The National Basketball Association (NBA) is the premier basketball competition for many reasons. Chief among them is the world-class quality of its human resources – particularly its players and coaches. Though the importance of coaches in the NBA is often debated, statistics prove that the leadership they offer is just as critical for the success of an NBA franchise as its roster. Head Coaching jobs are naturally high-stress since they are in essence performance-based without much room for error. While the details of players’ contracts and salaries are widely known, very little is known about the nature of coaches’ deals. Indeed, much of it is speculation or estimations made by NBA insiders.
How much does an NBA coach get paid? A typical NBA coach makes an average of $3 million to $4 million per year. There are however a select few NBA coaches who make upwards of $6 million a year depending on their unique coaching skills and experience which sets them apart from the rest. The contracts of NBA coaches also tend to include a number of deliverables and their corresponding incentives & bonuses which may add to a coach’s salary depending on the success of a team.
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Why NBA Coaches are Important
Like in all other sports, coaches are important in the NBA since they are the vision bearers tasked with getting a franchise to the promised land and the milk and honey that lies in it – the NBA World Championship.
A quick look at the NBA’s 75-year history reveals that only a handful of coaches have managed to capture the league’s top prize. This reality often raises the question of whether all NBA coaches are the same or whether there only exists a small group of championship-caliber coaches and a larger majority who are only good managers but can’t be described as elite.
The Sports Guy Bill Simmons pondered over this question in his book “Great Coach Theory” where he echoed the sentiments above by submitting NBA statistics from the 1980s to the 2010s which showed that only a handful of elite coaches – Phil Jackson (11), Greg Popovich (5), and Pat Riley (5) – were responsible for around two-thirds of the championships that were won during the time.
While it’s hard to argue against the evidence, Simmons’ assessment risks doing a disservice to a few NBA coaches who may not have the accolades that come with winning a championship on their resumes but without whom, those championships may not have been a possibility.
A good example here is former Chicago Bulls coach Doug Collins and ex-Miami Heat chief Stan Van Gundy who laid the groundwork for Phil Jackson’s six NBA titles and Pat Riley’s 2006 NBA championship by developing Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and giving the keys to a young Dwayne Wade and partnering him with a post-prime Shaquille O’Neal for the Bulls and the Heat respectively.
Another good example is current Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr who has guided the Bay Area franchise to four NBA championships by building on the foundation that former Warriors coach, Mark Jackson laid by drafting and developing arguably one of the best backcourts in NBA history in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Do Head Coaches Salaries count towards the NBA Salary Cap?
No. In the NBA only player wages count towards the salary cap. The head coach and the coaching staff are paid completely independently of the NBA’s “parity rules”. This means that owners are free to spend as little, or as much as they like on the staff that plans and prepares the players for each game.
Who are the highest paid head coaches in the NBA?
As we headed into the 2022/23 season these were the coaches set to make the most money from their time babysitting some of the most elite athletes on the planet and trying to get them to work as a team in a quest to win the NBA title.
- Greg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs, 5 titles – $11.5 million
- Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors, 4 titles – $9.5 million
- Doc Rivers, Philadelphia 76ers, 0 titles – $8.5 million
- Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat, 2 titles – $8.5 million
- Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks, 1 title – $8 million
- Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors, 1 title – $8 million
- Steve Nash, Brooklyn Nets, 0 titles – $8 million (Fired in November 2022)
The lowest paid coach in the NBA is most likely Celtics interim Head Coach Joe Mazzulla whose salary is projected to be in the $4 – 6 million range. He is currently the only interim head coach in the NBA. Having taken on the role following Ime Udoka’s suspension for non-basketball reasons ahead of the 2022-23 NBA season. While officially Udoka is ‘expected’ to resume head coaching duties following his suspension, Mazzulla’s Celtics have hardly missed a beat sitting on top of the Eastern Conference and looking better than last year’s losing NBA Finals team.
Duties of an NBA Coach
An NBA coach is and should be a little like a Swiss Army knife as their duties within a franchise tend to run far and wide. Their primary role is to manage a team which includes helping draft and develop young players into stars and good role players, providing and implementing strategies for games, and guiding their team through the thrill that comes with victory and the agony that comes with defeat.
Coaches also have secondary and tertiary roles that they must play to fulfill their primary duties which include acting as a liaison between a franchise’s front office and players, hiring assistant coaches to help oversee training sessions and polish certain aspects of the game like shooting, defense and ball handling, and cultivating camaraderie in their team by managing the different personalities and egos that come with players.
Ultimately, the duties of an NBA coach within a franchise are mainly dependent on the agreement that a coach has with a team’s management. It is not uncommon for a team’s management to delegate some functions that would typically fall under a coach’s duties and responsibilities to other individuals within the organization or even usurp some roles such as selecting a coach’s supporting staff (assistant coaches, trainers, nutritionist, etc.)
Factors That Determine How Much an NBA Coach Gets Paid
As we determined by now, not every Tom, Dick, and Harry can be eligible to be an NBA coach. There are certain criteria that even a candidate should meet to be even allowed through the door such as previous coaching experience, having played basketball at either professional or college level, and having at least a bachelor’s degree.
However, satisfying the above-mentioned requirements merely qualifies a candidate for the average coach’s salary of $3 million to $4 million dollars. To be a top earner as a coach, one has to have earned certain badges that distinguish them from the rest. These badges may be divided into the three categories below.
- Coaching experience – coaches with prior tenures, especially with NBA teams, tend to earn more since they are already battle-tested and come with well-known resumes that highlight success indicators such as their winning percentages and regular season and playoff records. A good example here is Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers who earned the top job at the “City of Brotherly Love” despite a sub-par tenure with the Los Angeles Clippers who terminated his previous employment.
- Success as an NBA player – former players with storied NBA careers tend to have more bargaining power as a record of their knowledge of the intricacies of the game already exists. Examples of former players who have had success as coaches include Steve Kerr (Golden State Warriors), Doc Rivers (Philadelphia 76ers), and Jason Kidd (Dallas Mavericks). There have however been former players whose skills did not translate well into coaching like two-time NBA champion and former Detroit Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas and ex-Brooklyn Nets coach and former two-time league MVP Steve Nash.
- Coaching potential – there are some individuals who may or may not fall under the criterion above but have an undeniable knack for coaching which gives them a competitive edge. Good examples here include former Cleveland Cavalier and current Los Angeles Clippers coach Ty Lue and Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse who each have an NBA title under their belts and are among the highest-paid coaches despite being fairly young in their coaching careers.