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Fran Blinebury

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Coaches George Karl (left) and Don Nelson are two Hall of Famers in waiting.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Seven splendid coaches still awaiting the Hall of Fame call


Posted Sep 7 2011 9:12AM - Updated Nov 20 2011 9:24PM

You win 1,335 games, more than any other coach in NBA history. You are directly connected with the league, as either a player or coach, for nearly half a century. You take three different franchises -- Milwaukee, Dallas and Golden State -- and make them relevant in the playoffs. You are Don Nelson and you still haven't been voted into the Hall of Fame.

Admission to the Hall, which can be a long, confusing and often times arbitrary process, seems to be especially so for NBA coaches. A list of those enshrined includes many of the obvious choices -- Red Auerbach, Lenny Wilkens, Red Holzman, Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, Jerry Sloan, to name a few -- and yet there are more than a handful still out there who should not be overlooked.

Don Nelson (1335-1063 career record): Does the fact that he's never won a championship as a coach keep the door locked? Should that really be criteria? If so, how do you explain Jerry Sloan? From his early days in Milwaukee when his teams kept banging their heads against the Eastern Conference dynasties of Boston and Philly, Nellie made the game fun to play and exciting to watch. He implemented the "point forward" with the Bucks. In two different runs at Golden State, he was daring enough to use the likes of Rod Higgins and Al Harrington at center. While in Dallas, he helped pick a moribund franchise up off the floor and began the long process that led to the 2011 Mavs championship. Sure, he's used his share of gimmicks, but the truth is virtually all of them have worked.

Gregg Popovich (797-383): The guy who inevitably puts Pop's name into nomination for the Hall will have to answer to Pop. He doesn't like the limelight or the notoriety; in fact, most of the time he sneers at it. He can be brusque and downright cranky. But none of those ia a good reason for keeping him from being enshrined right now. He is currently the longest-tenured coach in the NBA and ranks behind only Tony LaRussa of the St. Louis Cardinals in all four major American sports. He's won four championships. Yes, the San Antonio Spurs are Tim Duncan's team on the floor, but they are the embodiment of every single thing -- defense, commitment, sacrifice -- that Popovich believes in.

Bill Fitch (944-1106): The former Marine drill sergeant was one of the forerunners in the use of video scouting and analysis. He was meticulous in his preparation and usually got the most out of every team that he coached with his desire to play fast-breaking basketball. He retired in 1998 as the NBA's winningest coach. His career record sank below the .500 mark only due to those final seven seasons trying to resurrect the sad-sack Nets and Clippers. Fitch took the expansion Cavaliers from 15 wins in 1971 to the "Miracle of Richfield," reaching the Eastern Conference finals in 1976. He moved to Boston and in his second season led the Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish Celtics to the 1981 championship. Five years later, he coaxed a young Houston team with Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson past the defending champion Lakers and into The Finals. He's one of the few coaches in history to take two different teams to The Finals.

Dick Motta (935-1017): Holding the distinction of being the rare bird among NBA coaches who was never a player at the high school, college or pro level should almost be enough to get him in the door to the Hall. But it was that emphasis on tough, in-your-face defense that forged his reputation over 25 years. He was named Coach of the Year in 1971, amid a stretch of leading the Bulls to four consecutive 50-win seasons. He moved to Washington and won a championship with the Bullets in 1978 and returned them to The Finals in 1979. Motta was the perfect fundamentals teacher to get the Dallas Mavericks' expansion team up and running. Sloan and Rick Adelman, his former players, credited him for being a key influence on their own coaching careers.

Rudy Tomjanovich (527-416): The reluctant coach, he was pressed into taking the job of running the Rockets when Don Chaney was fired in 1992. In his first full season on the job (1992-93), "Rudy T" became the first coach in league history to take his team from the lottery to a division title in one year. Then he followed it up by guiding the Rockets to back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995. Tomjanovich was a pioneer in using a shooting forward (Robert Horry) to space the floor with 3-point shooting. An offense with a cast of long-range shooters finally enabled the Hall of Famer Olajuwon to live up to his true potential in the middle. Tomjanovich coached Team USA to the gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. His hands-off, easy-going way deflected praise, yet veteran players loved his style. He spent only 13 seasons as a coach, but is one of only six coaches in NBA history to win consecutive titles. The others -- John Kundla, Red Auerbach, Pat Riley, Chuck Daly and Phil Jackson -- are already in the Hall.

George Karl (1036-703): He became the seventh coach in NBA history to win 1,000 games when he reached the milestone on Dec. 10, 2010. He's probably traveled to more points on the map than any of the previous six to get to that plateau. Karl coached eight teams in three leagues on two continents and doesn't seem to have changed since he came out of Penn Hills (Pa.) to play at North Carolina and then with the San Antonio Spurs. He can be moody, temperamental and brutally outspoken and honest. His direct style has often been said to burn out quickly, which accounts for all the moves. Yet, it wins games, which accounts for the longevity. It seems he's being punished for the sin of no championships. But in 23 NBA seasons, he's had a losing record and missed the playoffs only three times.

Rick Adelman (945-616): When you snap a team photo, Adelman is usually the guy in the background blending in with the drapes or the wallpaper. He's not flashy and doesn't carry around the cache of the big dogs named Jackson, Riley or Popovich. But for 20 seasons on NBA benches, Adelman's offenses have been varied, innovative and very effective. His corner-post offense that got the Sacramento Kings close to the top of the mountain in the last decade has been adapted and adopted league-wide. He's known as a players' coach, not because he's easy but because he adjusts his style to the talent he has on hand. He took Portland to The Finals twice, has had only two losing seasons and missed the playoffs just four times, the last two in Houston when Yao Ming was sidelined. If he keeps the string of success going in Minnesota, Adelman might deserve his own wing in the Hall.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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