Lasting impressions are made in the postseason. This is when the great players leave their mark and the championship-caliber teams show they have the mental fortitude to rise to the top and make NBA playoff history. In the uber-competitive NBA, there is no room for error in the playoffs. And this goes for the coaches as well.
Leading one’s team to victory in the regular season is all fine and good, but if a coach can’t handle the heat in the postseason, then it won’t be long before that individual must seek employment elsewhere. While many coaches buckle under the pressure, others have been known to rise to the occasion.
With the playoffs currently underway, we thought we’d take a look at these particular individuals. Excluding the numbers from the 2016–17 postseason, here’s a look at the 11 winningest coaches in NBA Playoff history.
10. (tie) Doc Rivers
Playoff wins: 79
While Doc Rivers hasn’t been able to achieve the same sort of magic with the Los Angeles Clippers that he had with the Boston Celtics (constant injuries certainly don’t help), he’s still one of the best postseason coaches in the game. For his career, excluding these 2016–17 playoffs, Rivers has won 79 games (and lost 75 contests), amassing a .513 winning percentage. Doc’s postseason portfolio also includes an NBA championship, which he won with the C’s back in 2007–08.
10. (tie) Rick Adelman
Playoff wins: 79
Although Rick Adelman failed to take his teams to the playoffs in his final five seasons — 2009–10 to 2013–14 — as a head coach, his postseason success is undeniable. He won 79 games, amassed a .503 winning percentage, and led the Portland Trail Blazers to two conference championships in the early ’90s. Unfortunately, none of those trips to the Finals resulted in an NBA title.
8. (tie) Lenny Wilkens
Playoff wins: 80
At one point, before the great Don Nelson came along and stole the crown, Lenny Wilkens was the winningest coach in NBA history with 1,332 victories. To the surprise of none, that regular-season success translated to the playoffs — sort of. In 32 seasons, Wilkens won 80 postseason games, two conference championships, and one title with the Seattle SuperSonics back in 1978–79. And yet, interestingly enough, the Hall of Famer had a losing record in the playoffs, finishing his career with 98 losses and a .449 winning percentage.
8. (tie) George Karl
Playoff wins: 80
George Karl wasn’t built for today’s game (as evidenced by his short stint with the Sacramento Kings). However, the man still collected W’s in the postseason. During his 27 seasons at the helm, Karl won one conference title and recorded 80 postseason victories. However, like Wilkens before him, Karl also posted a losing record in the playoffs, finishing his career 105 losses and a lowly .432 winning percentage.
7. K.C. Jones
Playoff wins: 81
K.C. Jones accomplished plenty in his 10 seasons as an NBA head coach. He won 81 playoff games, took home five Eastern Conference titles, and led the Boston Celtics to two NBA championships (1983–84 and 1985–86). He finished his career with a .570 winning percentage in the postseason, as the Hall of Famer (inducted as a player in 1989) lost just 61 games in the playoffs.
6. Jerry Sloan
Playoff wins: 98
Despite never capturing a championship, Jerry Sloan remains one of the top coaches in NBA history. During his 26 seasons in the big chair (most notably the 23 years he spent with Jazz), Sloan won 1,221 regular–season games, added another 98 victories in the playoffs, and led Utah to two Western Conference titles. Unfortunately, even with Stockton and Malone orchestrating the most beautiful pick and roll the game has ever seen, Sloan’s Jazz will always be remembered as a great team that consistently came up short.
5. Red Auerbach
Playoff wins: 99
Few coaches in NBA history got the job done like Red Auerbach. He won 99 games in the postseason (which includes the three years he coached the Washington Capitols in the BAA), captured nine NBA championships (eight in a row from 1958–66), and helped turn the Celtics into one of the game’s ultimate dynasties. Bonus points for orchestrating the beautiful trade — depending on whose side you’re on — that netted the C’s Bill Russell in exchange for the Ice Capades. Yes, this actually happened.
4. Larry Brown
Playoff wins: 100
Larry Brown was quite the journeyman during his coaching career. Over a 26-year span, Brown called the shots for the Nuggets, Spurs, Clippers, Pacers, Sixers, Pistons, Knicks, and Bobcats. While some stints proved to be more successful than others, Brown still won 100 playoff games, captured three Easter Conference crowns, and won an NBA title with Detroit in 2003–04.
3. Gregg Popovich
Playoff wins: 158
Under Gregg Popovich’s tutelage, the San Antonio Spurs evolved into arguably the most successful franchise in professional sports. He’s missed the postseason just once in his 21-year coaching career, resulting in 158 playoff victories (not including 2016–17) and a winning percentage of .617. His five NBA championships aren’t too shabby, either.
2. Pat Riley
Playoff wins: 171
Prior to calling the shots as the President of the Miami Heat, Pat Riley was a damn good basketball coach. In fact, he was much better than good; he was fantastic. Riley spent 24 years in the big seat, winning a combined five NBA titles (four with the Lakers, one with the Heat) and amassing 171 playoff victories. His career winning percentage in the postseason stands at a cool .606.
1. Phil Jackson
Playoff wins: 229
Say what you will about Phil Jackson’s executive skills, but the guy sure knew how to coach. Considered by many to be the greatest coach in the history of the game, Jackson won 13 conference titles, 11 NBA championships (the most ever), and a ridiculous 229 postseason games. Regardless of what he does or doesn’t accomplishment with the Knicks, Jackson’s legacy as an all-time great is secure.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.