James’ words sparked a debate that can never be truly answered because you can make the case for anyone you’d theoretically leave off. However, something noticeably absent from the discussion about the greatest players of all time was the names of the men who led and molded these great players. These players didn’t just sprout out of the ground and know how to play; they had their legacies shaped by coaches who understood exactly what it would take to get the most out of them.
Any conversation about coaching legacy, and a coach’s place amongst the greats, begins with Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach. Jackson, the Bill Russell of NBA coaches, has the most hardware and won repeatedly. Auerbach was the architect of the great Boston Celtics teams that were led by Russell. Pat Riley surely goes up there for not only what he accomplished with the Los Angeles Lakers, but with the New York Knicks and Miami as well. In fact, some can argue that Riley’s job as an executive (drafting Dwyane Wade, signing Shaquille O’Neal, assembling the Big 3 in Miami) places him on the pantheon of great executives should a Mt. Rushmore be constructed for them as well. Sticking with the coaches, we know without a doubt that those aforementioned three are locks. Whose face makes up the fourth?
There are four active coaches with NBA titles on their resume: Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Erik Spoelstra and Rick Carlisle. Popovich, in tandem with general manager R.C. Buford, has built the San Antonio Spurs into perennial contenders. Had he inserted Tim Duncan into the lineup in the final seconds of Game 6, Popovich would’ve added one more ring. Popovich has stayed in San Antonio, so longevity in one place does count for something. Rivers was a terrible coach for the Orlando Magic, and was let go from that position. However, Rivers turned around the Celtics by teaming with Danny Ainge to assemble the first Big 3 in this new era of basketball, and he was one Ray Allen shooting slump away from winning two titles in three years. Spoelstra has led the Heat to the last two NBA titles, as he’s been able to juggle the egos of James, Wade and former Toronto Raptors franchise player Chris Bosh. Spoelstra learned under the tutelage of Riley that every player gets treated the same, as evidenced by him willing to bench Bosh and Wade during the Big 3’s inaugural season because they would not play defense the way he expected them too. Spoelstra’s in the conversation.
Then, there’s Rick Carlisle. After Carlisle was passed over by the Indiana Pacers in favor of Isiah Thomas, he was hired by the Detroit Pistons. However, after back-to-back 50-win seasons, back-to-back division titles and a Coach of The Year award, Carlisle was replaced by Larry Brown. The latter went on to win a championship with Carlisle’s players two seasons later. Carlisle was rehired by the Pacers as their head coach to replace Thomas and led the Pacers to a franchise-record 61 wins during his first season. The Pacers advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to Brown’s Pistons. Carlisle led the Pacers back to the playoffs the following year, despite dealing with the aftermath of the “Palace Brawl,” where the Pacers lost again to the Pistons. The Pacers’ decision to not retain Carlisle has worked out beautifully for the Dallas Mavericks.
Carlisle has amassed 555 wins (more than Spoelstra), missed the playoffs twice (less than Rivers) and had six 50-win seasons (more than Rivers and Spoelstra). He’s been able to do all of this with three different rosters. The only coach who has a clear advantage over him is Popovich, namely because of the titles. Popovich has had the benefit of coaching Tim Duncan for his entire career. Carlisle coached his best when matched up against the contemporaries he’s mentioned with; the Mavericks’ win over the Heat in the Finals (where Carlisle out coached Spoelstra), and the battles that Carlisle has had with Popovich stand out in regards to this. I’d rank him below Popovich, but maybe it’s not that simple. Either way, somebody gets left out. Just ask Bill Russell.
Dalbin Osorio is a Mavericks Writer for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Disable_MMi.