When it comes to championship teams, hardly ever has there been one without at least one or 2 major stars on it. Those star players are, therefore, most often the topic of basketball debates and comparisons. A championship ring is considered to be the highest of accolades and is put above all when it comes to ranking all time players. However, it is interesting how overlooked the coaches and their impact on those achievements are. It made me wonder, which NBA Coaches have the most NBA titles?
Which NBA Coaches have won the most NBA Titles? The NBA Coaches who have won the most NBA titles are Phil Jackson with eleven, Red Auerbach with nine titles and Gregg Popovich with five titles.
Yes, basketball is a five on five sport and you certainly can not win anything without the right mix of talent, experience and hard work. You can even say that there is no other team sport in which one superstar player can have as big an influence on both ends of the floor, and ultimately winning and losing. Having said that, it is still a team sport, and managing egos, setting the tone and culture for success, executing winning plays at the right time, and eventually taking responsibility are the key factors of every championship ever won. As a proof of that fact, one can only look into countless examples of superstars being unable to win a ring until they have found themselves a part of winning culture and coaching. Moses Malone, Shaquille O’ Neal, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and most recently Kevin Durant are just some of the names on that long list.
Larry Brown coached the 2004 Detroit Pistons to an NBA championship, a team still used as an example that you don’t necessarily need huge names to win it all. He summed the coach’s job in his famous quote:
All the successful teams I’ve ever seen have 3 characteristics: They play unselfish, they play together, and they play hard.Larry Brown
All the coaches on the list with most titles to their name had those characteristics going for them, and here are the top 3:
Gregg Popovich – 5 Titles
The man in charge of the San Antonio Spurs for more than 20 years, Gregg Popovich led the team to 5 titles (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014) and is considered to be one of the best coaches ever. His longevity and continuous success are simply unrivaled, and he is the only active coach on this list. Even if you would count out all the titles, he would still have a place among the greats. The last time his San Antonio Spurs missed the playoffs was in his first season, all the way back in 1996. He had one superstar through most of that time in hall of famer Tim Duncan, but his team was hardly ever known for huge talent. The thing that enabled all that constant success was the system. The Spurs were and still are the most functional organization in the league, from coaching to front office and medical team.
Each of the 24 seasons, Gregg persisted with the exact same system in place, and went hard to win it all, no matter the talent at his disposal. Tanking was never considered, only getting the best out of each group was the focus of the entire organization. Working in that way, they often missed out on drafting top talent, but more than compensated for that by drafting smart and creating their own superstars. One of the things which makes the San Antonio system successful, even though it’s the most rigorous in the league, is that pretty much all the players Popovich coached simply loved playing for him. He is a harsh and confrontational person, which can be seen in his contentious relationship with the media through the years, but he is always the first to defend his players, never letting anything controversial leave the dressing room.
That type of leadership is the reason behind all the titles. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, with Gregg behind them, built a decade-long dynasty. Their brand of basketball was established on fundamentals: spacing the floor, looking for an open shot no matter who takes it, the right mixture of both inside and outside offense, and most of all, rock solid defense. Basically, that textbook way of playing allowed them to get the better of both the strongest defensive teams (Detroit Pistons in 2005) as well as offensive juggernauts (Miami in 2014). The 2014 title was probably the most impressive one, as they went on to beat the Miami Heat big three by a record finals margin. LeBron, Wade and Bosh were on their way to a three-peat, but they just couldn’t compete with the desire, unselfishness and togetherness of the Spurs, who were keen to avenge a heartbreaking finals loss to Miami the previous year. Since that title, Popovich simply hasn’t had enough luck with injuries along with the right amount of talent on his team to truly compete again, but nobody dares count him out from getting a few more.
Red Auerbach (9 Titles)
What Bill Russell is for players, Red Auerbach is for coaches. His impact on the sport of basketball gets overlooked only because of how long ago it was. Before I go into what he achieved both as a coach and a president of the Boston Celtics, first I have to mention that unlike many other basketball greats, his influence went far further from sports. He was a pioneer in breaking race barriers, alongside Celtics owner at the time, Walter Brown. Together, they drafted Chuck Cooper, the first African-American player in the NBA. Later, he was also the one who introduced a first all African-American starting five. Red even named the first African-American coach in all of sports, his friend and partner Bill Russell. In a book “Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend”, Russell wrote about their touching relationship which lasted long after his retirement. It is that family atmosphere within the team and support on and off the floor which enabled the pair to create history together. Auerbach devoted 57 years of his life to the Boston Celtics, won 9 NBA titles as a coach, and the further 7 as the president of the organization. That period of time was the most successful of any team in American sports history. Even though the Celtics have only won one title since the late 80s, they still remain the most successful NBA team in history, and it’s all due to the Auerbach-Russell era (the 50s and 60s).
