Gregg Popovich versus the NBA’s all-time elite coaches: Roster Edition

Turns out that it’s hard to be exposed to many different players when three of the same guys take up roster spots for 15 years.

Gregg Popovich recently passed Jerry Sloan for most wins by a coach with one club, and it got me thinking. What would an all-time team of players Pop coached look like? The starting five doesn’t take much thought, but what about the second five, and the third? He’s had more talent over the years than people realize. For example, it’s arguable that Parker will go down as “only” the eighth-best player Pop’s ever coached, if you go by the criteria of the totality of everyone’s career and not just their time with the Spurs.

Naturally, that notion led to some quality time with basketball-reference.com. A lot of quality time. I looked all at the ten winningest coaches in NBA history and made all-time teams for them. Win Shares is by no means a perfect metric, but it’s a quick and dirty tool that gives us a rough idea of what an individual accomplished in the league, so after I had my top-15 (guys in bold are in the Hall-of-Fame) for each coach, I added up the Win Shares to find out who had the most talent.

Essentially my hypothesis was that Pop has done more with less. After all, each of the other nine coaches in the top-ten had at least one other stop in the league —Sloan included— and most had several. When you coach for 20-25 years and a handful of franchises, you end up crossing path with many, many players, and to win as many games as these guys have, quite a few of those players tend to be really good. How could a stationary coach like Pop compete with transitory types like Don Nelson or Larry Brown?

As it turned out, better than you might think.

Don Nelson 1977-2010

2,398 games 1,335-1,063 (.557) 166 playoff games 75-91 (.452)

0 NBA Championships 0 Conference Titles 1,553.4 Win Shares

Honorable Mentions: C Ralph Sampson, C Swen Nater, PF Chris Webber, PF Terry Cummings, PF Juwan Howard, SF Bob Dandridge, SF Antawn Jamison, SF Stephen Jackson, SG Norm Van Lier, SG Latrell Sprewell, SG Ricky Pierce, SG Jerry Stackhouse, SG Paul Pressey, SG John Starks, SG Sarunas Marciulionas, PG Tim Hardaway, PG Baron Davis, PG Nick Van Exel

Straight off you see what I’m talking about with Nelson, right? 31 seasons, five different gigs including two separate stints with the Warriors, this guy coached some dudes. He’s got eight Hall-of-Famers in his top-15, with three more locks in the pipeline in Curry, Nowitzki and Nash, and he’s got two more HOF’ers in his mentions whose NBA careers weren’t good enough to crack his third-best lineup. Forget Sampson or Marciulionas, Nelson’s got so many guys on his resume that C-Webb and Tim Hardaway are on the outside looking in. That’s crazy, right?

So much for the myth that Nelson never had any centers. He had Lanier at the end there with Milwaukee, Ewing with the Knicks (he sabotaged that, trying to go behind Ewing’s back to flip him for Shaq and got canned), and two more great ones in Cowens and Sikma. Nelson’s Bucks teams just never got over the hump against those juggernaut Celtics and Sixers squads, but he blew it with a young Alex English and then again a generation later with first Richmond and later Webber.

It’s really a shame he had this much talent and couldn’t ever turn it into a ring.

Lenny Wilkens

2,487 games 1,332-1,155 (.536) 178 playoff games 80-98 (.449)

1 NBA Championship 2 Conference Titles 1,307.9 Win Shares

Honorable Mentions: C Jack Sikma, C Brad Daughtery, C Bob Rule, PF Sidney Wicks, PF Paul Silas, PF Antonio McDyess, PF Charles Oakley, PF Kevin Willis, SF Jim Jackson, SG Anfernee Hardaway, SG Steve Smith, SG Allan Houston, SG Ron Harper, SF Fred Brown, SG Vinnie Johnson, SG Dell Curry, PG Mark Price, PG Mark Jackson, PG Stephon Marbury, PG Terrell Brandon, PG Gus Williams, PG Mookie Blaylock, PG Steve Kerr

Wilkens wasn’t quite as fortunate as Nelson. He had 32 seasons in the league, with seven different teams —including two separate stints with Seattle— and the best ever point guard he got to coach was himself, back in those player-coach days. He got that one ‘chip, before Magic and Bird took over the league, but never got to coach a transformational superstar in their prime. Also, I consider myself a fairly knowledgeable basketball fan and I have zero recollection of him coaching Toronto or New York, but Wilkens was the guy for Olajuwon’s swan song in Canada and Marbury’s turbulent Knicks run.

