In the San Antonio Spurs’ win over the Indiana Pacers last week, Gregg Popovich earned his 1000th win as an NBA head coach and cemented his place on NBA’s head coaching Mount Rushmore. Popovich became just the ninth head coach in NBA history to surpass 1000 career wins. This milestone, coupled with last season’s championship make this a good time to examine coach Popovich’s true place among the all-time great NBA head coaches. Despite what has been one of the greatest coaching careers ever, Popovich is still looking up at the greatest coach in NBA history.
We already know that Popovich is probably the best coach in the NBA today. 1000 wins puts him in ninth place on the all-time list, but there are many ahead of him on that cannot boast the resume that Coach Popovich can since becoming the coach of the Spurs in 1996. The coaches in front of Popovich are Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens, Jerry Sloan, Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, George Karl, Larry Brown, and Rick Adelman, in that order. The list of names ahead of Popovich is a who’s who of hall of fame coaches, but even if Popovich doesn’t win another game in the NBA, the championship he wont last year places him among the elite of the elite.
Among the eight head coaches ahead of Popovich, only four have won NBA titles. Wilkens won one with Seattle win 1979 and Larry Brown won one with Detroit in 2004. Those two coaches are great, but their one championship is not enough to keep them on the level of Popovich. The other two on that list who have won titles are of course Pat Riley and Phil Jackson. Between Riley, Jackson, Popovich, and the late Red Auerbach, all of whom won at least five championships, we can start to have a conversation about whom is the greatest coach in NBA history. Honorable mention goes out to John Kundla who won five championships with the Minneapolis Lakers in the 1950’s, but it was a different game and different era, so I have to exclude him from the running.
The four men mentioned above make up what I would consider a consensus Mount Rushmore of NBA head coaches. Popovich and Riley each won five championships, while Auerbach won nine and Jackson eleven. I want to discuss Auerbach first. What he was able to accomplish in the 1960’s with Boston will never be equaled in today’s game. He was a pioneer and was able to win nine championships in ten seasons. However, the NBA was much different then, with Boston only having to be best in a league with as few as eight teams, at times, and not having to deal with free agency. Also having Bill Russell for all nine championships probably made the job a bit easier. Auerbach will have to settle for just being a part of Mount Rushmore, and not its greatest coach.
Deciding who has the better resume between Popovich and Riley for the second spot depends a lot on preference, and it is clear nit picking when choosing one over the other for any reason. They both have five rings and three NBA Coach of the Year Awards. Both coached all-time great players. As a Lakers fan it is difficult to put Popovich ahead of Riley, but with everything considered, Popovich deserves to be considered the second best coach of all-time. Riley had two of the top five NBA players ever, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for his five titles. He also had James Worthy. While Popovich has had Tim Duncan for his five, the supporting cast of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Robert Horry, David Robinson, et al. just isn’t the same as what the showtime Lakers boasted. What makes this close is the fact that Riley won back-to-back titles in ‘87-’88, while the Spurs have not been able to repeat as champions, which is a knock on Popovich. Despite that I have to give Popovich the nod over Riley.
That said, the discussion of the greatest coach in NBA history has to begin and end with Phil Jackson. He is untouchable in terms of championships and win percentage. The winningest coach in American sports history will likely never be caught in terms of ring total, and it is hard to envision someone having the dominant type of run Jackson had as an NBA head coach. Three separate “threepeats” will never be done again. Of course, detractors will bring up the fact that Jackson had Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant, but the teams he coached did not win anything until he arrived.
Gregg Popovich surpassed an impressive milestone, and is second among coaches with 1000 wins in winning percentage to only Jackson. His run of five championships separated by 15 years with one team is also is something that is unprecedented. However, unless Popovich can win at least anther three or four titles, Jackson will remain king of the NBA’s head coaching Mount Rushmore.
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