Does coaching matter in the NBA?

There is a widely held belief among many fans and followers of the NBA that coaching is, if not irrelevant, nearly meaningless.

But is that really the case?

Consider this factoid: Of the 30 currently employed head coaches in the NBA, only four of them have held up the Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of the NBA Finals. They are Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs (1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007), Doc Rivers of the Boston Celtics (2008), Rick Carlisle of the Dallas Mavericks (2011) and Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat (2012).

So that leaves 26 current coaches who have never won a title. So let’s look at this current crop of coaches based on their relative success (Records current through Friday, March 1):

Coach Current record     Pct. Career record Pct. Deepest Playoff Run
Rick Adelman, Minnesota

46-75

.380

991-691

.589

NBA Finals (1990, 1992 with Portland)
Jim Boylan, Milwaukee

12-12

.500

36-44

.450

None
Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City

216-141

.605

216-141

.605

NBA Finals (2012 with Oklahoma City)
P.J. Carlesimo, Brooklyn

20-11

.645

224-307

.422

First round (1995-97 with Portland)
Rick Carlisle, Dallas

174-114

.604

505-357

.586

NBA Champions (2011 with Dallas)
Dwane Casey, Toronto

46-79

.368

99-148

.401

None
Doug Collins, Philadelphia

98-106

.480

430-393

.522

Eastern Finals (1989 with Chicago)
Tyrone Corbin, Utah

76-77

.497

76-77

.497

First round (2012 with Utah)
Mike D’Antoni, Los Angeles Lakers

24-25

.490

412-364

.531

Western Finals (2005-06 with Phoenix)
Vinny Del Negro, L.A. Clippers

115-94

.550

197-176

.528

Western Semis (2012 with Clippers)
Larry Drew, Atlanta

117-88

.571

117-88

.571

Eastern Semis (2011 with Atlanta)
Mike Dunlap, Charlotte

13-45

.224

13-45

.224

None
Lawrence Frank, Detroit

48-79

.378

273-320

.460

Eastern Semis (2004, 06-07 with New Jersey)
Lionel Hollins, Memphis

178-148

.546

196-194

.503

Western Semis (2011 with Memphis)
Lindsey Hunter, Phoenix

8-11

.421

8-11

.421

None
Mark Jackson, Golden State

56-69

.448

56-69

.448

None
George Karl, Denver

404-254

.614

1112-753

.596

NBA Finals (1996 with Seattle)
Kevin McHale, Houston

66-60

.524

105-115

.477

None
Gregg Popovich, San Antonio

893-413

.684

893-413

.684

NBA Champions (1999,2003,2005,2007 with San Antonio)
Doc Rivers, Boston

406-292

.582

577-460

.556

NBA Champions (2008 with Boston)
Byron Scott, Cleveland

60-147

.290

412-502

.451

NBA Finals (2002-03 with New Jersey)
Keith Smart, Sacramento

40-79

.336

85-156

.353

None
Erik Spoelstra, Miami

236-132

.641

236-132

.641

NBA Champions (2012 with Miami)
Terry Stotts, Portland

26-31

.456

141-199

.415

First round (2006 with Milwaukee)
Tom Thibodeau, Chicago

145-61

.704

145-61

.704

Eastern Finals (2011 with Chicago)
Jacque Vaughn, Orlando

16-43

.271

16-43

.271

None
Frank Vogel, Indiana

99-64

.607

99-64

.607

Eastern Semis (2012 with Indiana)
Monty Williams, New Orleans

88-120

.423

88-120

.423

First round (2011 with New Orleans)
Randy Wittman, Washington

36-70

.340

136-277

.329

None
Mike Woodson, New York

51-26

.662

259-312

.454

Eastern Semis (2009-10 with Atlanta)

So even if we expand the parameters, we find only four additional current coaches who have reached the NBA Finals and two of those—Rick Adelman of the Minnesota Timberwolves and George Karl of the Denver Nuggets—haven’t been back since the 1990s.

But let’s take the search back further to include coaches who are no longer active. The championship trophy has been handed out 36 times since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. Of those 36 titles, here is the breakdown of which coaches have won them:

Coach Titles Teams
Phil Jackson

11

Chicago 1991-93, 1996-98; L.A. Lakers 2000-02, 2009-10
Pat Riley

5

L.A. Lakers 1982, 1985, 1987-88; Miami 2006
Gregg Popovich

4

San Antonio 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007
K.C. Jones

2

Boston 1984, 1986
Chuck Daly

2

Detroit 1989-90
Rudy Tomjanovich

2

Houston 1994-95
Jack Ramsey

1

Portland 1977
Dick Motta

1

Washington 1978
Lenny Wilkens

1

Seattle 1979
Paul Westhead

1

L.A. Lakers 1980
Bill Fitch

1

Boston 1981
Billy Cunningham

1

Philadelphia 1983
Larry Brown

1

Detroit 2004
Doc Rivers

1

Boston 2008
Rick Carlisle

1

Dallas 2011
Erik Spoelstra

1

Miami 2012

Two things jump out from this list:

