Throughout the offseason, we will rank the top 15 coaches in NBA history. Want the whole list? Click here.
Total Seasons: 8
Total Championships: 1
Regular Season Record: 454-196
Regular Season Winning Percentage: .698
Playoff Record: 66-39
Playoff Winning Percentage: .629
Why he’s great: He may have only coached for eight years, but in that time he won 69.8 percent of his games. Only Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr won more. And, Jackson coached the greatest player of all time while Kerr has only been on the job for two seasons. His teams never won less than 47 games and that was the only year he didn’t win 50.
He integrated Moses Malone into Julius Erving’s team flawlessly. And though that kind of talent is rare, it’s worth noting that he did beat Larry Bird in the playoffs multiple times and was the only coach ever to sweep a healthy Magic Johnson.
Cunningham was known for his defenses. As head coach of the 76ers, it never fell out of the top 10 in points per 100 possessions. He accomplished that by properly integrating veterans like Bobby Jones but also through the development of lesser known players like Maurice Cheeks into defensive stoppers. Whether it was working with stars, developing young players, or building top-five units on either side of the ball, Billy Cunningham did a little bit of everything as an NBA coach and won nearly 70 percent of his games because of it.
Why he’s not higher: Once again, we have a great coach who stayed in the league for an inexplicably short time. Cunningham coached his final game at only 42-years-old. He is young enough to conceivably still coach in the NBA today. But, he never returned after leaving the 76ersa��leaving his coaching resume somewhat incomplete.
He also left a fair amount of opportunities on the table. He couldn’t solve the Magic Johnson at center dilemma, leading his Sixers to lose a very winnable NBA Finals against the Lakers who were missing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Or bizarrely choosing to bring a young Charles Barkley off of the bench for the first three games against the Celtics in 1985. Barkley started the final two games against Boston in the series, but by then it was too late.
There’s hardly a satisfying explanation for that, though it might explain why Cunningham chose to retire so young. Did he feel he couldn’t effectively coach Barkley? It’s just speculation, but few coaches would give up the chance to groom such a rare talent. Especially with Malone and Erving still on the roster. If true, it’s a major stain on Cunningham’s legacy as a coach.
For the whole list, click here.