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Gregg Popovich sets NBA coaching wins record, cements spot among best ever

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The Mount Rushmore of NBA coaches is hardly an argument. With all due respect to John Kundla, who absolutely should have been on the league's list of 15 greatest coaches ever for leading the Minneapolis Lakers to five championships in his first six seasons as coach from 1948-54, Red Auerbach, Pat Riley, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich are as clear-cut a top coaching quartet as you will find in any major sport.

Popovich won his 1,336th career regular season game against the Utah Jazz on Friday, surpassing the well-traveled Don Nelson for the most wins in league history, so it is high time we examine the question of whether the 73-year-old steward of the San Antonio Spurs is the greatest coach of all time.

You can make a case for Auerbach, Riley or Jackson as the best to ever do it, but none did it quite like Popovich in San Antonio. His argument is the most well-rounded of the four when it comes to talent evaluation, player development, cultural stability, motivation, in-game adjustments and overall adaptability.

Red Auerbach

  • Teams: Washington Capitols (1946-49), Tri-Cities Blackhawks (1949-50), Boston Celtics (1950-66)

  • Regular season wins: 938 (12th)

  • Regular season win percentage: .662 (11th)

  • Playoff wins: 99 (5th)

  • Playoff win percentage: .589 (16th)

  • Conference championships: 10 (2nd)

  • NBA championships: 9 (2nd)

  • Hall of Famers: 9 (Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones, Bill Sharman, Frank Ramsey, Ed Macauley, KC Jones)

Auerbach made his own luck. Of the nine Hall of Famers he coached in their primes, Auerbach traded for two and drafted five of them, including Bill Russell, with whom his legacy is inextricably linked. They won nine championships in their 10 years together, a feat no player or coach has ever come close to replicating.

There are arguments to be made for and against the impressiveness of winning so consistently in a league featuring fewer than 10 teams at the time. We can all recognize it was a different era, but the gap between Auerbach's success and his peers' is too vast to ignore. You do not finish 8-0 in Game 7s for your coaching career by accident, even if the greatest winner in team sports history is the center for your stacked team.

Auerbach was decent over a decade coaching before Russell arrived in Boston, posting a 384-263 record in the regular season (.594 win percentage) and a 19-28 mark in the playoffs (.404). He did lead the superstar-less Washington Capitols to Game 6 of the 1949 Finals against the dynastic Minneapolis Lakers.

The seven more championships Auerbach won as an executive may not count toward his coaching career, but they reinforce his ability to identify and manage talent. Auerbach twice rebuilt the Celtics dynasty after Russell's retirement, patching together more Hall of Famers around Dave Cowens in the 1970s and Larry Bird in the 1980s. No other non-player has enjoyed greater success, but the fact Russell won two more rings as a player-coach after Auerbach retired does make you reconsider how much of the glory was Red's.

Pat Riley

  • Teams: Los Angeles Lakers (1981-90), New York Knicks (1991-95), Miami Heat (1995-2003, 2006-08)

  • Regular season wins: 1,210 (5th)

  • Regular season win percentage: .636 (14th)

  • Playoff wins: 171 (2nd)

  • Playoff win percentage: .606 (12th)

  • Conference championships: 9 (3rd)

  • NBA championships: 5 (3rd)

  • Hall of Famers: 8 (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, Patrick Ewing, Dwyane Wade, James Worthy, Alonzo Mourning, Jamaal Wilkes)

Eleven games into the 1981-82 season, Riley assumed control of a Lakers team that had won the title two years earlier and led them to another. His Showtime Lakers reached seven Finals and won four before he stepped down following a second-round exit in 1990. First-year head coach Mike Dunleavy took over the Lakers and guided them back to the 1991 Finals in the final season before Magic Johnson's first retirement.

Riley joined the Knicks in 1991 and scrapped Showtime for bully ball. Three of his four seasons in New York ended in Game 7 losses — against Michael Jordan's Bulls in the 1992 Eastern Conference semifinals, Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets in the 1994 Finals and Reggie Miller's Pacers in the second round of the 1995 playoffs.

The Heat sent New York a first-round pick to make Riley their coach and team president in 1995. His first eight seasons in Miami saw mixed success. His 61-win Heat, starring Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, reached the 1997 Eastern Conference finals, where Riley again lost to Jordan's Bulls. Miami lost in the first round in four of Riley's first six seasons at the helm — two sweeps, a loss to the Knicks as the No. 2 seed in 1998 and another as the top seed in 1999 — before failing to qualify for the playoffs in 2002 and 2003.

Riley stepped down from the 25-win Heat in 2003 to move full-time into the front office and drafted Dwyane Wade. He traded for Shaquille O'Neal a year later and returned to the sidelines 21 games into the 2005-06 season, pushing out Stan Van Gundy, who had led Miami to Game 7 of the 2005 Eastern Conference finals. Riley coached the Heat to the franchise's first title in his first year back at the helm. They were swept in the first round a year later and won 15 games before he stepped down again at the end of the 2007-08 season.

As team president, Riley has continued to transform Miami into one of the NBA's premier franchises, luring LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Wade on a team that made four straight Finals from 2011-14 and assembling a roster that has ranked among the East's top contenders in two of the last three seasons.

As he did in Los Angeles and New York, Riley has proven capable in Miami of succeeding in any era with any style of play. His case as the greatest coach in NBA history takes a hit, however, when you consider he wore out his welcome on the Lakers, quit on the Knicks and subbed back in for the championship in Miami.

In his debut seasons with the Lakers, Knicks and Heat (twice), Riley's new teams improved by an average of 4.5 regular season wins. Those same teams were eight wins better on average in the first year after he left. When his teams did not feature two of the 30 greatest players ever — Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar or Wade and O'Neal — Riley posted a 57-58 playoff record and twice missed the postseason. No NBA coach can overcome a talent deficit alone, but you would like to think the greatest ever could rise above .500.

