The “Sixers Six” is a series of top-six lists on a variety of Sixers topics, both past and present.
Today’s Sixers Six ranks the top six head coaches in team history. The franchise has been fortunate enough to have been led by some of the best basketball minds to ever roam the NBA sidelines. While longevity has lacked for some of the team’s best, these coaches’ contributions to success and winning should not be understated. Here is the list:
6) Gene Shue
– 334 games: 157-177 (.470 W/L%)
– Playoffs: 11-11 (.500 W/L%) [2 appearances]
– Eastern Conference Champions (1977)
– Coached 4 All-Stars (Mix, McGinnis, Collins, Erving)
After the disastrous 1972-73 season that saw the team win just 9 games, the Sixers needed someone to give some direction the franchise. Enter longtime Baltimore Bullets head coach Gene Shue. Under his watch, the Bullets made the playoffs five out of his seven seasons, and once made the NBA Finals (1971). But a disappointing first round exit in 1973 led to his firing in Baltimore and the Sixers quickly pounced to make Shue its head coach.
The Sixers didn’t win much his first two seasons, but Shue had the Sixers back in the playoffs by his third season. With a stacked offensive roster, Shue and the Sixers reached the NBA Finals in 1977, just four years after the nine-win debacle. But unfortunately for Shue, it was all downhill from there. The Sixers lost to the Trail Blazers in six games after taking a 2-0 lead in the series. Shue was fired just six games into the 1977-78 season. Shue would go on to coach another 10 seasons in the NBA, but Sixers fans will never forget the team’s meltdown against Portland. But Shue, for his faults, deserves some credit for getting the team back the Finals just four seasons after hitting rock bottom.
5) Dolph Schayes
– 240 games: 129-111 (.538 W/L%)
– Playoffs: 9-21 (.429 W/L%) [3 appearances]
– NBA Coach of the Year (1966)
– Coached 5 All-Stars (Walker, Greer, Jackson, Costello, Chamberlain)
Dolph Schayes is better known as one of the best players of the 1950s with the Syracuse Nationals, but was one of the franchise’s most successful coaches, albeit for a short time. Schayes became player-coach when the franchise moved from Syracuse to Philadelphia in 1963. The team struggled his first season, going 34-46, but bounced back the next year after acquiring Wilt Chamberlain. Schayes’ Sixers finished the 40-40 and made the playoffs. The Sixers upset Oscar Robertson and the Cincinnati Royals in the first round, and took the 62-18 Celtics to seven games in the Eastern finals. The Sixers had a chance to beat the Celtics, but John Havlicek infamously stole the ball, stopping the Sixers from reaching the NBA Finals.
The next year the team dramatically improved its record in 1965-66, finishing the season 30 games over .500, while earning a first-round bye in the playoffs. However, the Sixers were once again thwarted by the Celtics in the Eastern Finals in five games. Following the disappointing loss to Boston for a second straight season, Schayes was relieved of his coaching duties. While the previous two seasons led to heartbreak against Boston, Schayes was instrumental in helping build and develop the 76ers roster that would win 68 games and the championship the very next season.
4) Al Cervi
– 630 games: 366-264 (.581 W/L%)
– Playoffs: 37-29 (.561 W/L%) [7 appearances]
– 2-time Eastern Division Champions (1950, 1954); NBA Champions (1955)
– NBL Coach of the Year (1949)
– Coached 5 NBA All-Stars (Schayes, Rocha, Seymour, Gabor, Costello)
Al Cervi was one of the best players of the now-defunct NBL with the Rochester Royals in the mid-1940s, but after a salary dispute with owner Les Harrison, Cervi joined the Syracuse Nationals as player-coach in 1948. Cervi remained player-coach through the team’s transition from the NBL to the NBA and traded his jersey in for a suit in 1953. Two years later, Cervi and the Nationals were NBA champions, the first title in franchise history. In his nine seasons as Syracuse’s coach, Cervi led the Nats to the playoffs eight times and helped develop Dolph Schayes into a Hall of Famer. Cervi himself was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985. While Cervi is the greatest coach in Nationals’ history, he has to settle for fourth in franchise history.
