‘Basketball Nirvana’: How Rick Adelman Innovated Kings Basketball

With a unique style and approach, Sacramento’s Hall of Fame coach brought the best out of his players and instilled an offense that was ahead of its time.
by Alex Kramers
Writer, Kings.com

Inside an ear-piercing ARCO Arena, where scores of cowbells clanged and decibels reached jet-engine-at-takeoff levels, Doug Christie somehow discerned a calm, familiar voice calling his name. 

In the midst of a deep playoff run, as the pressure mounted and room for error dissipated, head coach Rick Adelman sensed his veteran guard’s mind was racing at full speed. So after a tough game, he pulled Christie aside on the way to the locker room to offer a few well-chosen words of advice.

“Just relax,” Adelman said. “Don’t worry. You’re going to make shots.”

For Christie, there was deeper meaning behind what might otherwise sound like a simple coach-to-player pep talk; there were words within words that only he could fully understand and ones he needed to hear at that place and time.

“To me, what that said is, ‘I believe in you. I’ve seen you do the work. Go ahead,’” Christie explained. “I always appreciated stuff like that from Rick. Those are the moments for a player where you get another level of respect and love for your coach.”

Adelman’s trust extended to not only Christie, but to everyone on the roster, from the All-Stars to end-of-the-rotation journeymen. Beyond the Xs and Os, he brought harmony and cohesiveness to a team with an unusual assortment of personalities and skill sets.

“It was basketball nirvana and Rick was the ring-leader,” Christie said. “His ability to deal with players, his ability to allow you to be you — inside of a structure — was different from what I’d experienced.”

Few coaches were better at motivating players and utilizing them correctly. With a blend of freedom and meaningful discipline, by optimizing strengths and curtailing weaknesses, he brought the best out of everyone who took the floor in a purple and black jersey.

The autonomy that Adelman gave Brad Miller, a uniquely-talented center who could toss a diagonal bounce pass that hit a cutter in stride or just as easily pop out for a 15-foot jumper, was all the 6-foot-11 big man needed to take his game to the next level.

“It was a dream fit for me,” said Miller, who was traded to Sacramento from Indiana prior to the 2003-04 season. “I got to have the most freedom I ever had. I led my team in assists in college, so I always loved to pass, but [NBA coaches] always looked at me like, ‘Oh, you’re just a center.’ Rick put me in the right position and had the trust to maximize some skills that [past coaches] didn’t let me do or hadn’t seen in my career. He really empowered you as a player to want to do your best and play together as a team.“

From Day 1, Adelman kept the playoff-hungry Kings humming, and by the middle of his illustrious tenure, brought the title-ambitious squads tantalizingly close to hitting the highest note.

“Whatever that magic potion was, Rick had it,” said Gary Gerould, the radio play-by-play voice of the Kings since 1985. “I don’t know who could’ve done a better job. I have so much respect for him and what he accomplished in that period of time. Players have to buy in; I think that’s the biggest challenge a coach faces. You have to have them respect what you’re trying to do and be willing to bust their butts to implement what you’re trying to put on the floor. Rick was able to push all of those buttons.”

Considering the instantly positive direction in which he veered the Kings, who reached the playoffs in all eight of his seasons, Adelman left little doubt that he was the right man to coach them.

The team’s turnaround was aided by higher-profile trades and signings, but Adelman was the missing piece, Jerry Reynolds believes, that vaulted it from an also-ran to a powerhouse.

“Looking back, I honestly think Rick was the most important part,” said Reynolds, the former Sacramento coach, executive and longtime TV color analyst. “There are other guys who’ve probably done well, but I don’t think there’s any chance they could’ve done nearly as well with that mix. 

“Even though [Chris] Webber brought great talent, I just don’t think it would’ve worked had Rick not been the coach. C-Webb wasn’t exactly thrilled about coming, but I think that initially, once he saw the way that Rick was going to utilize him and the style of play, he [changed his mind] quickly. Rick gave the freedom that C-Webb and J-Will [Jason Williams] needed, he was able to really utilize Peja [Stojakovic] and Corliss Williamson. That’s why he’s a Hall of Famer: he was able to take whatever talent he had and whatever number of games you think he should’ve won with them, he’d always win more.  I think you can put him on the level of [Gregg] Popovich in that regard.”

