To be a great coach in the NBA a person must posses a detailed and thorough understanding of the game. The best way to get that kind of grasp for the game is to play it, and as the old expression says, the best teacher is experience. It should come as no surprise that many coaches in the NBA, and similar in most all other sports, at one time or another played the game they now coach.
Often times aging players will end their career in a player/coach capacity. For instance, Elton Brand is currently a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, but Brand does not get very many minutes on the court. Brand isn't as productive as he once was, but his presence in the locker room and during practice makes him a valuable member of the team. Brand is doing what many have done before him, he is priming himself for a head coaching job someday.
Throughout NBA history many great players have tried their hand at coaching, some having had more success than others. Bill Russell, Isiah Thomas, and Magic Johnson all became coaches after their playing days came to an end; they all failed miserably. These examples show that it takes more than just athletic talent and skill to be an effective coach, it takes the ability to relate to players, and also communicate with many different personalities.
Conversely, there have been some great coaches who were also magnificent players, guys like Larry Bird, and Kevin McHale jump to mind. Right now there are 30 head coaches in the NBA, 20 of them once played in the NBA, and most of the rest played in college, but were not able to make it into the league. This list will help introduce some basketball fans to great coaches who got involved in the game as a player first, and transitioned into the coaching world after their playing days were through.
15 Doc Rivers
Doc Rivers is currently the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, he was also the head man with the Boston Celtics during their Championship run of the late 2000s. What many people don't realize about Rivers, is that he had a solid 13 year career in the NBA. He spent time with four different teams, including time with the Atlanta Hawks, where he played along side Dominique Wilkins. He finished his career with a .444 FG percentage, dropping 9,377 points
14 Tyronn Lue
Tyronn Lue spent 11 years in the NBA as a backup point guard, and was part of two championship Lakers teams during the early 2000s. Lue is most famous for his role in the 2001 NBA Finals, when he had the hard task of guarding league MVP Allen Iverson.
Iverson made a corner jump shot over Lue, and during the shot Lue fell down. As Iverson made the shot he stepped over Lue in front of the Laker bench, and an iconic poster was created. Tyronn is now coaching the championship hopeful Cleveland Cavaliers.
13 Kurt Rambis
Kurt Rambis spent 14 seasons as a player in the NBA, most notably being a reserve for some of the great Lakers teams of the 1980s. Earlier this season Rambis was chosen to replace fellow ex-player, Derek Fisher, as the interim coach for the New York Knicks. Rambis has also coached the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves since he retired from the NBA in 1995. Rambis finished his career with 4,603 points and 4,961 rebounds.
12 Billy Donovan
Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan was a great player at Providence College before being selected in the third round of the 1987 draft by the Utah Jazz. Donovan spent two years in the NBA before calling it quits and transitioning into coaching. He spent 19 years as the head coach of the Florida Gators, building quite a resume that includes back to back NCAA Championships. Donovan is in his first season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and they have high hopes of winning an NBA title this season.
11 Doug Collins
Doug Collins spent eight seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers through the 1970s and early 1980s. In 1986 Collins took over as head coach of the Chicago Bulls, and helped shape a young Michael Jordan into the superstar we all know him as today. Collins would go on to coach three other franchises, including his most recent job as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, the team that drafted him way back in 1973.
10 Scott Skiles
Scott Skiles played for five teams during his 10-year NBA career. He was primarily a role player for the young Orlando Magic team that made it to the NBA finals, led by Shaquille O'Neal, and Penny Hardaway in 1995. Skiles became a head coach for the first time in 1999 when he took over for the Phoenix Suns, and is now running the show with the up and coming Orlando Magic.
9 Don Nelson
Don Nelson was drafted way by in 1962 by the Chicago Zephyrs, and his playing career lasted 13 seasons; his coaching career lasted much longer and was much more successful. Nelson was the head man for four franchises, including two separate stints with the Golden State Warriors. Nelson is now retired, but his coaching career lasted 34 years, and along the way he was named NBA Coach of the Year three times.
