A lot of people look back at the 2000s era of the NBA as one where defenses could still win championships while a new era of superstars was ushered in after the retirement of Michael Jordan. During this time, there was a big shift in how the game was played, and only the best coaches who were able to adapt came out on top.
Out of the many coaches who led NBA teams from the 1999-2000 season to the 2008-09 season, which ones were the best? Here are our picks for the top five coaches of the decade, all but one of whom won an NBA title. Coaches who just missed the cut include Flip Saunders, Doc Rivers, Hubie Brown, and Avery Johnson.
5. Rick Adelman
The only coach on the list who didn’t win an NBA title but was still able to lead his teams to solid seasons is Rick Adelman. The Sacramento Kings don’t have a history of success, but the Adelman era was a great one for the franchise. He took over as head coach in 1998 after coaching the Golden State Warriors, and throughout the 2000s he reached the playoffs in every season.
Adelman never made the NBA Finals during that time, but that’s because the number one coach on the list was constantly in his way. Adelman reached the Western Conference Finals in 2002, losing in controversial fashion. The Kings finished with a 395-229 record under Adelman, good for a .633 winning percentage.
4. Pat Riley
Pat Riley was already one of the most successful coaches in basketball history by the time the 2000s rolled around. He had spent the 1980s coaching the Showtime Lakers and then much of the 1990s with the New York Knicks. In 1995, he was hired as the head coach of the Miami Heat and had a successful end of the decade.
Riley had some ups and downs during his time with the Heat, but there’s no doubt that the high moments were worth it. Riley had two seasons in which he didn’t make the playoffs during the 2000s, but he did have a season in which he won the NBA Championship. With Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal leading the way, Riley won his 5th NBA title in 2006.
3. Larry Brown
Larry Brown is one of those rare coaches who has found success in both college and the NBA. In fact, Brown is the only coach to win an NCAA Tournament and an NBA Finals. Brown won the 1988 NCAA Championship with the Kansas Jayhawks, then turned to the NBA to coach the San Antonio Spurs. He then jumped to the Clippers, Pacers, and 76ers throughout the 1990s.
Brown was still the coach of the 76ers when he reached the NBA Finals to start the 2000s, and had three straight playoff appearances before he left after the 2002-03 season. Brown then coached the Detroit Pistons for two years, and both finished with 54-28 records. Brown reached the NBA Finals on both occasions, winning the 2004 title against the lakers. He then wrapped up the 2000s with stints in New York and Charlotte.
2. Gregg Popovich
After being hired as the San Antonio Spurs coach in 1996, Gregg Popovich got off to a rocky start with a 17-47 record as the team missed the playoffs. However, the Spurs won a title before the 1990s wrapped up, and Popovich extended his great fortune throughout the 2000s. In each season, Popovich’s Spurs made the playoffs, and he won three titles during the decade.
There’s a big jump between the top two and the rest of the field, but Popovich is firmly in the second position. His worst season during the 2000s still saw his Spurs win 53 games and he never finished worse than second in his division. Unfortunately for Pop, three titles still isn’t the record for the decade.
1. Phil Jackson
Ant that’s because Phil Jackson won more champions than any other coach not only in the 1990s with the Chicago Bulls but also in the 2000s with the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson took over the Lakers head coaching gig in 1999 and he reached the NBA Playoffs in each of his seasons as a coach. Throughout the decade, Jackson won four titles, including the first three of the 2000s.
Jackson’s fourth title came in the 2008-09 season, and he added a fifth just outside of the decade as he won the 2010 championship. Jackson never had a losing record with the Lakers, and he won the Western Conference six times. He’s had two Hall of Fame-worthy careers if you count his runs with the Bulls and Lakers.