By the time he announced his retirement in 2014, Adelman, a four-time runner-up for Coach of the Year, cemented his place among the most successful leaders in NBA history. In April 2013, he joined an exclusive NBA coaching club, as one of nine men to win 1,000 regular-season games; 1,042 in all. 395 of those came in Sacramento, where he finished five consecutive seasons with 50 or more victories, including a franchise-record 61 in 2001-02.

Adelman holds the highest winning percentage in the franchise histories of both the Kings (.633) and Trail Blazers (.654), with 11 50-win seasons and a pair of 60-win campaigns in his 23 years behind the bench. Adelman, who also coached the Warriors, Rockets and Timberwolves, guided his teams to the playoffs 16 times, twice taking Portland to the NBA Finals, in 1990 and 1992, and reaching overtime of Game 7 in the Western Conference Finals with the Kings in 2002.

But to understand Adelman’s true, long-lasting impact, look not so much at the number of wins he stockpiled but at how he did so — and how his players reacted.

It wasn’t until Christie arrived in Sacramento — at age 30, with eight years of NBA experience on three different teams — did he learn how to play basketball the way it should be played. In his prior stops — and generally, across the league — teams ran a similar brand of antiquated, slow-paced, low-scoring offense. Far too often, wings would dump the ball to lane-clogging big men isolated on the low block, and haphazardly roam toward the basket with no expectation of catching a return pass.

That changed in Sacramento, where Adelman rejuvenated and revolutionized a stagnant game — and saved countless careers in the process.

“I remember going to set a pick for Jason Williams or Peja high, and [the defender] goes over the top, so I back-cut,” Christie said. “And Webb threw the ball to me! I was just like, ‘Holy crap!’ So now, your cutting takes on a different shape and form, because you’re cutting to get the basketball. There’s a different pace, there’s a different relationship with the passer; I’m looking at him, he’s looking at me, and he’s reading [the defense]… That’s what Rick gave us: the ability to read and have fun.”

It took a single practice for Miller to integrate himself to Adelman’s system, and recognize how his brilliant passing instincts, from both the elbow and the post, would leave defenses scrambling and generate open looks for his teammates.

“I remember the first practice when I got there, I started running the offense,” Miller said. “Webb was hurt at the beginning of that year from his knee surgery, so I kind of jumped right into the starter role. Everybody knew the offense and I was the only new guy, and after one practice, it just clicked right away. It was like, ‘Oh my goodness!’ Watching Vlade, I was like, ‘I can do that out here? Oh, yeah! This is going to be a fun team!’”

In his “corners” offense, an offshoot of the Princeton strategy perfected by Pete Carril, Adelman let his players determine where the ball would go based on the defense. Clever-passing big men typically operated in the high post — usually, Webber or Miller on the left elbow and Vlade Divac on the right — while wings cut backdoor to the basket if their counterparts fell asleep or used screens to get open behind the arc.

By facilitating constant movement and encouraging improvisation and spontaneity, the offense was exhilarating for Kings players and exhausting for their opponents. Sacramento would run up the score and run teams out of the gym; from 1998-99 through 2002-03, Adelman’s teams finished no lower than third in points and maintained the highest pace in four of five seasons.

“It’s hard [to defend], because it’s about reads; you can’t be in two places at one time,” said Christie, a four-time All-Defensive selection. “Our second unit, to be honest with you, they probably beat us the most out of anybody in the NBA.”

As impromptu as it often appeared each night, the infrastructure behind “the greatest show on court” was assembled by design, not by accident. Even the best magicians rehearse their sleight-of-hand tricks before taking the stage, and the Kings were no different, meticulously repeating every concept and mapping out every detail.

In practice, different players rotated through different positions on the floor, over and over, rehearsing every option that might unfold in a game. With a team-first philosophy, passing up a good shot for a great one became commonplace, and oftentimes, the slightest motion would initiate a major chain reaction.

