden State Warriors (1969-83)
Regular season record: 557-518 (.518)
Postseason record: 31-30 (.508)
Bottom Line: Al Attles
Attles had Nate Thurmond and Rick Barry and ... not much else in the way of star talent. Yet the Dubs were always competitive despite their tight-wad ownership.
He out-coached K.J. Jones from here to Fremont in the 1975 NBA Finals, still the greatest upset in postseason history even if the league has refused to acknowledge it. (Boy, has it missed a helluva story or what?)
6. George Karl
Career: 27 seasons (1984-2016)
Teams: Cleveland Cavaliers (1984-86), Golden State Warriors (1986-88),Seattle SuperSonics (1991-98), Milwaukee Bucks (1998-2003), Denver Nuggets (2004-13), Sacramento Kings (2014-16)
Regular season record: 1,175-824 (.588)
Postseason record: 80-105 (.432)
Bottom Line: George Karl
If not for Michael Jordan (see 1996 NBA Finals), Karl might have a league title on his resume. Still, his teams averaged three Ws every five games in the regular season for nearly three decades.
Because the guy wasn’t a suck-up, though, his work went under the radar for the most part.
5. Bob Leonard
Career: 10 seasons (1968-79)
Teams: Chicago Zephyrs/Baltimore Bullets (1962-64),Indiana Pacers (1968-78)
Regular season record: 573-534 (.518)
Postseason record: 69-47 (.595)
Bottom Line: Bob Leonard
Leonard would wear out his players one day, take ‘em out for beers the next. Either way, their response was almost always positive.
Because his three league titles (in a span of five seasons) came in the ABA, Slick is rarely mentioned among the elite coaches. That’s so wrong.
4. Larry Costello
Career: 10 seasons (1968-79)
Teams: Milwaukee Bucks (1968-78), Chicago Bulls (1978-79)
Regular season record: 430-300 (.589)
Postseason record: 37-23 (.617)
Bottom Line: Larry Costello
If the career of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) hadn’t gotten off on the right foot, who knows how it would have played out. Costello designed an offense that made for a seamless transition to the pro ranks.
Some players and media couldn’t relate to his old-school ways, and that might explain why Costy isn’t in the Hall of Fame today. But his win percentages speak for themselves.
3. Bill Sharman
ABA-NBA career: 10 seasons (1966-76)
Teams: San Francisco Warriors (1966-68), ABA Los Angeles/Utah Stars (1968-71), Los Angeles Lakers 1971-76)
Regular season record: 466-353 (.569)
Postseason record: 57-40 (.588)
Bottom Line: Bill Sharman
Sharman was an innovative control freak and all-around pain in the tookus. (He was the coach who invented the morning shoot-around.) What his players liked most about him, though, was their win-loss record.
He’s one of two coaches to win it all in NBA and ABA (the other is No. 1 on this list), not to mention with the legendary 1971-72 Lakers, they of the record 33 wins in a row.
2. John Kundla
Teams: Minneapolis Lakers (1949-59)
Regular season record: 379-286 (.570)
Postseason record: 52-33 (.612)
Division/league titles: 5/4
Bottom Line: John Kundla
While George Mikan was the brawn behind the first NBA dynasty, Kundla was the brains of the operation. Their Lakers captured four league titles in five seasons. Include one in the Basketball American of Association, which the NBA doesn't acknowledge, and it’s five in six.
Among non-active coaches, Kundla ranks behind only Phil Jackson in career postseason win percentage (minimum: 50 games). In a fair and honest world — yeah, right — how can this Hall of Famer not be on the shortlist of best coaches ever?
1. Alex Hannum
ABA-NBA career: (1956-1974)
Teams: St. Louis Hawks (1956-58), Syracuse Nationals (1960-63), San Francisco Warriors (1963-66), Philadelphia 76ers (1966-68), Oakland Oaks (1968-69), San Diego Rockets (1969-71), ABA Denver Rockets (1971-74)
Regular season record: 649-564 (.535)
Postseason record: 61-46 (.570)
Bottom Line: Alex Hannum
Hannam was the only head coach to beat Red Auerbach in a playoff series. He was the only coach to dethrone Bill Russell and the Celtics not once but twice. He coached what very well may be the best teams in NBA and ABA history — the 1966-67 76ers and 1968-69 Oaks.
Sarge isn’t just one of the 15 greatest coaches ever. He’s in the top five.