1. Those 36 titles that have been won in the post-merger era are spread among just 16 coaches.

2. No coach who won a title between 1984 and 2003 won just one; they all went on to coach multiple championship winners.

Pat Riley

Pat Riley is one of only three coaches in NBA history–Phil Jackson and Alex Hannum are the others–to coach two different teams to championships. (Photo by Keith Allison/Flickr.com)

Of the coaches on this list, Jackson and Riley are two of just three coaches in NBA history to win championships with more than one team. The third, Alex Hannum, won with the 1958 St. Louis Hawks and again with the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers.

Hannum actually has a third professional title; he also coached the ABA champion Oakland Oaks in 1969.

Obviously, talent is part of the equation. One of the most-often recited criticisms of Jackson, in particular, and also of Riley is the old, “Anyone could have won with (insert superstars’ names here).

But here’s the thing, particularly in Jackson’s case—no one else did.

Doug Collins couldn’t win a title with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Del Harris didn’t win a championship with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Mike Brown couldn’t win with LeBron James and he also couldn’t get it done with Bryant and Pau Gasol.

Jackson sometimes doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to adapt. He is known as a system coach, in his case the triangle offense.

But Jackson was adaptable enough that he was able to win titles with the triangle while featuring a shooting guard (Jordan) and a small forward (Pippen) teamed with centers who were hardly household names in their own households. Jackson’s Chicago teams won with Bill Cartwright, Luc Longley and Bill Wennington getting significant minutes in the middle.

When he went to Los Angeles, however, Jackson was able to find the ultimate success with a shooting guard (Bryant) and the dominant center of his era (O’Neal). Then he won two more championships combining Bryant and a center in Gasol who wasn’t nearly the low-post presence that O’Neal was. Rather, Gasol is a center with terrific fundamental skills in ball-handling and passing who also possesses a very good mid-range game.

Mike D'Antoni

Mike D’Antoni has never been able to duplicate the success he enjoyed with the Phoenix Suns in subsequent coaching stops with the New York Knicks and, currently, the Los Angeles Lakers. D’Antoni has shown himself to be quite inflexible in adapting his system to changing personnel. (Photo by Matt Hickey/Flickr.com)

Contrast that with what the current coach of the Lakers, Mike D’Antoni, has done. He is under-utilizing Dwight Howard and completely miscasting Gasol by trying to turn him into a 3-point shooter.

D’Antoni is also a system coach, but not one who has shown the ability to adapt his system to the personnel he has. We saw this when D’Antoni coached the New York Knicks and we’re seeing it again with the Lakers. He has never been able to duplicate the level of success he had with the Phoenix Suns.

But there were hints of the problem there, as well. When the Suns acquired O’Neal from the Miami Heat in 2008, the Suns were knocked out in the first round in the 2008, in large part because D’Antoni was never successfully able to integrate the bigger, slower O’Neal into his seven-seconds-or-less offense.

This isn’t to say D’Antoni is a bad coach; he’s won too many games for that label. But he has shown a remarkable lack of flexibility when dealing with rosters that aren’t perfectly built for his offensive scheme.

George Karl

Denver Nuggets coach George Karl has more than 1,100 regular-season wins as an NBA coach, but his only trip to the NBA Finals came way back in 1996 with the Seattle SuperSonics. (Photo by Keith Allison/Flickr.com)

There have been other coaches through the years who have won lots of games, but ultimately were unable to push their teams over the top.

Karl is one of them. His Seattle SuperSonics’ teams in the mid-1990s were among the decade’s best, but something always seemed to go wrong—either in terms of timing (running into the 1995-96 Bulls in the NBA Finals) or underachieving (losing to the eighth-seeded Denver Nuggets in the 1994 playoffs).

Don Nelson is another who falls into this category. Twice in his career, Nelson had great teams, first with the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1980s and again with the Dallas Mavericks in the early 21st century. Nelson won 1,335 games in 31 seasons as an NBA coach. He was a three-time Coach of the Year winner. Yet he never was able to get his team past the conference finals—getting there with the Bucks in 1983 and 1984 and the Mavericks in 2003. In his playoff career, Nelson was 16 games under .500, just 75-91.

Again, Karl and Nelson are not bad coaches—far from it. But when it mattered the most, their teams have always come up short.

So when putting together a championship roster, just the talent on the floor is not enough. Without talent in the lead chair on the bench, even the greatest players and teams will come up short.

Tags: Coaching Don Nelson George Karl Mike D'Antoni NBA Pat Riley Phil Jackson

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