Still, eight HOF’ers (nine with Carter), and he was around enough guys to the point where neither Daugherty nor Price from his contending Cavaliers teams crack his top-15. Wilkens had some back luck, for sure. He didn’t get a full season out of Walton in either of his two seasons at Portland, then the Blazers won it all the very next season after he left. And his Cleveland teams had to deal with Chicago and Detroit and just weren’t quite good enough. The real “one that got away” was the 1993-94 season with Atlanta, during Michael Jordan’s first retirement. The Hawks had real good chemistry that year but inexplicably traded away Wilkins mid-season for Danny Manning even though they had the best record in the league. They got upset in the second round by Larry Brown’s Pacers.

Jerry Sloan

2,024 games 1,221-803 (.603) 202 playoff games 98-104 (.485)

0 NBA Championships 2 Conference Titles 1,441.1 Win Shares

Honorable Mentions: C Mehmet Okur, PF Carlos Boozer, PF Larry Kenon, PF Armen Gilliam, PF Tom Gugliotta, SG Kyle Korver, SG John Starks, SG Wesley Matthews

Lots of fans make the mistake of thinking that Sloan was just a one-franchise coach, but au contraire, he actually got his feet wet with the Bulls for three years, the franchise he had played with for a decade (he was pretty good). As a result, he got Gilmore, Theus and Woolridge on his resume. Unfortunately, he never got to coach Adrian Dantley with the Jazz. He was only an assistant on their bench while Tom Nissalke and Frank Layden were wasting Dantley’s talents.

It becomes apparent pretty quickly that Sloan didn’t have much to work with in his 23 years at Utah, with Hayward and Hornacek both cracking his all-time starting five and the depth emptying out quickly after that. He’s got only three HOF’ers and and the “Honorable Mentions” list is thin too. No free agents ever wanted to join the Jazz and they drafted poorly for pretty much the entirety of the Malone/Stockton era.

Pat Riley

1,904 games 1,210-694 (.636) 282 playoff games 171-111 (.606)

5 NBA Championships 9 Conference Titles 1,698.2 Win Shares

Honorable Mentions: C Vlade Divac, C Swen Nater, C Rony Seikaly, PF Otis Thorpe, PF A.C. Green, PF Charles Oakley, PF Kevin Willis, PF Anthony Mason, PF P.J. Brown, PF Antoine Walker , SF Orlando Woolridge, SF Xavier McDaniel, SF Jamal Mashburn, SF Jim Jackson, SF Bruce Bowen, SF Caron Butler, SG Michael Cooper, SG Eddie Jones, SG Byron Scott, SG Jeff Malone, SG Dan Majerle, SG John Starks, SG Brent Barry, PG Terry Porter, PG Mark Jackson, PG Rod Strickland, PG Norm Nixon, PG Doc Rivers, PG Derek Harper

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Riley had an embarrassment of riches at his disposal in his 24 seasons with the Lakers, Knicks and two separate stints with the Heat. You’re not doing too shabby when ‘Zo is your fifth-best center, so I had to cheat a bit and put a couple of them at the four, where for some reason Riles never had any studs, with Maurice Lucas coming closest. I don’t really have much else to add here except to state that he should’ve won with the Knicks but didn’t and had no business winning with Miami but did, with probably the worst title-winning team of the past 30 years.

George Karl

1,999 games 1,175-824 (.588) 185 playoff games 80-105 (.432)

0 NBA Championships 1 Conference Title 1,404.8 Win Shares

Honorable Mentions: PF Vin Baker, PF Sam Perkins, PF Anthony Mason, PF Kenyon Martin, PF Juwan Howard, SF Dale Ellis, SF Danny Manning, SF Glenn Robinson, SF Danilo Gallinari, SF Toni Kukoc, SF Eddie Johnson, SF Rudy Gay, SF Derrick McKey, SF Jerome Kersey, SG World B. Free, SG Ricky Pierce, SG Michael Redd, SG Sarunas Marciulionas, SG Kendall Kill, SG J.R. Smith, SG Dell Curry, PG Sam Cassell, PG Rajon Rondo, PG Terrell Brandon, PG Nate McMillan

Karl is kind of a combination of Wilkens and Nelson. 27 seasons, six different franchises, and the best team he ever had, the 1995-96 Sonics, with his best star in his prime, Payton, only had to face the best team of all time in the Finals. However, he was also his own worst enemy, alienating a lot of his players along the way and not finding a way to get the most out of them. He should’ve done better with Seattle, especially considering that they peaked during Jordan’s baseball sojourn. He led the Nuggets to within a couple of games of the Finals in 2008-09. How odd does it sound in retrospect that we almost had a Magic-Nuggets Final?

