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What makes a great coach

I was a little low on article ideas this weekend, so I asked around on Twitter to see what the fans wanted to hear. After all, this website is for you, the fan. One idea mentioned by Kallie Newberry intrigued me – she asked me, “What traits do coaches need to become successful?”

Immediately I thought of Red Auerbach, the fabled coaching genius who’s arguably the best ever. Yes, Phil Jackson does have more titles – 11 of them to Auerbach’s 9 – but what Auerbach gave to basketball was truly monumental. Auerbach believed in the fast break; more importantly, he knew that running it effectively was a great strategy to win games. In the NBA Auerbach coached in, there was no fast break, the offensive schemes were limited and rudimentary (Auerbach-coached Celtics teams were limited to 7 offensive plays), and flashy players like Bob Cousy had never been seen before. Auerbach created a new style of offense, one that fully incorporated a fast-paced style of play. With the commitment to the fast break and an up-tempo offense, Auerbach gave to the game what few have – a lasting and powerful legacy.

If being a great coach in the NBA means accomplishing the same things as Auerbach, then there’s arguably never been a better coach in the history of basketball. A case could be made for Phil Jackson, the man behind much success in the NBA in the last 30 years. However, Jackson didn’t create the triangle offense that won him 11 titles, although he’s often mistakenly credited with doing so. His longtime assistant Tex Winter refined the triple-post offense Sam Barry ran at USC in the late 1940s into the offensive scheme that propelled Michael Jordan to 6 NBA titles and Kobe Bryant to 5. Even though Jackson won 11 championships as a coach, he didn’t create an offense like Auerbach did. One could argue that Jackson just got lucky to coach two all-time greats. So does that mean Jackson can’t be in the conversation as one of the greatest coaches ever?

Absolutely not, simply because Jackson was able to see the genius in Winter’s system. From 1989-2008, Jackson and Winter were a dynamic coaching duo, winning 11 NBA championships together before Winter retired. The triangle offense has had a lasting impact on the league, much in the same way that Auerbach’s fast-break minded style of play did. Paul Forrester wrote an article for sportsillustrated.com that highlights the importance of the triangle offense in the NBA. In his article, Forrester quotes former Chicago Bulls sharpshooter Steve Kerr (he spent 1993-98 with the Bulls) describing the triangle offense like this: “You can’t afford to have the ball in one person’s hands…In a way, that is sort of the genius of the offense and the reason it makes it so difficult for a lot of modern-day players to adapt.”

Jackson trusted Winter’s system enough to give it the green light. That alone should be reason enough to keep Jackson in the “greatest coach ever” conversation. However, there’s another trait that sets Jackson apart from a lot of other coaches – his management of players. Jackson coached two of the greatest to ever step on the hardwood in Jordan and Bryant. Consequently, those two players are known for their egotistical antics, which are often overlooked due to their incredible individual success. The fact that Jackson was able to get these players to play and win in such a disciplined and team-oriented system has to be recognized.

So if one is to measure greatness by player management and championships, then only Jackson and Auerbach are able to be considered for the greatest coach ever. Auerbach’s players respected him much in the same way Jackson’s did. The two men are both great coaches, and the qualities that they showed are important ingredients to a successful coaching career.

What about other coaches though, the ones who haven’t claimed multiple titles or maybe haven’t even won one? The Jerry Sloan, Lenny Wilkens, Don Nelson, and Jack Ramsay style coaches also deserve consideration as all-time greats because of their contributions to the game.

Most notably, Sloan brought to the NBA a very rare trait – loyalty. Sloan stayed with the Utah Jazz for 23 years, before retiring abruptly in 2010. Granted, Sloan was lucky to have an equally loyal owner in Larry Miller, but despite numerous offers and probably some pay raises, Sloan stayed with the Jazz and did his absolute best to win a title.

Sloan also brought a new offense to the NBA – the flex offense. The flex emphasizes hard cuts, screens, and quick ball movement. Many teams still run a variation of the flex offense, or run plays inspired by it.

The interesting thing about the flex offense is how it matches the coach that created it. Sloan was a hard-nosed, strict, old-school coach who emphasized teamwork and committed defense. He also believed in a set-in-stone substitution pattern, a big reason that John Stockton and Karl Malone were able to play so long in Utah. While Sloan never won a championship during his many coaching years, he did manage to keep an old-school approach to basketball alive in the modern NBA. Even now, after his retirement, the Jazz still run a version of his offense.

I mention these three coaches because what they’ve given to basketball is uniquely different, yet they all have one thing in common: the contributions they’ve made to the game have created a legacy that few coaches currently in the NBA can hope to achieve. Auerbach gave basketball the fast break, Jackson showed that it’s possible to get superstars to play within a system, and Sloan kept old-school basketball in a new-school NBA.

What makes a coach great instead of good is if he’s willing to think outside the box and try new things. A coach needs to be able to manage his players, but not let the players manage him. A great coach will be dedicated to the game and to his team. Even in the midst of huge blowouts and ugly, turnover-filled wins, a great coach has to keep his head up and keep his guys motivated.

Everyone knows that the job of an NBA head coach isn’t easy. He’ll be praised and loved one night after a solid win, and then he’ll be vilified the following day for a stinging loss. Somehow, amidst all the media frenzy and pressure to win ball games, a great coach steers his guys through a marathon 82-game season into the playoffs, and if his team is good enough, to a title.

A great coach has a bit of luck going his way too, but he also knows how to handle the luck. If a coach is truly great, he’ll leave behind him a legacy and a lasting impact. Auerbach, Jackson, Sloan – those are all household names in the homes of basketball junkies. And they’re all great coaches.


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