Like Popovich, Red was also considered to be a polarizing character – aggressive and arrogant. When he thought that the victory was in the bag, he would light up his cigar. That habit, although arrogant, later became a symbol of Celtic dominance in Red’s tenure with the team. Having in mind that in that era he not only coached, but he also orchestrated trades and draftings, and he practically ran the entire team, that type of brash and strong-minded personality of his was necessary and crucial.
Auerbach’s team was known for defense-oriented, unselfish play with fast breaks as the most potent offensive weapon. At that time, Celtics took defense more seriously than their competition, and made it a focus of their drills and practice. Of course, an instrumental part that enabled them to play so good on defense was Bill Russell. Defensive player of the year award wasn’t handed out until 1983, so one can only guess how many times Russell would have gotten it (possibly even 10). The statistically most dominant player in the history of the game, Wilt Chamberlain, only managed to beat Russell 37 out of 94 times. That is the perfect example of how unbeatable the Celtics system was.
However, the genius part of what made Red Auerbach a basketball legend was not the team’s play on the court, but his assembling of that team in the first place. He was the one who orchestrated every single trade and drafted every notable star all the way through to the 1984. Getting Bill Russell for Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan, signing Robert Parish, and getting the rights to draft Kevin McHale were all his work. Having in mind all the ways in which he impacted the Celtics, there is no doubt that he remains the face of this organization even to this day.
Phil Jackson (11 Titles)
For Gregg Popovich it was all about the San Antonio system. For Red Auerbach it was about the masterful dealings when it comes to trades and drafting. Finally, when it comes to Phil Jackson, it was all about managing egos. In his run with the Bulls, where he got 6 titles in 2 famous three-peats, he had to deal with the greatest player of all time, Michael Jordan, underpaid superstar Scottie Pippen, and later eccentric and difficult Dennis Rodman. With the LA Lakers, where he got 5 titles, he had to manage a difficult relationship between the two very different personalities in Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Along the way he also had his troubles with various executives above, but through all that has emerged as a coach with most NBA titles to his name, 11. It’s hard to imagine anyone topping this highly impressive feat any time soon.
Yes, coaching Michael Jordan is a job which would probably get any coach a title at some point, but it was far from easy in the beginning. Before Phil got the nod, the coach of the Bulls was Doug Collins, and although he was an excellent young coach at the time, his offense was heavily reliant on Jordan’s brilliance. Jordan had the greatest numbers of his career in that period, but that style of basketball just couldn’t get them over the hump, as they kept on losing to the toughest team ever assembled in Detroit. This is where Phil entered the scene, and along with him the most efficient strategy called the triangle offense. That type of basketball is based on spacing with each player touching the ball and getting rid of it quickly. That way, each possession consisted of a series of actions. Every player was supposed to have all four passing options at any time, and the defense dictated which one was to be chosen. When Phil was first appointed, Jordan was not thrilled about the idea of a triangle offense. He explained his reasoning by saying: “Everybody has an opportunity to touch the ball, but I didn’t want Bill Cartwright to have the ball with five seconds left. That’s not equal-opportunity offense, that’s f–king bulls–t.” This is the exact reason why Phil deserves all the credit he gets – convincing players of the caliber of Jordan, Pippen, Shaq and Kobe to be just a part of the team was no easy task. He managed to do it by proving to them that it works.
In Phil’s first year, the Bulls were able to finally beat the Pistons, and in convincing fashion, sweeping them and even making them leave the floor without even shaking their hands. From that point, Jordan was hooked, and together they went on to win 6 titles in 6 tries, never even going to game 7 of the finals. They would probably have one more hadn’t Jordan decided to leave and play baseball for a while. That short period, however, got Phil even more recognition in the NBA circles as his team played absolutely brilliant basketball even without Michael. They were inches away from eastern conference finals, but they finally succumbed to Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks in game 7.
Proving that his success with the Bulls was no fluke, Phil implemented the exact same brand of basketball with the LA Lakers from 1999. Shaquille O’Neal utterly thrived in his system, averaging 30 points, winning his only MVP, and emerging as the most terrifying force in the sport. Shaq and Kobe duo won three consecutive titles under Phil, even though their relationship was mostly turbulent. Then, Shaq was traded after the 2004 loss to the Pistons. Both Kobe and Phil had a chance to prove that they were able to win it all when the chances were stacked against them. Although they struggled in the beginning, they eventually managed to win two consecutive titles, and avenge the loss against the big three in Boston.
Finally, Kobe’s comments about what changed for him when Phil came to LA, explain just how good Phil was in controlling his superstars and making the most out of every roster he had:
“When he came here, everything changed for me. How I viewed the game. Till that point I really thought about the game from a tactical perspective: executing, fundamentals, training. The surface things. I learned the spirituality of the game. The mindfulness that comes with the game. Understand how to put yourself aside. How to try to quiet your ego and play effortless basketball. That approach to the game was something I felt really separated me from the pack. I felt that I knew what God put me on this earth to do was play the game of basketball. I just loved it so much. Phil peaked my interest… maybe there’s a deeper level to this. Maybe there’s something more. Something greater to this game.”