Professional sports are all about winning. While players go up and down throughout their career, good coaches are much more consistent. It’s not just about having a good record for one season or a few years, it’s about putting up great runs time and time again.
There have been hundreds of coaches in NBA history, but only a few know the game well enough to string together thousands of wins. This guide goes over those examples and explains what makes them stand out from everyone else.
A Unique Mind
No matter how you cut it, coaching in the NBA is tough. The game is ever-evolving and fielding a winning team night after night gets trickier and trickier as the season goes on. There are plenty of coaches who have a good few years, but sustained success is hard to come by.
Even the greatest teams usually only win between 55 and 60 games in a season. That’s a lot, but all of the top coaches in NBA history have more than 1,000 W’s under their belt. Doing the math, it takes roughly 20 or so winning seasons to hit that peak.
Most coaches won’t stick around long enough for that to become a reality, and even the ones that do aren’t on the all-time list because they either bounced around too much or couldn’t find postseason success.
It takes a special formula to win over 1,000 games. That’s why only ten coaches have done it.
The First of Ten
Starting at the bottom of the top, there are three coaches right around 1,000 career wins: Rick Adelman (1,042), Larry Brown (1,098), and Doc Rivers (1,048). All of them are stout planners who did a good job at piloting several teams over their career.
The four did pretty well in the regular season, and they mixed in some postseason success too. While Adelman and Rivers both made it to the playoffs multiple times, Brown is the only of the three who ever won a championship.
Despite all of that, having the tenth, nine, and eighth most wins of all time is incredibly impressive. While Adelman and Rivers get a lot of flack for not being able to win the big one, there’s no doubt they knew how to extend the season into the playoffs.
Moving on Up
The next six coaches all firmly fall into three categories. There are those within 1,000 and 1,100 wins, those that are between 1,200 and 1,300, and those that have broken past that mark.
Both Phil Jackson (1,155 wins) and Goerge Karl (1,175 wins) are in the first group. That may be surprising on two levels. Not only is Jackson far down the all-time list for someone who took home 11 NBA championships, but he’s behind George Karl who has none.
That dichotomy shows, while sustained winning is how you get to the top of the list, there’s a level of almost unmatched consistency all greats must hit. Karl coached over 300 more games than Jackson, which is how he pushed ahead.
The next four winningest coaches are Pat Riley (1,210 wins), Jerry Sloan (1,221 wins), Lenny Wilkens (1,332 wins), and Don Nelson (1,335 wins). Another great bunch who all saw mixed levels of success in their career.
Wilkens has one ring, Riley has six, while both Nelson and Sloan have none. In addition, as is mostly the case, coaches who played more games tend to have more wins.
That’s not always true, but the more a coach wins, the more they get hired. So it makes sense that coaches who have the most success tend to be further up the list than those who end on a bad run or can’t keep winning late into their career.
A League Of His Own
The above coaches are great in their own right, but they all pale in comparison to Greg Popovich. With over 1,349 wins under his belt, nobody in the history of the league has seen his sustained success.
Not only is Popovich still active, meaning he’s only adding to his record, but he’s coached in fewer games than the other two 1,300+ winners. That’s because he has the longest 50+ win season streak of all time, and never once slowed down.
He’s a proven winner, and one that many consider to be the best coach of all time. It’s not just about the final number, it’s about how he did it in such a short amount of time.
There are several factors that go into winning NBA games, and all of the above coaches figured it out. They may not all have had the same postseason success, but there’s no doubt that they could do what so many couldn’t. They won, and almost never stopped.