Monday morning, Rick Adelman took the stage outside the Wolves’ training facility and announced what many have long suspected: the 67-year-old is officially retiring from coaching in the NBA. He will remain with the organization as an advisor, but his days dealing with the worry of game-planning, roster construction, and the hassles of trekking across North America are over.
“It’s a real grind. You get some time off in the summer, but it’s pretty much on your mind all the time,” Adelman said. “There’s some sadness, but there’s also a relief. I’m ready and my wife’s ready to move on to another phase. We’re looking forward to that.”
Adelman played his first regular season NBA game on October 17th, 1968. Between then and yesterday, he was a professional basketball player for 7 years, a college head coach for 6, an NBA assistant for 6, and an NBA head coach for 23. He was uninvolved with basketball (in any official capacity, anyway) for just 4 stretches of time – after he retired as a player (1976-77), and after he was relieved of his coaching duties by Portland (1994-95), Golden State (1997-98) and Sacramento (2006-07). He was a true basketball lifer.
However, all that time spent in a high-stress profession eventually took its toll. “Whether you win or you lose, the pressure’s on you,” Adelman said. “I’ve been doing this a long time and been in the league a long time and that, probably, had more impact than anything else. I just felt for my wife and I, we wanted to enjoy other things. Wanted to have Christmas at home with my other kids, stuff like that. I’m looking forward to that. I’m certainly going to miss it. My wife would be the first to say it’s real consuming. You get caught up in it way too much.”
A spot in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame awaits him, a just reward for his four and a half decades’ worth of work. Adelman finished his career as one of 8 NBA coaches to tally 1,000 victories (1,042, to be exact) and made two trips to the NBA Finals (with Portland in 1990 and 1992). But his real contribution is hard to quantify; his innovative offensive system, based on Peter Carril’s version of the Princeton offense, has been borrowed and modified by multiple teams around the league. Some of the best coaches in the league – Tom Thibodeau, Doc Rivers and Gregg Popovich, to name a few – have spoken reverently of his bright offensive mind, including Adelman’s “corner” series in their own playbooks.
In the four seasons prior to Rick Adelman’s arrival, Minnesota won 78 total games (out of 328 – a .242 winning percentage). Adelman guided them to 97 wins (in 230 games – a .422 wining percentage) during his three seasons, and this year’s total of 40 victories was the most the franchise has had since 2004-05. Only Flip Saunders (.558) and Dwane Casey (.434) posted higher winning percentages during their tenures at Target Center. Again, his influence isn’t adequately portrayed by numbers alone. His hiring brought credibility and respectability to a franchise sorely lacking in those departments. Adelman’s prior relationship with Kevin Love (via their Oregon ties) and his proven track record of success contributed to Love’s decision to re-sign with the Wolves in January, 2012.
Despite everything Adelman achieved in Minnesota, especially relative to recent Timberwolves history, it’s undeniable – and maybe even justifiable – that fans are left a little disappointed. Each of the past three seasons brought playoff aspirations, only to be thwarted by injuries (in 2011-12 and 2012-13) and a toxic mix of injuries and inconsistent play at the end of games (2013-14). It was en vogue during the season’s second half to joke about Adelman already being checked out, or asleep at the wheel. While it’s undeniable that he was tired – often appearing so (and admitting as much) in media sessions – there’s a fine line between fatigue and apathy.
He addressed the taxing season(s) at length in his retirement press conference. “Certainly, when you lose more than half of your games, that’s going to wear on you. Whether you’re 20 or 60, it’s going to have an effect on you… But I thought in the first year we were just trying to see who we had and change some of the culture. The second year we had all the injuries and that was really wearing. And then last year, it was disappointing, some of the close losses early.”
“What you can control is what you try to get out of your players,” Adelman went on to say. “There’s always anticipation and what looks good, when you get a scouting report for the other team, we’re going to play the pick and roll this way, everything looks great. Until you get into the game. It doesn’t look so good sometimes. That’s part of it. You always think you should have done something different, you’re always second-guessing yourself in this line of work… I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but there was always that thought that it was going to come together. I always felt that, but it never happened.”
