As the NBA celebrates its 75th anniversary this season, it’s time to honor some of the greatest coaches in league history. We’ve put together a list of 15 legendary coaches who are no longer active in the league, but have left an indelible mark on NBA basketball.
Dick Motta was a first-rate coach who took over struggling teams and turned them around. He also led the Washington Bullets to their only championship in 1978.
Lenny Wilkens is one of the most legendary coaches in the NBA history. He is a two-time Hall of Fame coach who coached the Seattle Super Sonics, the Trail Blazers, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Atlanta Hawks and the Toronto Raptors. He won an NBA championship in 1978, and has amassed a total of 1,332 wins during his coaching career.
A former player, Wilkens also served in the military as a second lieutenant from 1961 to 1962. He was a company executive officer and later company commander during his time in the Army.
Wilkens was a 13-time All-Star and finished his career as the second all-time leading assister with 7,211 assists. His success as a player was largely due to his ability to work well with teammates.
During his playing career, Wilkens played for the St. Louis Hawks (now the Atlanta Hawks) and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1989 and 1998. He also coached the U.S. men’s basketball team to a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games.
He is also the all-time leader in coaching victories with 939 wins. His record stood until it was broken by Don Nelson in 2010 and Gregg Popovich five years later.
In addition to his professional career, Wilkens was a devoted family man and philanthropist. He and his wife Marilyn have three children. He is a pillar in the Seattle community and has been active in many causes for the betterment of society. In 2022, he was honored by the city of Seattle with an official proclamation.
Red Holzman is one of the most legendary coaches in the NBA history. He was the second winningest coach in league history with 696 regular season wins and coached the Knicks to two NBA championships.
As a coach, Red Holzman had simple philosophies that worked wonders for his teams: see the ball on defense and hit the open man on offense. By preaching that concept, he molded the talent of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley into one of the most dynamic teams in basketball history.
In his 18-year career, Red Holzman compiled a record of 696 regular-season victories and 58-48 playoff marks. He won nba championships with the Knicks in 1970 and 1973, and was elected to the Hall of Fame as a coach in 1986.
He was a street-wise gym rat who knew how to get his players to play hard defense and hit open shots. He honed his skills as a player during the NBA’s post-war era, and was named the league’s Coach of the Year in 1970.
Holzman was born on the Lower East Side of New York City, the youngest of three children of immigrant parents. He went to City College of New York for two years, where he learned the philosophy of team-oriented basketball that shaped his coaching style with the Knicks.
Pat Riley, who currently serves as the team president of the Miami Heat, is one of the most renowned coaches in the NBA. In his 25 years of professional basketball, he has guided his teams to five NBA championships and is considered a legendary figure in the game.
In his long career, Pat Riley compiled an impressive record of 1,085 regular season wins and 255 post-season victories. He has a career coaching record of 454-395 with the Miami Heat, and is tied for second in games coached with the franchise.
As head coach, Riley took the Los Angeles Lakers to four consecutive NBA Finals appearances, winning two titles in 1985 and 1984, and he also led his team to a pair of sweeps over the Philadelphia 76ers.
After retiring from the Lakers, he served as a television commentator alongside Chick Hearn before returning to the coaching bench with Paul Westhead in 1981. The team was struggling and Westhead was fired, but owner Jerry Buss was impressed by the way Riley handled the job.
With the Lakers, he won an NBA championship in his first season. After a stint with the Knicks in 1991, he joined the Miami Heat.
In the 20 years since joining the Heat, he has overseen one of the most successful expansions in franchise history. He has forged a culture of excellence, both on and off the court, that has positioned the HEAT as one of the NBA’s most storied franchises. During his time in Miami, the Heat have won four consecutive Atlantic Division titles and have advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals on seven occasions.
Nelson is one of the most popular coaches in the NBA, having won 1,355 coaching wins over 31 seasons. He coached the Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks before retiring in 2010.
His first season as a coach, he took the Milwaukee Bucks to their first playoff appearance in more than a decade. He coached the team to three Eastern Conference Finals and six conference semifinals during his 11 seasons there.
He was also the architect of what is now known as “small ball offense,” a trend that has become a hallmark of the NBA. As a player, Nelson won five championships with the Boston Celtics.
When Nelson left the Bucks, he began to coach the Golden State Warriors, who won four NBA titles and a record seven consecutive championships. He crafted teams that could run the court with abandon and score in bunches. He was criticized for his unorthodox approach and for putting young players into positions they weren’t ready for, but Nelson always had a deep respect for the talent he had.
On Saturday, Nelson, 71, will graduate from Iowa with his degree. It’s a longtime goal that he’ll reach.
After a successful career as a player and coach, Nelson has found a peaceful life living in Hawaii. He grows marijuana for personal use and said he smokes it daily. He’s probably the first retired NBA coach to grow their own marijuana.
During his 27-year coaching career, Karl won 1,175 games, placing him sixth all-time in wins. He coached five different teams to the NBA postseason on 22 occasions, including three different Seattle Supersonics teams that won at least 55 games each season and advanced to the NBA Finals.
As a coach, George Karl was always a controversial figure who challenged and demanded nightly greatness from his players. His feuds with management (Wally Walker, Bob Rivers), other coaches and even referees earned him a reputation as an equal-opportunity antagonist.
Karl inherited a Seattle Supersonics team that had a roster stacked with talented players, including point guard Gary Payton and power forward Shawn Kemp. The Sonics went on to win four Pacific Division titles and reach the Western Conference finals in 1992.
He also coached Milwaukee’s Bucks, which he led to a 52-30 record and an Eastern Conference finals appearance in 2001. That was the first time in 20 years that the team won 50 or more games.
As an experienced and successful coach, Karl is a prime candidate to coach DeMarcus Cousins in the future. But he may have difficulty overcoming Cousins’s abrasive personality and on-court disinterest.
In addition to winning two NBA titles with the Houston Rockets, Rudy Tomjanovich is known for his tenacious style of play and his intense preparation on the bench. He is considered to be the best “players coach” in NBA history, and he earned his nickname “Rudy T” as a result.
After a stellar career as a player, Tomjanovich served as the head coach of the Houston Rockets for a dozen seasons from 1992 to 2003. During his time as a coach, Tomjanovich won 503 games and led the team to back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995.
He is one of eight finalists for the Hall of Fame this year. He is joined by fellow former coaches Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, as well as four-time Olympic gold medalist Tamika Catchings.
As a player, Tomjanovich was drafted by the San Diego Rockets in 1970. He played 11 seasons with the team, and he was an All-Star forward.
His playing resume includes a career average of 17.4 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, which ranked him fourth among all NBA players in his position. He was also a five-time All-Star, and he made the playoffs in four consecutive seasons from 1974 to 1977.
In addition to his professional basketball experience, Tomjanovich is known for coaching the U.S. basketball team at the 1998 FIBA World Championship in Greece. He is the only coach in a decade to lead his team to a medal at the prestigious tournament. He is also credited with leading the United States to a gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.