How many first year coaches have won the NBA Finals?
Ime Udoka is looking to join a select group of coaches who have won the NBA Championship in their rookie season. Game 1 of the Finals starts Thursday.
The Boston Celtics being back in the NBA Finals is the biggest thing to happen to the city since Tom Brady said farewell to the New England Patriots. Ime Udoka has made a meteoric jump in his first year on the Celtics sidelines, and now has a chance to join an elite group of coaches if Boston can top the Golden State Warriors and lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Udoka dazzling in first season in Boston
Coach Udoka was signed by the Celtics last offseason after then head coach Brad Stevens stepped down to take the General Manager position within the franchise. Udoka had spent nine seasons as an assistant coach mostly under Greg Popovich in San Antonio, then in Philadelphia under Brett Brown and the last year in Brooklyn as Steve Nash’s assistant.
If the Celtics can win four of the next seven games, then Udoka will have done what only five other coaches have done in the history of the NBA. Nick Nurse was the last rookie coach to win an NBA Title joining Tyronn Lue, Steve Kerr, Pat Riley and Paul Westhead as the only other rookies coaches to have been crowned kings of the NBA.
Nick Nurse 2019
Nick Nurse won the title in his rookie year as an NBA head coach with the Toronto Raptors after spending five years as an assistant under Dwane Casey. Casey left for the Pistons job in the 2018 after winning NBA Coach of the Year. The Raptors were rewarded for their in house promotion and their trust in their rookie coach with a 58-24 record, and then a run through the playoffs ending in an NBA Championship after beating the Golden State Warriors in Game 6.
Tyronn Lue had a brief stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but he wasted little time turning the tides. Lue had the luxury of taking over a team that had gone to the NBA Finals the year before. David Blatt was let go in the offseason after losing to the Warriors in the seventh game of the Finals. Lue stepped into a stacked team with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, who led the Cavs to a 51-31 record. The Cavs avenged their loss to the Warriors in the NBA Finals and gave the franchise it’s first ever title.
Steve Kerr had another stacked team, but the Warriors needed Kerr to push them over the hill. Mark Jackson coached Golden State to the playoffs in the previous two seasons, but fell short of the Finals both years. Kerr took over a team with Steph Curry Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, a trio that could go down as the best in NBA History. Kerr had no coaching experience before filling in on the Warriors side line. He was the GM in Phoenix from 2004-2010, but stepped down leaving his connection to the club with his one percent share in the Suns. Once he was signed he led the Warriors to a 67-15 record, and a first round birth in the post season. Golden State went on to meet and beat the Cavaliers in their first of four matchups in the NBA Finals.
Pat Riley walked into a bit of a messy situation in his first year as an NBA coach. Paul Westhead started the 1981-82 season, but Magic Johnson came out early in the year and and said he would ask to be traded if Westhead stayed on. Lakers owner Jerry Buss quickly fired Westhead, and named Jerry West the head coach. A role that West rejected in one of the strangest press conference in history. Riley took over as head coach after two years as a Lakers assistant, and quickly changed attitudes in the locker room. LA went 57-25 and lost only two games in the playoffs went on to lift the title lift the title. The MVP of the Finals was Magic Johnson.
Paul Westhead took over the Lakers just two years before getting fired. He started the 1979 year as an assistant to Paul McKinney who would be forced to miss the season because of a serious bicycle accident. Westhead led the Lakers to a 60-22 record and earned the top seed in the Conference. After nine years at La Salle Univeristy and a very short stint as an assistant he led the Lakers to the NBA Finals where they beat the Philadelphia 76ers in six games. His reign lasted only another year, as you read, before Magic Johnson pushed him out of town.
Eddie Gottlieb deserves an asterisk next to his name, but there’s really nothing he could have done. He was coach of the Philadelphia Warriors in 1947, the inaugural year of the NBA. He was coach of the Philadelphia Spahs from 1933-1946, and when Philly entered the NBA they changed their name to the Warriors. The Warriors would go on to win the first ever NBA Championship in 1947 and Gottlieb etched his name in the history books even though anyone who won it that year would have been given that distinction.