Adelman’s retirement means the Timberwolves are on the market for a new coach. A few of the names immediately linked to the vacancy were expected (Fred Hoiberg, Tom Izzo), though both of those appear to be long shots. ESPN’s Marc Stein reported yesterday that Billy Donovan intrigued the Minnesota front office. Friday, 1500ESPN’s Phil Mackey reported that a Wolves source informed him the team was considering Chauncey Billups for either an executive or coaching job, possibly as as a coach-in-waiting should Flip Saunders descend from the suite to the sideline. Glen Taylor recently indicated that he’d rather not have Flip coaching, but yesterday, Saunders was more cryptic, saying only, “Never say never.”
Whoever is tabbed to lead the Timberwolves in 2014-15, the impending free agency of Kevin Love is sure to complicate matters. Should the Wolves give Love a tremendous amount of input into the decision, hoping his influence entices him to stay? Or should they conduct their search independently, given Love’s uncertain future, and risk alienating the superstar forward? For his part, Rick Adelman felt it was time for him to walk away, that his decision to retire was the best thing, even in this regard. “One of the things that I felt was that if I coached another year and then his future comes up and my future is gone, that makes it even harder,” he said. “I think it’s best for the organization to have somebody else coaching the team, give him a year to see what they can do, to hear that voice and that’s a much more positive situation for the organization. I feel strongly about that. Flip will find the right guy and things will work out one way or the other.”
On a personal level, I think I speak for all of us at A Wolf Among Wolves when I say that it was a treat to cover him. He could be a bit distant at times, and he did seem a little worn down by the end, but every now and again his dry sense of humor and encyclopedic knowledge of the game would shine through. Yesterday, for example, when asked what he would’ve done differently in Minnesota, he responded by saying, “I would have probably tried to get LeBron. That would have been something that would have really helped.”
Prior to the Wolves’ January 18th game against the Jazz, Adelman was asked about Jerry Sloan, who was about to have a banner raised in his honor to the rafters at EnergySolutions Arena. Sloan was a star guard for the Bulls, and Adelman was a role player on the downswing of his playing career when he was traded to Chicago from Portland prior to the start of the 1973-74 season. Adelman spoke of Sloan’s kindness, saying that Sloan took him out to buy furniture when he arrived in town, suddenly displaced from his home in Oregon, and made him feel as comfortable as possible in his new city and with his new team. He also spoke of his toughness, recalling Sloan battling through a broken foot in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals, a series the Bulls eventually won in Game 7. “We won that 7th game for one reason,” Adelman said at the time. “When Jerry came up the stairs at old Chicago Stadium on crutches, the place went nuts and our whole team went up another level.”
I tell that story because from my perspective, a 26-year-old who loves basketball, listening to a future Hall-of-Famer tell stories, however infrequently he volunteered them, was an awesome experience. I realize that not everyone shares this viewpoint, that it’s a luxury afforded by my unique position as a credentialed media member. Most fans feel the disappointment, like something’s been left on the table, and little else.
That position is understandable, but if you feel that way, please consider the entire story. The Wolves improved each of his three seasons, from 26 to 31 to 40 wins, and the franchise, a laughingstock for the better part of a decade, is on the right track. The Minnesota head coaching job is an attractive one, and it has to do with more than just Kevin Love. There are winning pieces on the payroll; almost all of the unseemly culture that permeated the Wolves’ locker room back in 2011 has been eradicated. And that’s thanks, in large part, to Rick Adelman’s influence.
Everyone wishes it could have come together faster; everyone’s disappointed it didn’t. That doesn’t mean Rick Adelman’s tenure wasn’t a success. It goes deeper than wins and losses and the black and white ink of box scores.
Or, as Adelman said himself on Monday morning:
“You want it to happen in a year or two years, sometimes it takes a lot more than that. What looks good on paper isn’t necessarily what the reality is.”
Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse. Regarding Adelman in Minnesota, I believe it’s pretty easy to make the case that the good outweighed the bad, even though there wasn’t quite as much good as we all hoped.