Adelman's Coaching Made League-Wide Impact
Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra spent his high school and college years in the Portland area, going to high school at Jesuit High School in Beaverton before staying near home to play for the University of Portland from 1988-1992. During that time, Rick Adelman transitioned from an assistant with the Blazers to their full-time head coach, and immediately he led Portland to two NBA Finals and was the catalyst for “Adelmania” in the Pacific Northwest.
Spoelstra, a young point guard at the University of Portland at the time, was close by taking notice. The innovation Adelman showed as a coach early on was admirable for young future coaches like Spoelstra, and as the next quarter-century unfolded Adelman would make his mark on up-and-comers as well as his peers within the business.
“He’s an absolute model of consistency, professionalism, integrity, and he’s a damn good basketball coach,” said Spoelstra, who is currently in the postseason chasing his third straight NBA championship ring. “He’s proven over the years as an innovator in so many different regards. Almost every single team in this league copies a portion of his offense.”
Adelman announced his retirement from coaching on Monday at the LifeTime Fitness Training Center inside Target Center. He coached for 23 seasons and compiled 1,042 wins—the 1,000th coming as the Wolves’ head coach last April, which catapulted him into a select group of eight men to achieve that milestone.
During his time coaching the Blazers, Warriors, Kings, Rockets and Wolves, Adelman became a revered and incredibly well-respected coach across the league. His offensive schemes became commonplace within other teams’ playbooks—in a league now dominated by the pick-and-roll, Adelman’s corner motion and facilitation at the elbows by his bigs became an envy across the league. It helped him take the Kings to the postseason in all eight seasons he coached there—Sacramento had gone to eight postseasons in the previous 31 years.
He won 50 games in 11 of his 23 seasons—including two 60-win campaigns—and went to the playoffs 16 times. He challenged opposing coaches to think differently on both sides of the ball, because not only did his opponents need to find ways defensively to stop Adelman’s clubs, but they needed to find ways to fight through his often stingy defensive squads and keep up offensively.
Along the way, teams started picking pieces of Adelman’s playbook. He began forming a reputation as one of the top offensive basketball minds of his time—earning high praise from another fellow offensive guru, George Karl, who said Adelman has always been ahead of the curve in his offensive innovation.
There was enough of an impact on the rest of the league that Adelman joked in his retirement press conference that it wasn’t always fun trying to stop opposing teams using those same sets his teams perfected.
“He plays a system that makes his players improve in the league,” Karl said. “The development of excellence year in and year out is a tremendous compliment.”
Clippers coach Doc Rivers is quick to admit he’s part of the Adelman following. While he was coaching the Celtics, he dug into Adelman’s playbook with favorable results. In one particular game, Rivers said he copied an Adelman play and won the game with it. From that point forward, they called it “Adelman.”
“He has been good for the game,” Rivers said. “He has brought a lot to the game. I think a lot of us coaches look at a lot of the stuff he runs and try to integrate it—unsuccessfully in most cases.”
Dwane Casey, who coached under Karl as an assistant in Seattle before having head coaching positions with the Timberwolves and, currently, the Raptors, said there’s no doubt coaches around the league take from Adelman’s approach in their game plans. Adelman adapted with whichever personnel he might have on that particular roster, and he ensured his players had the best opportunity to succeed.
“[He]’s always ahead of the curve,” Casey said. “Even when he was in Portland, he plays a different style, and it’s always different than everyone else.”
The one thing Adelman did not achieve during his NBA coaching career was winning an NBA championship ring. That’s more of a product of his era than anything else. Adelman reached two finals, losing to Phil Jackson’s Bulls and Chuck Daly’s Pistons. During Adelman’s 23 years in the league, only nine NBA head coaches won rings. Jackson won 10 of them (Adelman didn’t coach in 1997-98 when the Bulls won their sixth) and Popovich won four. Adelman, like Karl and Sloan in the 1,000-win club, is ringless due in large part to the dynasties of their time.
And that, according to Popovich, sometimes alters outside the league just how important Adelman’s impact has been during his career.
“I’ve said many times over many years, he’s probably the most underrated basketball coach in the NBA,” Popovich said. “He’s done a great job every place he’s been. He runs good stuff, players enjoy playing for him, and he’s tenacious. He’s one hell of a coach.”
Flip Saunders coached against Adelman for several years—including that memorable seven-game series between the Wolves and Kings in 2004—and he got to work with Adelman this season as Minnesota’s President of Basketball Operations. He said the biggest reason for Adelman’s success is his competitive fire and his ability to help make his players better. He’s more of a teacher than a coach, Saunders said, which for him is the ultimate sign of respect in their profession.
Tom Thibodeau, currently in his fourth year coaching the Bulls, said you can tell when a coach impacts the game based on how vastly his sets are used around the league.
Adelman fits that description.
“He’s a Hall of Fame coach to me,” Thibodeau said. “I think everyone has taken some part of his offense with him. When you look at every team that plays in this league, there’s part of his offensive concepts that are incorporated into your offense. I think that says a lot, but for him to win at the level he’s won at for so long—to me, that’s the mark of greatness.”
Ty Corbin’s seen it first-hand for decades. When Corbin was coming out of DePaul in 1985, he said Adelman was his coach at the NBA Combine in Chicago. During his playing career that lasted until 2001, Corbin played against Adelman for much of his career and even played for him in Sacramento in 1999-2000. They’ve coached against each other for the past four seasons with Corbin currently being the Utah Jazz head coach.
And it was Corbin who was the final NBA coach to go head-to-head with Adelman—the Jazz beat the Wolves 136-130 in double-overtime on Wednesday night at Target Center. Corbin, who met Adelman as he entered the league nearly 30 years ago, was there the night Adelman presumably coached his final game.
“He’s just a guy we’ll miss,” Corbin said. “You’d like to be playing on—both of us. I’m sure he’d like to be playing on, too. But if it’s the end for him, I wish him well. I think he deserves the break. He’s a great guy. We want what’s best for him. And you know, it’d be bittersweet if it’s his last game.”