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NBA’s Greatest Player-Coach Combos

Posted By Steven Keys On Jun 16 2013 @ 2:31 pm In NBA | No Comments

We spend a lot of time these days defining greatness.

The litmus tests, those certified by the Bureau of Sporting Weights & Measures, within the Department of Tumultuous Merriments, are as follows: 1) championship hardware; 2) personal accolades (MVPs), and 3) stacks & stacks o’ stats.

That’s the public arena.

Privately, for some, anyway, greatness is measured with a different set of criteria, though, the word ‘bias’ may be closer to the truth.

In the subconscious mind, where good & evil are suppose to do battle, it’s the love of celebrity and the fixation on all things contemporary that bestow greatness upon the athlete. Here, historical perspective rides the bench.

And once in a blue moon you might even hear about these standards: competition & stability.

You need look no further than last year’s NBA Finals to see why competition matters in the greatness debate.

This time last year the Miami Heat were having little trouble with the new kids on the block, the Oklahoma City Thunder. After giving up G1 to the upstart plainsmen the Heat proceeded to sweep OKC outta’ the Finals (4-1). Miami looked…great.

But in these 2013 Finals the Heat have some serious competition in form of San Antonio Spurs, a team laden with know-how, accolades and discipline. As of this write the series is knotted at 2-2 and it’s anybody’s championship for the taking. Competition matters.

As for stability, take a look at Wilt Chamberlain.

Maligned more for his frequent failures versus Bill Russell and the Celtics in eight NBA post-season meetings (1-7) than credited for his tremendous skill and certain success, Wilt lacked that which Bill must’ve felt blessed to have had: career stability.

Russell played for one team (Celtics), one coach (not counting himself) his entire NBA career (13). Wilt, on the other hand, rostered on four clubs, three cities and numerous coaches in his 14 seasons. Had he had the stability (not entirely outta’ his control) enjoyed by Russell, it’s not hard to imagine more championships having come his way.

It’s rare in sport to find a leader who can garner titles and accolades, moving from team to team, coach to coach. Not so uncommon for supporting cast (Lonnie Smith / Marv Fleming / Rob Horry), but the traveling top dog, it’s as rare today as a care-driven doctor’s office.

At the heart of stability is the head coach. It’s become trendy to espouse assistants as the real power behind the throne. Fiddlesticks. Watch a game, see who’s in charge.

Gurus (That’s not trendy, right?) can be hands-on, attending every aspect of play, not controlling, necessarily, just that some people’s motors rev high. Others, they’re fine-tuners, carefully choosing when to impart their guidance, wisdom or rebuke.

It goes without saying that some of the best player-coach combos go un-noticed. They fly under the radar because they never reached the mountain top or took longer to hit the high notes and make music.

Listed here then are those classy combos that came in loud & clear.

The following is a “Who’s Who” list of player-coach amalgamations whose melodies topped the charts. Keep in mind, like the Founders found in Philly that sweltering summer of 1787, ‘listing’ is fraught with frustration & foibles. But as Ben Franklin (could’ve) said, ‘Hey, you do the best you can and cross your fingers.’

Honorable Mentions

St. Louis Hawks (1956-61): Alex Hannum, Ed Macauley, Paul Seymour, Bob Pettit, Slater Martin, Jack McMahon, Jack Coleman, Clyde Lovellette, Chuck Share, Cliff Hagan, John McCarthy, Si Green, Al Ferrari, Lenny Wilkens (R): Champion 1958.

76ers (1979-83): Billy Cunningham, Moses Malone, Bob Jones, Steve Mix, Andrew Toney, Maurice Cheeks and Julius Erving; Champion 1983.

Celtics (2007-10): Doc Rivers, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kendrick Perkins, Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett; Champion 2008.

Rockets (1993-95): Rudy Tomjanovich, Otis Thorpe, Kenny Smith, Vernon Maxwell, Robert Horry, Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon; Champions 94-95.

Jazz (1994-98): Jerry Sloan, Karl Malone, Jeff Hornacek, John Stockton, Byron Russell; Finals 97-98.

Bucks (1969-74): Larry Costello, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor), Jon McGlocklin, Bobby Dandridge, Oscar Robertson and Lucius Allen; Champions 1971.

LA Lakers (1971-73): Bill Sharman, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, Jim McMillian, Happy Hairston; Champion 1972.

SuperSonics (Thunder) (1977-80): Lenny Wilkins, Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma, Fred Brown, John Johnson, Lonnie Shelton; Champion 1979.

Bullets (Wizards) (1976-79): Dick Motta, Elvin Hayes, Phil Chenier, Bobby Dandridge, Wes Unseld, Kevin Grevey, Mitch Kupchak, Tom Henderson; Champion 1978.

The Toppers

Minneapolis Lakers (1948-54)

John Kundla, George Mikan, Jim Pollard, Vern Mikkelsen and Slater Martin

Kundla (48-59) and Mikan, NBA’s first great big man (46-54, 56), joined forces in Minneapolis in 1948 in the NBA precursor BAA, winning their first of five titles and launching the first pro dynasty in Lakers’ purple. George died in 2005 (80) but John, living in Minnesota, is approaching his 97th year of life (7-3-16) and reportedly still watches the NBA (Wikipedia).

