Most NBA followers know that the Los Angeles Lakers were originally the more-aptly named Minneapolis Lakers early in their history. In the franchise's NBA history, it has had 28 coaches, with three of those serving more than one tenure. In 75 NBA seasons, the Lakers have reached the playoffs 63 times, only twice missing the postseason in consecutive seasons. But there are two years prior to the Lakers' NBA history that include another championship.
The franchise began as the short-lived Detroit Gems of the National Basketball League in 1946, the same season the BAA launched, including a club in Detroit, the Falcons, which folded after one season. The Gems, mostly a collection of local players, were coached by Joel Mason and lasted for one 4-40 season before the club was sold and relocated to Minneapolis.
The Lakers revamped their roster, hired John Kundla off the campus of the University of St. Thomas in nearby St. Paul and after adding star big man George Mikan from the folding Chicago American Gears, finished 43-17 and won the NBL championship. They jumped to the BAA the following season, which is where we begin our look at their coaching history.
The John Kundla years (Acts I and II)
John Kundla remained the coach of the Minneapolis Lakers after the jump to the BAA and from 1948-57 led the team to the playoffs every season. The Lakers won five championships between 1949-54 but dipped in the standings after George Mikan's retirement at the end of the 1953-54 season.
Kundla was bumped to the general manager's post for the 1957-58 season, with Mikan hired as the new head coach. The Hall of Fame center was a disaster on the bench and was fired with the club at 9-30 at the All-Star break. Kundla took on the dual role of coach-general manager and led Minneapolis to an upset of the defending champion St. Louis Hawks in the 1959 playoffs before it was swept by the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.
Kundla resigned his post at the end of that season, knowing the team was headed to Los Angeles in a year. His record with the Lakers over parts of 11 seasons was 423-302 with the five championships. He coached at the University of Minnesota for nine seasons and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995.
The turbulent 1960s
From the 1959-60 season through 1970-71, the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers had five head coaches and reached the NBA Finals seven times — losing them all.
In 1959, owner Bob Short took over as his own general manager and hired Elgin Baylor's former collegiate coach John Castellani to succeed Kundla. He lasted half the season before resigning on Jan. 2, 1960, with the club at 11-25. Pollard finished the 25-50 campaign before Short took the team in a different direction, west to Los Angeles and turned the coaching reins over to a different man with a connection to a young star.
Fred Schaus was 146-37 in six seasons as head coach at West Virginia, where his club reached back-to-back Final Fours with Jerry West as their star. The Lakers drafted West in 1960 and hired Schaus to coach the club. Over seven seasons, Schaus' Los Angeles teams were 315-245 with four NBA Finals losses.
Schaus moved up to general manager after the 1966-67 season and hired Princeton's Butch van Breda Kolff to replace him. The Lakers were 107-57 with two Finals losses and van Breda Kolff resigned before owner Jack Kent Cooke could fire him. Next up another coach from the collegiate ranks, Providence's Joe Mullaney. Los Angeles went to the Finals in his first season but was fired after the 1970-71 campaign with a 94-70 record.
Enter Bill Sharman
Bill Sharman already had an established reputation as a pro coach, leading the San Francisco Warriors to the NBA Finals in 1967 before piloting the ABA's Stars to back-to-back finals appearances in 1969 and 1970, winning the ABA title in Utah in 1969-70.
He was hired to take over the Lakers in July 1971 and with innovative ideas such as morning shootarounds, led the team to its first title since moving to Los Angeles in his first season at the helm. The Lakers returned to the Finals in 1973 before hitting a decline. After a 246-164 record in five seasons, Sharman was re-assigned as general manager, with Jerry West replacing him on the bench.
West was 145-101 over three seasons before he was designated as Sharman's assistant GM. The Lakers hired Portland Trail Blazers assistant Jack McKinney as West's replacement, but he sustained serious injuries when the gears on his bicycle locked and he hit his head on the pavement. Assistant coach Paul Westhead wound up directing the team to the NBA title in 1979-80.