“Guys always understood the cause and reaction,” Miller said. “If you did one cut and you didn’t get [the ball], that little movement probably opened up somebody else. Everybody was just really, really willing passers and just wanted everyone to succeed on the team.”

One day, to Christie’s amazement, Carril explained there were game situations when the behind-the-back pass that Williams made routinely wasn’t just for the highlight reels; sometimes, it was actually the correct basketball play.

“Up until that point, everyone called it fancy, but to Coach Adelman’s credit, he demonstrated that there's a time for it,” Christie said. “The chest pass is when you’re open and you don’t really have pressure on you. The hook pass is when you have a little bit of pressure. But when there’s [a defender] in front of you and there’s [a teammate] on the side of you, the right play is the behind-the-back pass. I was just like, ‘Wow, really?’ So now, I’m throwing the ball against the wall every day before practice, 50 to 100 times, just to make sure I got it. Then all of a sudden, it just took shape in our offense and Rick never [discouraged it].

“He wants you to be as great as you can be, but he never wants you to look over at the bench [thinking], ‘Oh, man, I screwed up.’ Don’t do it twice in a row, take your teammates into consideration and play the right way.”

By tip-off, there was rarely a situation the Kings weren’t prepared for or an alternative they hadn’t considered; nary a defensive lapse they weren’t licking their chops to exploit.

What further differentiated Adelman from coaches around the league is that even though he was in charge of a juggernaut, a team that would win more games than all but three franchises across his eight years, one of his guiding principles was: “It’s not how it gets done; it’s that it gets done.’”

So if an assistant drew up a more effective play or a veteran player suggested a better strategy mid-game, Adelman was willing to scrap his own approach and collaborate.

Talk to enough people who were around him in Sacramento, and you’ll hear similar accounts of how Adelman, private and soft-spoken, would practically go out of his way to retreat from the spotlight and deflect self-promotion.

“Rick was one of the few NBA coaches that I was ever around who really didn't put much value in public relations,” Reynolds said. “It just wasn’t important to him. He didn’t go out of his way at all, which I admired a lot. He wanted to coach his team and go home to his family, and he did that better than just about everybody.”

Adelman rarely deviated from his reserved demeanor and all-business, no-nonsense approach, whether he won or lost a game. But beneath his gruff exterior lies warmth and generosity. Each year around the holidays, he rewarded members of the organization, from his coaching and training staffs to broadcasters, with personalized stocking stuffers.

“There were times when he’d give me a little gift card from him and his wife [that said], ‘Go take Marlene out and enjoy dinner on us,” Gerould said. “He went beyond what would be expected or what would be asked of any other coach.”

During the most trying period of his life, Pete Youngman, then-Kings head athletic trainer, tightened a bond with Adelman that grew to be a close friendship.

As the 2002 playoffs commenced, Youngman learned his father’s physical condition was deteriorating from stomach cancer. The prognosis was bleak, so on the off-days between the first and second rounds, Youngman, with Adelman’s blessing, traveled to his parents’ home in Rochester, N.Y.

When he rejoined the team, Youngman would dial his father’s number on bus rides after road games, and each time, Adelman — as usual, knowing just what to say — would lean forward from his seat and engage the elder Youngman in conversations about basketball.

“It was just so special to me and to my dad, who was a huge fan of the game,” Youngman said. “Just that Rick wanted to speak to my dad meant a lot.”

On the morning of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, Youngman woke up to news that his father succumbed to the disease. When Youngman called the Kings’ travel agent to book a flight home for the funeral, he was informed that those arrangements had already been made.

“I asked, ‘What do you mean?’” Youngman said. “She said, ‘Rick already took care of it. You’re all set. First class flight to Rochester; first class back to L.A.’… To have the forethought to do that, that was touching.”

Adelman treated his players with similar reverence and affection not often seen among head coaches, running practice with the disposition of a teacher rather than a drill sergeant. He reached them by following his own advice and staying true to his natural instincts.

“I never believed you had to be a hard ass,” he recently told Kerry Eggers. “I tried to be myself. Players are going to see right through that if you’re not yourself.”

The times Adelman publicly criticized a player were few and far in between, and behind closed doors, the number of times his temper flared was even fewer. 