Celtics (1950-69)

Red Auerbach, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Sam Jones, Tom Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey, Bill Russell, Tom Sanders, K.C. Jones, Willie Naulls, Tom Loscutoff, Don Nelson, Bailey Howell, Larry Siegfried and John Havlicek 

Auerbach joins Boston same year as Holy Cross’ Cousy (1950-63, 69-70 CIN), winning six NBA trophies together, first coming upon arrival of USF man Russell at conclusion of the 56-7 season. Before Bill assumes player-coach duties in the 66-7 season, he & Red win nine titles and set pro basketball’s gold standard in stability & collaboration.

Knicks (1969-74)

Red Holzman, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Dick Barnett, Jerry Lucas, Earl Monroe, Cazzie Russell and Willis Reed

Maybe the most competitive era in NBA history and Madison Square Garden was home to some of the best it had to offer. The Celtics, Knicks, Bucks, Lakers and Bullets were the giants that slugged it out under the rim before the 3-pointer tamed the game.

Celtics (1973-76)

Tom Heinsohn, Jo Jo White, Don Chaney, Paul Silas, Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, Don Nelson, Paul Westphal and Charlie Scott

Hondo Havlicek was that rarity in sport: a top athlete who survived & contributed under three coaching regimes (Nelson, too), and gave leadership all along the way.

Los Angeles Lakers (1981-89)

Pat Riley, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper, Jamaal (Keith) Wilkes, Norm Nixon, Bob McAdoo, Kurt Rambis, Byron Scott, A.C. Green, Mychal Thompson, Mitch Kupchak and James Worthy

This combo, that includes the best player all-time on my list (Magic), made seven Finals and won four NBA titles in the 1980s (a fifth with coach Paul Westhead in 79-80 that started the run). “Showtime” was their moniker and they rarely disappointed, only once giving way to the Boston bunch in maybe the game’s greatest rivalry (’84-85, 87) in possibly its finest decade.

Celtics (1981-87)

Bill Fitch, K.C. Jones, Larry Bird, Dennis Johnson, Robert Parish, Danny Ainge, Nate Archibald, Rick Robey, Cornbread Maxwell, M.L. Carr, Gerald Henderson, Scott Wedman and Kevin McHale

Fitch guides Boston to 1st title in the Bird era (81), is replaced in 83 by Jones who wins a ring first shot in stopping Showtime (84) and grounding the Rockets again in 86 Finals.

Pistons (1987-91) 

Chuck Daley, Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Joe Dumars, Vin Johnson, James Edwards, Mark Aguirre, Adrian Dantley, Rick Mahorn, John Salley and Dennis Rodman

In a five year span, these Pistons made five consecutive Eastern Conference (‘87-91) and three NBA Finals (‘88-90), then winning back-to-back O’Briens (1989-90). In looking back, “The Bad Boys” weren’t so baa…wait a minute, they were pretty nasty, but it wasn’t bratty, more mature, more like, attitude with purpose that got results.

Bulls (1991-98) & Lakers (2000-10) 

Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, Scott Pippen, Horace Grant, B.J. Armstrong, Bill Cartwright, Toni Kukoc, Luc Longley, Steve Kerr, Dennis Rodman, Kobe Bryant, Shaq O’Neal, Pau Gasol, Andy Bynum, Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom

With Zen-Meister at the helm Bulls win six titles in 8 years (‘91-93, 96-98), eclipsing the 72 Lakers’ record haul (69) in RS wins (72), while Kobe Lakers reach seven Finals and raise five NBA banners (00-02, 09-10). In the greatest coach debate, Phil gets the nod. Before PJ arrives the rosters are strong but it’s Frustration City. Enter Phil, trophy case fills fast.

Spurs (1999-13)

Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Dave Robinson, Tony Parker, Malik Rose, Bruce Bowen, Brent Barry and Manu Ginobil

When Demon Deacon Duncan arrives in Texas to join 3rd year coach Popovich for the 98-99 season, it begins the longest duet of success in NBA history. Contributions have been steady and significant, with Pop & Tim always the constants. They lacked the flair of Showtime and celebrity of Jordan-mania but nothing is cooler than reliability & success. Whatever the result of Finals 2013 (If Tony’s accurate (“(ham) tear anytime“), he can’t be 80% and should sit) it’s been a joyous ride for Spurs’ fans and the NBA.

Heat (2011-13)

Erik Spoelstra, Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, LeBron James, Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh

The “new kid(s) in town,” so to speak. History books are laden with star-studded rosters that couldn‘t jump the hump. So, that Erik’s managed to work synergy and guide this team of big-shots to 3 Finals (11-13) is no small feat. Cut from same cloth as Daley, Jackson and Jones, saving lectures for critical mass, Erik, LeBron & rest of Miami are on the cusp of greatness (2-2 SA). In the long view, Wade’s wearing but the Association competition is aged or sparse.

Steven Keys

Nothing But Net

Photo Credit: P. Jackson & M. Jordan / 97 / S. Lipofsky / wc.cc

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