This week, it was announced that Jerry Stackhouse is in contention to become the next coach of the Toronto Raptors. As he is a longtime NBA veteran and a very successful coach for the Raptor’s G-League affiliate, Stack’s hiring would hardly be a surprise. What IS a surprise (to myself, at least) is that he would be just the fifth Tar Heel alum to hold a head coaching position in the NBA.
Think about that: With all the brilliant players that have come through Chapel Hill and the extensive coaching tree that UNC Basketball has produced, only four men have become NBA head coaches. Here they are, ranked from least successful to most.
4. John Kuester (Detroit Pistons 2009-11)
Poor John. He has the distinction of being the only unsuccessful coach of the the four. Kuester was a solid role player at UNC, serving as a backup for three years to the great Phil Ford. He was a captain on the haunted 1977 Tar Heels and played a couple of years professionally before switching over to coaching.
His early years featured a five year stint at George Washington that included a 1-27 season, as well as many different assistant jobs in the NBA, most notably a six-year period alongside UNC alum Larry Brown in Philadelphia and Detroit.
Kuester would finally get a HC job in 2009, when he took over the Pistons. Unfortunately for Kuester, the grindhouse Pistons that had gone to six straight Eastern Conference Finals were on the decline and he suffered through back to back losing seasons, eventually being fired at the end of the 2011 season.
Despite the controversy with which his time at Chapel Hill ended, Doug Moe was one of Dean Smith’s first great players and went on to be an excellent NBA head coach. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that he belongs at the two spot on this list for his consistency.
Doug Moe coached two of the forgotten teams of the 70s and 80s: The George Gervin Spurs and the Run-and-Go Nuggets. He got both teams to the conference finals; San Antonio in 1979 and Denver in 1985, but lost both series. His up-tempo style produced high-scoring, wildly entertaining squads that could never get past the great teams of their era (imagine trying to outrun the Showtime Lakers!).
Moe was named NBA Coach of the Year in 1988 and in his fifteen years of coaching made the playoffs twelve times.
2. Larry Brown (How Many? TOO Many!)
There has never been a basketball coach (or, heck, coach of ANY sport) quite like Larry Brown. The winding road that his career has followed could fill several books, with a special epilogue discussing the concept of ‘peaks’ and ‘valleys.’ Suffice to say this: Larry Brown has done some of the best coaching jobs in basketball history and some of the worst.
First, the good: He led the 2004 Pistons to an NBA title that no one thought they could win and followed it with a return trip the next season. He took the Iverson Sixers to another title game appearance in 2001. He got EIGHT different teams to the playoffs. His coaching jobs in Indiana, Philadelphia, and Detroit were all excellent. For all of this, he is a member of the Hall of Fame. He also punched Art Heyman, which makes him a legend.
Now, the bad: His 2006 season with the Knicks was a disaster. His time with the Clippers and Bobcats were nothing to write home about. The David Robinson Spurs got better when they fired him. And then there’s the simple fact that he consistently got jittery and bailed on good situations in different franchises, leaving them the worse for it.
There’s a case to be made for him being Number One on this list. There’s also a case for him being Number Three.
- Billy Cunningham (Philadelphia 76ers 1977-85)
The man they called the Kangaroo Kid (I won’t hide the fact that the nickname influenced my vote) is Number One for me. His time in Philadelphia was brief, but it was wildly successful. He led the Dr. J 76ers to two NBA Finals appearances in 1980 and 1982 and, with the addition of Moses Malone in 1983, won the NBA Championship on the 3rd try. The 1982-83 Sixers are probably the greatest NBA team that no one ever talks about (due to them playing in the 80s with the Lakers, Celtics, and Pistons) and Cunningham was the architect of the team.
In his eight years at the helm, Cunningham’s teams made the playoffs every year and won at least one series in all but the 1984 season. He ended his career with a .698 winning percentage (.629 in the playoffs). Some may (justifiably) argue that his tenure was too short to be considered over Browns 40+ seasons, but personally I’ll take short and sweet.