Phil Jackson

  • Teams: Chicago Bulls (1989-98), Los Angeles Lakers (1999-2004, 2005-11)

  • Regular season wins: 1,155 (7th)

  • Regular season win percentage: .704 (1st)

  • Playoff wins: 229 (1st)

  • Playoff win percentage: .688 (3rd)

  • Conference championships: 13 (1st)

  • NBA championships: 11 (1st)

  • Hall of Famers: 6 (Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Scottie Pippen, Pau Gasol, Dennis Rodman)

Jackson has the highest regular season win percentage, 58 more playoff wins than any other coach in league history and the most championships to his name. That alone should make him the best coach ever.

Jackson won six championships with Michael Jordan, the greatest player in basketball history, and Scottie Pippen, a top-25 player of all time. The Zen Master won three more titles with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, two of the 10 best players ever. Nobody would argue they would have won all nine without Jackson, but they would have won a lot, and that complicates the conversation about his actual coaching prowess.

Winning three straight titles three times with two different teams is an incredible feat, regardless of where you land on Jackson's influence. He had some serious ego massaging to do in Chicago and Los Angeles.

For all his success, Jackson's crowning achievement as a coach may have been leading the Bulls to 55 wins and Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in his lone full season without Jordan in Chicago. Either that or coaching Bryant to back-to-back titles without O'Neal. Those teams boasted a star-laden frontcourt, including future Hall of Famer Pau Gasol, but they were not a Jordan or Shaq/Kobe juggernaut.

In two seasons without O'Neal or Gasol alongside Bryant in Los Angeles, Jackson presided over an 87-77 record and two first-round playoff exits. Average stuff, really, but the reality is he coached 20 seasons, reached the Finals in 13 of them and took home 11 rings. It is hard to ask for much more from your coach.

Jackson's tenure as president of the Knicks belied his coaching ability. He did not serve in that capacity in New York, but his decision-making raised questions about his ability to identify talent and adapt to a new era of basketball. He insisted his coaches run the triangle offense, with which he succeeded in Chicago and L.A., to disastrous results. Jackson's roster construction was even worse. The master motivator was not a master evaluator.

Gregg Popovich

  • Teams: San Antonio Spurs (1997-2022)

  • Regular season wins: 1,336 (1st)

  • Regular season win percentage: .659 (12th)

  • Playoff wins: 170 (3rd)

  • Playoff win percentage: .599 (13th)

  • Conference championships: 6 (4th)

  • NBA championships: 5 (3rd)

  • Hall of Fame players: 5 (Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili)

As general manager of the Spurs in 1996, Popovich fired Bob Hill, named himself coach and drove the tank straight to the No. 1 overall pick in 1997. He picked Tim Duncan and proceeded to register the equivalent of 20 straight 50-win seasons en route to a record 22 consecutive playoff appearances. Popovich won his first title in 1999 and his fifth in 2014 during an unprecedented run of NBA stability in small-market San Antonio.

Popovich drafted Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker before ceding day-to-day GM duties to R.C. Buford in 2002. Popovich continues to serve as president of basketball operations and also oversaw the selection of Kawhi Leonard in 2011. Duncan was a no-brainer, but Popovich drafted Leonard 15th overall, Parker 28th and Ginobili 57th. He developed them all into Hall of Famers when nobody else projected them as stars.

Gregg Popovich coached Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs to five NBA championships. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)
Gregg Popovich coached Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs to five NBA championships. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)

Without the ability to lure big-name free agents to San Antonio, Popovich instead raises the ceiling of most everyone he coaches. He won a title with Duncan and David Robinson as twin towers and another with Stephen Jackson as his third option. He went through the seven-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns to win his third and fourth rings. And he won his fifth in dominating fashion against the two-time defending champion Heat, conducting a symphonic offense that played the most beautiful basketball the game has ever seen.

There are few, if any, blemishes on Popovich's résumé. He identifies talent, develops it and maximizes it to counter any style of play. He built a culture of respect and accountability that made San Antonio an unlikely NBA hub for two decades. Auerbach is his only peer when it comes to building a dynasty from the ground up, and we should all be able to agree that was a far more difficult task for Popovich in the free-agency era.

Derek Fisher's miracle shot with 0.4 seconds left in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference semifinals, Dirk Nowitzki's last-second block to force overtime in Game 7 of the 2006 conference semifinals and Ray Allen's corner splash in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals cost Popovich three more shots at the championship.

Popovich almost always pushed his team to the precipice when he had a contender. The greatest example may have been the 2017 Western Conference finals, when his 61-win Spurs led by 21 midway through the third quarter of Game 1 against a Golden State Warriors juggernaut. Leonard rolled his ankle, and the series was over. We never got to see what Popovich might have had up his sleeve, which is a shame, since that was his best opportunity to prove what his Spurs were capable of without Duncan carrying the franchise.

The first two rounds in 2017 were the only series Popovich won without Duncan. He lost in the first round when Duncan was injured in 2000 and twice after Duncan's retirement, and the Spurs have not made the playoffs the past two seasons. Leonard's injury fractured his relationship with the franchise, and his 2018 trade request all but ended any chance of Popovich reconstructing a contender before his retirement.

We never saw Auerbach coach the post-Russell Celtics, Riley coach the post-Magic Lakers or Jackson coach the post-Jordan Bulls. They took their exits before the road got bumpy. Popovich has stayed, relishing his development of Dejounte Murray nearly as much as chasing rings. He loves the job more than the glory that comes with mastering it, and that is as good a case as any for Popovich as the GOAT coach.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach