The list of coaches to win those titles is even more exclusive. Only 33 men have achieved the NBA’s grandest prize, and an even more select group of five own half of all available NBA championship banners.2 That’s after a decade that featured five first-time coaching champions: Rick Carlisle, Erik Spoelstra, Steve Kerr, Tyronn Lue and Nick Nurse.
That leaves a looooong list of head coaches who weren’t able to achieve the sport’s grand prize. But who was the best among the ringless?
We can start to figure that out by narrowing the field down substantially to coaches who have won at least 200 regular-season games and achieved a .500 or better career record. That leaves us with 38 candidates for the greatest coach never to have won a title. (Yes, there are more successful coaches with staying power that have fallen short than there are coaches who have won it all.)
Finding the best coach on that list is daunting, especially since evaluating coaches is challenging on its own. But after crunching numbers that best approximate the many difficult-to-measure elements of coaching, there’s one who stands above the other 37: Jerry Sloan, the longtime Utah Jazz coach.
Sloan, who died May 22 at age 78, possesses all the basic qualities for this honor. His 1,221 career regular season wins rank fourth overall and second to Don Nelson among coaches who never won the big one. He leads the titleless coach group in playoff wins with 98, almost 20 games ahead of second-place George Karl. He’s third in that group of 38 in regular-season winning percentage, and he made the Finals twice, something only Rick Adelman can say among those who fell short.
|Stan Van Gundy||12||523||.577||48||1|
|Jeff Van Gundy||11||430||.575||44||1|
|Butch van Breda Kolff||9||266||.513||21||0|
|Vinny Del Negro||5||210||.533||10||0|
Sloan stands out among all the different kinds of coaches on this list. He possessed the elite winning percentage achieved by relative newcomers like Billy Donovan, Brad Stevens and Mike Budenholzer, but in a far larger sample size. And he had the longevity of Karl, Nelson and Adelman but stayed mostly in one place during his career.
Sloan was fired just once in his career, by the Bulls during the 1981-82 season — bet they wish they had that one back — and he abruptly retired in 2011 after a postgame argument with point guard Deron Williams. That’s two departures from two teams in 26 seasons. By contrast, the trio of Karl, Adelman and Nelson coached a total of 16 teams in their 81 combined seasons.
Other longtime coaches had down years and clashes with superstars. Sloan almost never did. He won at least 50 games 13 times,3 finished .500 or above in all but three seasons and made the playoffs 21 times in 26 tries. He won 60 percent of all regular-season games over his career.
Of course, successful coaching can’t be measured merely by wins and losses. A winning coach may just be lucky enough to have great talent at his disposal. Phil Jackson had Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Pat Riley had Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dwyane Wade. Gregg Popovich had Tim Duncan. Red Auerbach had Bill Russell. Sloan had Karl Malone and John Stockton. Did Sloan squeeze more success out of his rosters than the talent suggested he should have?
That’s a difficult question to answer definitively, but one way to tackle it is to see how Sloan’s teams fared versus their preseason expectations. Using Basketball-Reference.com and SportsOddshistory.com, I was able to find preseason Vegas championship odds every season since 1984-85 and preseason over/under win totals going back to 2001-02, as well as for 1993-94, 1996-97, 1997-98 and 1999-2000.4
For the win totals, I simply subtracted the team’s over/under mark from its eventual record each season. Positive numbers represent overachieving squads, while negative numbers represent underachieving ones.5 Title odds were trickier. I looked at where the team ranked on the preseason title odds list, then subtracted that by its position when it was ultimately eliminated in the playoffs.6 For example, the Jazz had the 10th-best odds to win the title going into the 1996-97 season, but finished second because they lost the Finals. That season, the Jazz “outperformed” their preseason title expectations by eight spots.7 Again: positive numbers for overachievers, negative numbers for underachievers. (This is a bit crude because it doesn’t take the actual Vegas price into account, but it at least gives us a baseline to measure playoff success based on preseason expectations.)
Sloan holds up well here. In the 14 seasons for which we have data, Sloan’s teams beat their Vegas over/under by 4.3 wins per year, on average. By comparison, Karl’s teams won 2.5 more games than their Vegas over/under, and Nelson’s teams 1.9. Meanwhile, his Jazz teams finished an average of 1.5 spots higher than their place on the preseason title odds in the 22 seasons for which we have title odds data.
When you combine that with his unparalleled success and longevity, Sloan’s resume as the best coach to fall short of a championship is unmatched. That probably means as much to Jazz fans as their victory in SB Nation’s quest to find the best team to never win a title, but hey, it’s something.
RIP, Jerry Sloan.