Don Nelson won his 1,333rd game as an NBA head coach in 2010. That made him the winningest coach of all time. He won only two games after that before ultimately retiring with his name in the history books. He held that record for 12 whole years before Gregg Popovich passed him with win No. 1,336 on Friday. Popovich, like Nelson, isn’t expected to hang around all that much longer. He might retire at the end of the year, he might prowl San Antonio’s sideline for a few more, but at 73 years old, he probably doesn’t have that many wins left in his illustrious career. It won’t be too long before Popovich’s final tally is carved into the record books.
That number is going to be the new benchmark, and based on his 300-win lead over all other active coaches, his contemporaries might need more than 12 years to finally catch him. So with Popovich’s record now official, let’s take a look at which active coaches could one day challenge his win total and what it will take for them to actually get there. For a coach to reach to Popovich, they’ll need three things above all else:
Longevity. Winning more than 1,300 NBA games means coaching more than 1,300 NBA games. You’d be surprised how few coaches actually get to do that. Even if a coach went undefeated, they would need more than 16 full seasons to reach Popovich. In the more likely scenario in which that coach doesn’t go undefeated, we’re probably looking at a 30-year career out of any possible record-chasers.
Winning. Yes, another obvious one… the winningest coach in NBA history needs to actually win games. But it’s not just volume that matters here. It’s speed. It took Nelson 2,398 games to set his record. Popovich set his in 2,030. He won so consistently and at such a historic rate that he was able to set the record despite not coaching his first NBA game until he was 47. It’s not enough to be decent for a long time. You have to coach reliably excellent teams, which brings us to the third factor.
Luck. Popovich consistently credits Tim Duncan for his successful career. Had the ping pong balls bounced a different way, this story might be about Rick Pitino. In addition to competence and longevity, any coach hoping to chase Popovich will need to be lucky.
With that in mind, here are a few coaches to watch out for as possible record-chasers.