Becoming the head coach of an NBA team is a rare opportunity extended to only a select few. Regardless of whether they had a playing career in the league, these coaches must possess an in-depth understanding of the game at its highest level.
Some coaches, like Ime Udoka, Billy Donovan, Jason Kidd, Steve Kerr, Rick Carlisle, Tyronn Lue, Willie Green, Jamahl Mosley, Monty Williams and Chauncey Billups, have a background as former players.
However, at present, some of the NBA's most accomplished coaches have never participated in a game as a player.
Here are five NBA coaches who never played in the league
#1, Gregg Popovich
Gregg Popovich, one of the most well-decorated NBA coaches of all time, was never an NBA player. Popovich never played professionally but did play for the Air Force Academy.
Popovich's coaching tenure saw the San Antonio Spurs clinch five NBA championships. Throughout his coaching career, he had the privilege of coaching prominent NBA stars such as Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard, among others.
Additionally, the Popovich coaching tree is renowned for producing top-tier coaches, including figures like Mike Budenholzer, Ime Udoka, Taylor Jenkins, Monty Williams, Steve Kerr and Doc Rivers.
Gregg Popovich embarked on his NBA journey during the 1987-88 season, when he joined Larry Brown as the lead assistant coach for the Spurs. He held that position from 1988 to 1992.
However, in 1992, the entire coaching staff, including Popovich, was dismissed by team owner Red McCombs. This led to Popovich briefly working as an assistant coach under future Hall of Famer Don Nelson with the Golden State Warriors.
In 1994, he returned to San Antonio, this time as the general manager and vice president of basketball operations. Following a challenging start to the 1996–97 season for the Spurs, Popovich made the decision to relieve coach Bob Hill of his duties on Dec. 10, 1996, and assumed the role of head coach himself.
The Spurs recently announced that Popovich, who also serves as the team’s president of basketball operations, was extended to a five-year contract.
Although the specific terms of the agreement were not disclosed, it will extend Popovich's tenure in San Antonio through the 2027-28 season. According to Adrian Wojnarowski, the deal is valued at over $80 million, which is the largest for a coach in NBA history.
Popovich entered the Hall of Fame as the NBA's all-time winningest coach in August 2023.
#2, Erik Spoelstra
Erik Spoelstra, who guided the Miami Heat to two NBA championships, concluded his playing career while representing the University of Portland in 1992.
In addition to his two championships, Spoelstra is renowned for instilling a resilient spirit in his teams and creating a culture in Miami that has allowed even lesser-known players to excel and thrive.
Spoelstra began his journey with the Heat by joining the team as the video coordinator in 1995. After a couple of years, he assumed the role of assistant coach and video coordinator.
In 1999, he was promoted to assistant coach and advance scout. He became the team’s head coach in April 2008 after Pat Riley selected him to be his successor.
Last season, he guided the eighth-seeded Heat to the NBA Finals.
#3, Michael Malone
Michael Malone, the coach of the Denver Nuggets, did not have an NBA playing career, but he possesses an extensive coaching background. He is the son of Brendan Malone, a former NBA head coach.
Malone had a stint as the head coach of the Sacramento Kings during the 2013-14 season. Before that, he served as an assistant coach for various NBA teams, including the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, New Orleans Hornets and Golden State Warriors.
He coached the Nuggets to the franchise’s first title last season.
#4, Frank Vogel
Frank Vogel, the new coach of the Phoenix Suns, did not have a playing career in the NBA. He last played basketball as a member of the University of Kentucky Wildcats.
Vogel began his coaching career as the head video coordinator for the Boston Celtics and was later promoted to assistant coach. After his time in Boston, he became an assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers. Vogel then worked as an advance scout for the LA Lakers from 2005 to 2006 and the Washington Wizards from 2006 to 2007.
In 2007, Vogel became an assistant coach for the Indiana Pacers under former Celtics colleague Jim O'Brien. After O'Brien was fired on Jan. 30, 2011, Vogel was named interim coach and led the Pacers to the playoffs. He was officially named the head coach of the Pacers on July 6, 2011.
Vogel later became the coach of the Orlando Magic in May 2016. After being fired by the Magic in April 2018, Vogel was hired as the LA Lakers coach in May 2019 and won an NBA championship with them in 2020. However, he was let go by the Lakers in April 2022.
On June 6, 2023, Frank Vogel was hired to coach the Phoenix Suns.
#5, Mike Brown
Mike Brown's NBA career began in 1992 with the Denver Nuggets, where he worked as a video coordinator and scout for a period of five seasons. Subsequently, he assumed the role of assistant coach for several NBA teams, including the Washington Wizards, San Antonio Spurs and the Indiana Pacers.
In 2005, Brown became the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers and went on to earn the Coach of the Year award in 2009. However, he was relieved of his duties in May 2010. In May 2011, Brown was named the head coach of the LA Lakers but was dismissed after just five games, marking one of the swiftest coaching changes in NBA history.
He returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2013 but was once again let go a year later. Brown then served as an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors, contributing to the team's accomplishment of winning three NBA championships.
In May 2022, Brown was named as the coach of the Sacramento Kings. Under his leadership, the Kings achieved a noteworthy record of 48–34 and secured their first playoff appearance since 2006. In 2023, Mike Brown was honored as the NBA Coach of the Year, receiving unanimous approval with 100 votes and becoming the first to win the award by unanimous vote.