Westhead was named full-time head coach and remained there until losing a battle for control with star point guard Magic Johnson, resulting in his firing on Nov. 19, 1981, with a 111-50 record.
Assistant coach Pat Riley was elevated to the first chair on the bench to replace Westhead and a new Los Angeles Lakers dynasty was born. In parts of nine seasons, Riley led the Lakers to a 533-194 record and seven NBA Finals appearances, winning four championships.
It was under Riley's watch that the Showtime Lakers were born. Led by Johnson, Los Angeles dominated the Western Conference, going 102-47 in the playoffs, before Riley retired from coaching (briefly) after the 1989-90 season.
Milwaukee Bucks assistant Mike Dunleavy replaced Riley and took the Lakers back to the NBA Finals in 1991. But Johnson's retirement in the wake of his HIV diagnosis in November 1991 changed the paradigm of the Lakers, who were 43-39 in 1991-92 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. Dunleavy resigned to take the Bucks coaching position and assistant Randy Pfund became head coach.
Pfund was fired in March 1994 with a record of 66-80. After assistant Bill Bertka led the team for two games, Johnson assumed the head coaching duties to close out the season, going 5-11.
Del Harris, the coach Dunleavy replaced in Milwaukee, led a resurgence for the Lakers that began in earnest with the arrival of free agent big man Shaquille O'Neal in 1995. But Harris couldn't get Los Angeles over the top and was fired after a 6-6 start to the lockout-shortened 1999 season. Bertka coached the team for one game and Kurt Rambis, another former Laker, finished out the season.
The Lakers triangle of Phil Jackson, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant is born
After sitting out a season, Phil Jackson emerged from retirement to bring his triangle offense and his six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls to Los Angeles. The results were immediate.
The Lakers won three straight championships from 2000-02 and returned to the Finals in 2004, losing to the underdog Detroit Pistons. Jackson did not return for the 2004-05 season, with the Lakers hiring former Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich and trading O'Neal to the Miami Heat.
Tomjanovich resigned after 43 games and assistant Frank Hamblin finished out a 34-48 season. Jackson returned for the 2005-06 season and remained with the club through the 2010-11 campaign, winning two more titles in 2009 and 2010 and retiring with a 610-292 record and five championships in seven Finals appearances.
The fall of the Los Angeles Lakers
Former Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown took over the Lakers in 2011 but was fired with the club off to a 1-4 start in the 2012-13 season. After five games under interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff, Mike D'Antoni coached the team to the playoffs, but Kobe Bryant's Achilles' tendon injury doomed Los Angeles to a first-round sweep.
With Bryant and aging Steve Nash non-factors in 2013-14 due to injuries, the Lakers stumbled to a 27-55 record in 2013-14, the worst winning percentage for the team since their move to Los Angeles, and D'Antoni resigned after the season. It was the first in a franchise-record six straight non-playoff seasons that were overseen by Byron Scott (38-126) and Luke Walton (72-92).
The current era
The Lakers hired former Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel to replace Walton in 2019 and he immediately led the team to a title in the COVID-19 pandemic bubble in 2020 with stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis leading the way. But the Lakers missed the postseason in 2021-22 and Vogel was fired after going 127-98.
Current coach Darvin Ham is entering his second season after a 43-39 debut campaign in 2022-23 that culminated with a run to the Western Conference Finals.
While Phil Jackson is the winningest coach in franchise history with 610 victories, Pat Riley's .733 winning percentage is the best in team annals.
Jackson and John Kundla each won five championships with the Lakers, with Riley next with four. Bill Sharman, Paul Westhead and Frank Vogel also directed championship teams. Riley and Jackson each coached in seven NBA Finals with Los Angeles while Kundla led the Minneapolis club to six Finals appearances during his tenure in the late 1940s through the 1950s.
Jackson's 11 playoff appearances as head coach are a franchise record, followed closely by Kundla's 10 and Riley's nine.