8 Fred Hoiberg
Fred Hoiberg spent 10 seasons in the NBA as a solid reserve shooting guard. In 2005, his final season, he was the NBA 3-point percentage leader. Holberg began coaching just five years after retiring, in 2010 when he took over as the head coach for Iowa State. In 2015 he took over coaching duties for Tom Thibodeau, who was let go as head coach of the Chicago Bulls. As the youngest person on this list, only time will tell if Hoiberg's coaching legacy will be greater than his playing days.
7 Rick Carlisle
Rick Carlisle played in 15 seasons in the NBA as a reserve combo guard. He also spent some time playing with the Albany Patroons of the CBA during his player days. Carlisle began coaching in 1989 as an assistant with the New Jersey Nets, and was given his first head coaching position with the Detroit Pistons in 2001. Carlisle led the Dallas Mavericks to an NBA Title in 2011, and currently serves as the president of the NBA Coaches Association.
6 Jerry Sloan
Jerry Sloan was drafted in 1965 as a first round pick, and spent 11 seasons in the NBA as a guard/forward combo. He spent ten of his 11 seasons with the Chicago Bulls after being drafted by the Baltimore Bullets, and was a two time All-Star.
His coaching career began in 1978 when he took over as an assistant with the Bulls and the following season he was named head coach. Sloan will be remembered most for his run with the Utah Jazz from 1988-2011 where Sloan was the mastermind behind the Stockton and Malone Jazz teams, who made two NBA finals appearances. Ironically the "Original Bull" was beat both times by perhaps the most iconic Bull; Michael Jordan.
5 Lenny Wilkens
Lenny Wilkens is a basketball lifer; he began his professional playing career in 1960 when he was drafted sixth overall by the St. Louis Hawks. Wilkens spent 15 years in the NBA as a star point guard, and he was selected to nine All-Star games during his playing career.
Wilkens began coaching in 1969 with the Seattle SuperSonics, he would coach the team to its first NBA Championship in 1979. Wilkins retired from coaching after 36 years on the sidelines, but he is still involved with the NBA as an analyst.
4 Pat Riley
Pat Riley has worn many hats during his NBA life. He started as the seventh overall draft pick in the 1967 NBA Draft. Riley spent his playing career as a scrappy guard/forward for nine seasons for the Rockets, Lakers and Suns. He transitioned to coaching in 1979 as an assistant for the Los Angeles Lakers, and in 1981 he was hired to be the team's head coach.
Riley went on to guide the Lakers to many NBA titles with Magic Johnson and the rest of the "Showtime" Lakers teams. Riley retired from coaching in 2008 as a five time NBA Champion and three time Coach of the Year. Riley now runs the front office of the Miami Heat organization.
3 Larry Brown
Brown was drafted in 1963 and spent nine years playing professional basketball, spending time in both the ABA and NBA. Brown began coaching while still playing, when in 1965 he was hired as an assistant for the University of North Caolina, all while still playing in the ABA.
Brown has coached for a combined 14 different teams, including college and professional organizations. His coaching career has spanned over six decades, and he is currently the coach for the SMU Mustangs, who have a legitimate shot at winning an NCAA Championship this season.
2 George Karl
George Karl's NBA career began in 1973 when he was drafted by the New York Knicks as the 66th overall pick and spent five years playing ball in the NBA and ABA. He broke into coaching in 1978 when he was hired as an assistant for the San Antonio Spurs. Karl has since had 12 stops during his coaching career, including his run with the 1995-96 Seattle SuperSonics, which ended with a tough loss to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA finals. Karl is currently the head coach for the Sacramento Kings, who are in the midst of rebuilding their team back to contention.
1 Phil Jackson
"The Zen Master" was a second round pick by the New York Knicks in 1967, and he spent 11 seasons in New York before finishing his career with the New Jersey Nets. Jackson began his career as a coach in 1978 as an assistant with the Nets as well. He ultimately will be remembered for the work he did with the Michael Jordan led Chicago Bulls, and the Shaq and Kobe era Lakers. Jackson retired from coaching in 2008 and is now the head of basketball operations with the New York Knicks.