“In the eight years that I worked with Rick, I can count on one hand the number of times he raised his voice at the team — at half or postgame — and I’d probably have fingers left over,” Youngman said. “He knew when to push them just right and he knew when to pull back.”

Adelman was a players’ coach, in part, because he played the game himself and remembered what went through his mind during a long season, when rest was essential or when discipline was in order. A 6-foot-2 guard who was a seventh-round draft pick in 1968, he spent seven years in the NBA with five teams, including the Trail Blazers and Kansas City-Omaha Kings, with whom he ended his career before the 1975-76 season.

Rather than trying out for other teams, he retired with averages of 7.7 points and 3.5 assists, and pursued coaching. In 1977, he was named head coach at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Ore., where he led the team to a 141-39 record and three conference championships in six seasons. On off days, he’d swing by the office of Jack Ramsey, the Trail Blazers Hall of Fame coach who’d become a mentor and life-long friend.

Six years later, Adelman joined Ramsey’s staff as an assistant, and midway through the 1988-89 season, was elevated to interim head coach. Despite a 14-21 record and first-round playoff exit, he earned the respect of his players and a permanent role on the sidelines.

Around the same time, Geoff Petrie, Adelman’s former Blazers teammate and roommate on the road, became Portland’s senior VP of operations, a position he’d hold for four seasons until departing for Sacramento’s front office. When the Kings had a head-coaching vacancy in 1998, Petrie was convinced that Adelman, in between jobs after two years with the Warriors, would be the ideal fit.

In their 13 combined seasons together with the Kings and Blazers, the coach and executive pairing never missed the postseason.

“Rick always put his players first,” Petrie told Eggers. “He had a real sense of how to handle players. And he had a tremendous feel for free-flowing offense. The teams we had together were exciting to watch. The guys moved the ball and got it up and down the court.”

Adelman’s emphasis on pace and space was certainly ahead of its time, and opposing coaches were taking notice. So much so, that in his retirement press conference, Adelman quipped that it became challenging to scheme against the very sets his teams popularized and ran to perfection.

There were times that Miller, who later in his career, reunited with Adelman in Houston and Minnesota, would call out the opposition’s play before it unfolded.

“Everybody runs corners, and some teams are calling it ‘Sac,’” he said. “We’d be playing teams and we’re like, ‘Oh, they’re running […] one of our two main sets. We knew everything. It was like playing against ourselves at one point. It’s a staple offense that he actually created that’s never going away in the NBA.”

When Christie returned to Sacramento as a broadcaster in 2014, he sidled with Steve Kerr on opening night to learn what kind of system the Warriors first-year head coach planned to implement with his championship-level ball club.

“Steve looked at me and he said, ‘I’m going to be honest with you, we’re going to take a lot of the stuff that you guys ran,’” Christie said. “‘We’re going to put [Andrew] Bogut at the high post, we’re going to cut off of him, take advantage of his passing skills and shoot the basketball.’ And then, lo and behold, I saw it before my very eyes!” 

Nowadays, opposing teams’ playbooks are littered with concepts borrowed, tweaked and plagiarized from Adelman’s sets with the Kings. 

So if it’s true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then perhaps no one in NBA coaching circles, knowingly or unknowingly, has been commended more than Sacramento’s Hall of Famer.

Among the many who've incorporated pieces of Adelman’s offense into their own are Poppovich, Erik Spoelstra and Doc Rivers. During his tenure with the Celtics, Rivers recalled a specific play ran by the Kings and utilized it to his advantage at a crucial time. 

“We copied it and won a game with it in Boston and called it ‘Adelman,’” Rivers told the AP. “It was great.”

Adelman’s legacy and impact on the league as an offense innovator is unquestioned, even though, for most of his career, the introverted coach flew below the radar.

Now, Adelman is finally receiving his due with enshrinement into the Hall of Fame and with it, earning ultimate basketball immortality. 

“Rick was special, and I wish that more people saw him the way that we did,” Christie said. “I’m sad it took so long, but I’m so happy for him...  It’s time for him to get the credit that is justly deserved.”

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