In the 64-season history of the NBA, only 28 coaches have won championships. Several were great coaches — including but not limited to Red Auerbach, Jack Ramsay, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. And several were many degrees less than great — including Bill Russell, who won because he was able to coach himself; Chuck Daly and Rudy Tomjanovich, whose main jobs were to lead cheers and to babysit.
So if a coach’s ultimate standing isn’t necessarily guaranteed by winning championships, then what are the other qualifications for greatness?
To be considered at the top of his profession, an NBA coach must have:
• Superior talent at his disposal. Having at least two superstars is an absolute must, although Al Attles led Golden State to a title in 1975 with only a single supreme talent: Rick Barry, who averaged more than twice as many points per game (30.6) as the Warriors’ second-leading scorer (Jamaal Wilkes, 14.2).
• Some manifestation of compelling charisma sufficient to snag his players’ attention. Guys like Attles and Bill Fitch were ultra-belligerent; Pop uses cynicism; Doc Rivers is a con man.
• Enough expertise to be fluent in X’s and O’s, or employing an assistant who specializes in this arcane alphabet.
• A work ethic that sets an example for his staff and players. Or else having several assistants willing to compensate for his laissez-faire attitude by working overtime and allowing him to claim the credit.
• The ability to relate to his players, a quality that helps but is not always necessary. John Lucas had the best rap ever, but was a poor coach. Fitch had the courtside manner of a Marine drill instructor —which he had been — yet was still a top-notch coach.
• The ability to somehow motivate his players. Auerbach made sure they knew that unless the Celtics won a championship, they’d have to find summer jobs. Jackson creates an environment in which players motivate themselves.
• An awareness that the season is a marathon and that having a kick left for the playoffs requires significant pacing. When Jerry West coached the Lakers (1976-79), his pregame pep talk was always the same: “This is the most important game of the season.” Which is one reason why his teams underachieved (8-14) in the playoffs.
• An abiding passion for the game, something that Don Nelson left in Milwaukee and something that has sustained Jerry Sloan for so long.
• A balanced view of the game. When he coached the Bulls, Doug Collins devoted about 95 percent of each practice session to offense, which matched his focus during his own playing career.
• Organizational skills to make in-season practices short and precise. As opposed to John Calipari’s habit of having his players idly standing by while he delivered various orations.
• The ability to make in-game and between-game adjustments. Jackson is the best of the current crop, while Jerry Tarkanian (San Antonio, 1992) and Roy Rubin (Philadelphia, 1972-73) were the worst ever.
• The ability to prepare his teams for games. Pat Riley was/is the master of this task.
• A way of always keeping players interested in whatever he says. Larry Brown and Mike Fratello are infamous for shrilling the same corrections all season long at the risk of having many players eventually tune them out.
• Respect for their players, which often means asking for their input.
• Above all, the respect of his players. This is where championship rings really count.
No coaches, past or present, exhibit all of the above characteristics. But the truly great ones can check off a majority of the categories.
Oh yes, there’s one more factor that is absolutely essential: avoiding debilitating injuries to irreplaceable players. With a corollary being: a plague of injuries suffered by key players on opposing teams.
If you have a question, comment or column idea for Charley Rosen, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and he may respond in a future column.