The interesting thing about Karl’s career is he actually lived out the myth we had about Nellie. He’s the guy who never had a center, with Boogie cracking his starting five, which is a sorry indictment for such a long coaching run. I wouldn’t want Cousins within 500 miles of any team I support.

Phil Jackson

1,640 games 1,155-485 (.704) 333 playoff games 229-104 (.688)

11 NBA Championships 13 Conference Titles 1,879.3 Win Shares

Honorable Mentions: C Bill Cartwright, C Andrew Bynum, C Theo Ratliff, PF Horace Grant, PF A.C. Green, PF Robert Horry, SF Metta World Peace, SF Jim Jackson, SF Trevor Ariza, PG B.J. Armstrong, PG Steve Kerr

Jackson had the shortest tenure of anyone in the top-10 wins list, at just 20 seasons and was obviously the most successful, with 11 championships. It’s not that hard to see why, with that starting five, though I cheated a bit with Pip at the point. (Payton’s a fine Plan B there). His second five is still pretty solid, with three HOF’ers plus Gasol, who’s a mortal lock to join them, but it drops off a cliff from there. Jackson had a healthy list of veteran ring chasers on his Lakers teams, but not quite as many as you think, and Jerry Reinsdorf was tight with the purse strings in Chicago. His teams were really top heavy, and this list reflects that. His L.A. teams were pretty fortunate to win, truth be told. The only season they had the best team was 2000-01. The other four Larry O’Briens were courtesy of injury luck or dubious officiating. I suppose Jackson deserves some credit there.

Larry Brown

2,002 games 1,098-904 (.548) 193 playoff games 100-93 (.518)

1 NBA Championship 3 Conference Titles 1,532.2 Win Shares

Honorable Mentions: C Rik Smits, C Tyson Chandler, C Theo Ratliff, C Darryl Dawkins, C Emeka Okafor, C Mehmet Okur, PF Buck Williams, PF Bobby Jones, PF Tom Chambers, PF Paul Silas, PF Terry Cummings, PF Derrick Coleman, PF Antonio McDyess, PF David Lee, PF Juwan Howard, PF Antonio Davis, PF David Lee, PF Boris Diaw, SF Toni Kukoc, SF Eddie Johnson, SF Jerry Stackhouse, SF Jim Jackson, SF Jalen Rose, SF Sean Elliott, SF Derrick McKey, SF Trevor Ariza, SF Tayshaun Prince, SF Bruce Bowen, SG Charlie Scott, SG Otis Birdsong, SG Ricky Pierce, SG Richard Hamilton, SG Byron Scott, SG Ron Harper, SG Jason Richardson, G Jamal Crawford, SG Paul Pressey, SG Stephen Jackson, SG Vernon Maxwell, PG Stephon Marbury, PG Mack Calvin, PG Michael Ray Richardson, PG Mark Jackson, PG Rod Strickland, PG Steve Francis, PG Doc Rivers, PG Avery Johnson

How on God’s green earth is Pop a product of Nelson and Brown? The man who gave him a shot to join the world of big-time college basketball and the NBA made nine different stops in 26 seasons in the pros, with none of those lasting more than six years. Consequently, Brown has the longest “Honorable Mentions” list of anyone, a veritable who’s who of “I remember that guy” lists.

In all that time he never had an elite small-forward, to the degree that I fudged a bit and put Thompson in there with the starting five. Robinson’s the best player he ever coached, by far, but let’s be clear that Brown didn’t underachieve. The 2003-04 Pistons were the closest he ever had to a complete team and he won with them. Robinson’s early Spurs teams didn’t have enough shooting or a deep enough bench and his Pacers teams would’ve been hopeless against Olajuwon even if they got by the Knicks or Magic. If anything the second-most talented squad he ever had was Denver’s first season in the NBA, with Thompson, Issel, Paul Silas, Mack Calvin and Bobby Jones.