3) Larry Brown
– 460 games: 255-205 (.554 W/L%)
– Playoffs: 28-30 (.483 W/L%) [5 appearances]
– Eastern Conference Champions (2001)
– Coached 3 All-Stars (Iverson, Ratliff, Mutombo)
Larry Brown coached 10 teams over 30 years, but perhaps his most notable stop was in Philadelphia. Brown helped transform the fledgling Sixers into title contenders in just four years, culminating in the magical run to the NBA Finals in 2001. But the Larry Brown-Sixers story can’t be told without mentioning his relationship with franchise superstar Allen Iverson. The two did not get along well early in their relationship, which nearly led Iverson being traded away. The two were able to find common ground, and under Brown’s guidance, Iverson became MVP. Brown led the Sixers to five straight playoff appearances before leaving to coach the Detroit Pistons in 2003. A Hall of Fame coach who developed a 6’0 guard from Newport News, Virginia into an MVP and Hall of Famer himself, deserves a high spot on this list.
2) Alex Hannum
– 1960-1963; 1966-1968 (5 seasons)
– 402 games: 257-145 (.639 W/L%)
– Playoffs: 26-20 (.565 W/L%) [5 appearances]
– NBA Champions (1967)
– Coached 8 All-Stars (Yardley, Schayes, Costello, Greer, Shaffer, Kerr, Chamberlain, Walker)
–Bill Russell played in the NBA for 13 seasons and won the NBA title in 11 of those seasons. Who beat him the other two years? Alex Hannum. Once with the St. Louis Hawks in 1958 and the other with the Sixers in 1967.
Hannum originally coached the Nationals for three seasons in the early 1960s before leaving to coach Wilt Chamberlain and the San Francisco Warriors in 1963. The offseason following Chamberlain’s return to Philadelphia Hannum was back with the franchise. His goal was simple: turn a supremely talented team into winners. His first season back, the Sixers absolutely dominated the league, winning 68 games in the regular season, a then-NBA record. Hannum led the team to playoff victories over the Royals, the Celtics, and then the Warriors to win the title, cementing its legacy as one of the greatest teams of all-time.
Hannum left the team once again in 1968 to coach the Oakland Oaks of the ABA, but his legacy was already sealed in Philadelphia basketball lore. Hannum was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach in 1998. While he doesn’t get mentioned as one of the great coaches in NBA history, Hannum is certainly a legend in Philadelphia.
1) Billy Cunningham
– 1978-1985 (8 seasons)
– 650 games: 454-196 (.698 W/L%)
– Playoffs: 66-39 (.629 W/L%)
– 3 Eastern Conference Champions (1980, 1982, 1983); NBA Champions (1983)
– Coached 6 All-Stars (Erving, Collins, Jones, Toney, Malone, Cheeks)
The clear-cut top choice is Billy Cunningham. His Sixers’ team dominated in the regular season, making the playoffs every year he was at the helm. His .698 regular season winning percentage ranks third all-time, behind Steve Kerr and Phil Jackson, and just ahead of Gregg Popovich. After a premature retirement in 1976, Cunningham became an assistant under Gene Shue. Cunningham quickly ascended to head coach when Shue was fired early in the 1977-78 season.
Under Cunningham’s watch, the Sixers made three NBA Finals appearances and only twice in eight years did the team fail to make the Eastern Conference finals. After years of failing to deliver a championship to Philadelphia, Cunningham and his team finally did so in 1983, winning 12 of their 13 playoff games in the process. Cunningham resigned as head coach following the 1984-85 season, subsequently retiring from coaching at just 42 years old. While Cunningham was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1986, his contributions as a head coach should not be forgotten.
Just Missed the List: Jim Lynam, Matt Guokas, Paul Seymour, Brett Brown