Rick Adelman

1,791 games 1,042-749 (.582) 157 playoff games 79-78 (.503)

0 NBA Championships 2 Conference Titles 1,379.3 Win Shares

Honorable Mentions: C Rony Seikaly, C Brad Miller, PF Cliff Robinson, PF Kevin Willis, PF Luis Scola, SF Andrei Kirilenko, SF Jerome Kersey, SF Metta World Peace, SF Hedo Turkoglu, SF Shane Battier, SF Shareef Abdur-Rahim, SF Trevor Ariza, SG Latrell Sprewell, SG Brandon Roy, SG Drazen Petrovic, SG Danny Ainge, SG Nick Anderson, SG Cuttino Mobley, SG Kevin Martin, SG Brent Barry, SG Vernon Maxwell, PG Mark Price, PG Goran Dragic, PG Steve Francis, PG Mike Bibby, PG B.J. Armstrong

Adelman’s 23-year tenure is underappreciated. He cycled through five franchises, made two Finals with Portland where there was zero shame in losing to the champions, and his best team, the 2002 Kings, was hard done by Emperor Stern and the basketball gods. The handicaps were obvious: He never had a monster down low to feed in the post or a star playmaker. (Lowry’s going to be the best one when it’s all said and done.)

He made do with what he had, once winning 22 regular season games in a row with a Rockets club where Yao and McGrady weren’t even healthy all the way through. I’d have liked to see what he could do with Webber alongside Hardaway and Mullin, but the Warriors botched that contract up so badly that they gave C-Webb an out after one season. I view him as a predecessor to Mike D’Antoni in the sense that his Kings were really the only team trying to play free-flowing, beautiful basketball during a time when the game was mostly slow, ugly and boring. He just had the misfortune of running up against Phil Jackson’s star-laden teams.

Bill Fitch

2,050 games 944-1,106 (.460) 109 playoff games 55-54 (.505)

1 NBA Championship 2 Conference Titles 1,371 Win Shares

Honorable Mentions: C Ralph Sampson, PF Anthony Mason, SF Campy Russell, SG Austin Carr, SG Danny Ainge, SG Brent Barry, PG Mookie Blaylock, PG Kenny Anderson

Now this man had a fascinating career, with the highest highs and the lowest lows. In three of his stops he had basically expansion-level talent, especially in Cleveland and L.A., where he served under two of the worst and cheapest owners in the history of professional sports. He also coached a monster Celtics team in 1980-81 that was as loaded as any in history. And he dragged a Rockets club with a young “Dream” and not much else to a Finals in 1985-86. Surprisingly, he had the most Hall-of-Famers of anyone on our list, 12 in all, but a few of them were low-level guys who didn’t really do much in the NBA. Frankly, I have no idea why he took a couple of the jobs he did — was he not terribly well-liked or respected within the league? Look at his mentions list. These rosters were literally All-Stars or scrubs.

Gregg Popovich

1,627 games 1,130-497 (.695) 256 playoff games 158-98 (.617)

5 NBA Championships 6 Conference Titles 1,555 Win Shares

Honorable Mentions: C Theo Ratliff, PF David Lee, PF Antonio McDyess, PF Robert Horry, PF Boris Diaw, SF Sean Elliott, SF Jerome Kersey, SF Bruce Bowen, SF Hedo Turkoglu, SF Glenn Robinson, SF Chuck Person, SG Steve Smith, SG Stephen Jackson, SG Kevin Martin, SG Derek Anderson, SG Brent Barry, SG Vernon Maxwell, PG Nick Van Exel, PG Damon Stoudamire, PG George Hill, PG Avery Johnson, PG Steve Kerr, PG Patty Mills

Finally we come to Pop, who (despite being the only coach in the top ten in wins to do it all with one team) still worked with enough quality dudes to finish third in Win Shares for his top-15, behind only Jackson and Riley. Popovich is going to be associated with eight HOF’ers when it’s all said and done (maybe nine, though even with his Olympics scoring titles Mills is iffy) but the Spurs never signed any high-profile free agents until recently, with Aldridge and Gasol, and only the former was close to his prime. The amazing part is that Leonard’s career is just beginning. He’ll probably finish with over 150 Win Shares by the time he hangs ‘em up.

Popovich created a culture, started with Robinson and Duncan, where guys join the Spurs and don’t want to leave. He never had to switch teams to coach different Hall-of-Fame talent because he was the beneficiary for everything “The Big Three” accomplished in the NBA. He didn’t have to be the mercenary coach or any organization’s “final piece of the puzzle.” Other greats have made cameo appearances for the Spurs — a year of ‘Nique here, a year of Gasol there, a few seasons of Robinson on the down slope— but mostly what’s endured was Pop, Duncan, Ginobili and Parker, a partnership truly unique in modern sports. And what’s odder still, as unthinkable as it seemed once, a generation from now people will associate Popovich with Leonard more so than they will with Robinson, and that will never not be weird for me.

Source: Pounding The Rock

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