Drazen Petrovic: The one time Rick Adelman got it wrong

This coming June marks the twentieth anniversary of one of the biggest tragedies in NBA history.  On June 7, 1993 a Volkswagon was speeding along Germany’s Autobahn when it encountered a truck that had crashed through the guard rails and was blocking traffic.  Unable to stop or avoid a crash, the car hit the truck, causing serious injuries to the driver and backseat passenger.  The front-seat passenger got the worst of it, flying through the front window.  Drazen Petrovic, the six-time European Player of the Year, recently named All-NBA Third Team performer, and undoubtedly greatest basketball player in Croatian history, was dead at age 28.

Petro’s story is best told in the ESPN 30 for 30, “Once Brothers,” from the perspective of his former friend and fellow Yugoslavian, Vlade Divac.  One wrinkle of the Drazen Petrovic story piqued my interest as a fan of the Minnesota Timberwolves: His first coach in the NBA was Rick Adelman and it appears (now, with the benefit of hindsight) that Adelman did not fully appreciate how talented his new guard was.  In his rookie season with the Blazers Petro played just 12.6 minutes per game.  This despite averaging an efficient 21.7 points and 4.1 assists per 36 minutes.  (Basically, Petro was making the most out of a difficult situation much the way we all wish Derrick Williams would.)  The Blazers were loaded that year (they made it to the NBA Finals) and it could not have been easy to find backcourt minutes on a team already boasting All-Stars Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler at the guard positions.  But the next off-season they went out and acquired veteran Danny Ainge, who then cut into Petro’s minutes even further.  Midway through his second NBA season, Petro demanded a trade.  His wish was granted when he was dealt to the Nets.

And in New Jersey he quickly became a star.  His first [partial] season there saw playing time increase up to 20.5 minutes a night.  In his two full seasons after that, he eclipsed 20 points per game and helped lead the upstart Nets, along with Kenny Anderson and Derrick Coleman, to a pair of playoff appearances; the franchise’s first in 6 years.  Back in Portland they were not exactly fretting over what Petro was doing on the East Coast.  After trading him away they reached a conference finals and another NBA Finals, losing to Michael Jordan in the famous “shoulder shrug” series.  But after that the Blazers faded into NBA purgatory.  Rick Adelman was fired and the Blazers lost in the first round of the playoffs in 6 consecutive seasons.  Had Portland kept Petro, and assuming the chain of events takes him off the Autobahn on that fateful summer afternoon of 1993, it seems reasonable to assume that they would have been better off.  Trading for Ainge and giving away Petro appears to have been a mistake.

Adelman spoke about Petro’s plight to The Oregonian early in his second season with the Blazers:

I can understand somebody not being happy with not playing, but there are other guys on this team in the same situation. We’re 6-0, we have a very good team, and he’s part of our team. He’s making awfully good money to play this game. I’m sorry, I can’t do anything about that at this point. I don’t feel anybody has to defend themselves with what’s gone on. …

Let’s be realistic. Here’s a guy who averaged seven points a game last year. This is not an all-star player. We have a lot of guys playing ahead of him who are very good players. Who’s to say that won’t happen to him somewhere else, too? I think he’s getting some very bad advice.

It does not seem as if Petrovic thought much of Coach Adelman either.  There is a website devoted to Drazen (www.drazenpetrovic.com) with one page focused on his struggles in Portland.  The site quotes Petro as saying:

Adelman actually never complained about my work, but he never explained it to me why I wasn’t playing… he had to be aware of my qualities.

Petro was quoted again with more pointed criticism of how Adelman treated him:

I don’t know. I don’t know. I cannot alter Adelman’s opinion about me. How do I feel? Great! I am sitting on the bench, nobody asks me nothing. I score a few points on the end of the game… In fact, if I may say, I am the highest paid player in the NBA. I am making millions of dollars for 5 minutes per game…5 minutes per game if Adelman is in the mood and if the score is right.

The Petrovic site also quotes Clyde Drexler, the Trailblazers superstar who was partly responsible for Petro’s lack of minutes.  Drexler had little doubt that a change of scenery would benefit Petrovic:

I am positive that Drazen will build a great NBA career in New Jersey…players like Drazen always do. He was not lucky here, but with the Nets will be different. He will show that he can play in this league and probably make an All-Star in no time.

Drexler was proven correct almost immediately as Petro’s All-NBA award made clear.  In 2002 Petrovic was posthumously inducted to the Hall of Fame.

I bring this story up not just to remember a fallen great, but also because of how the episode might have affected Rick Adelman’s future coaching career.  After getting it wrong with Petrovic Rick Adelman has embraced foreign basketball talent more than any other coach in NBA history.  Even before coaching this Euro-dominated Wolves roster Adelman thrived in Sacramento with star players from abroad.  Petro’s old buddy, Vlade Divac, as well as Hedo Turkoglu and Peja Stojakovic were key performers on some of the best teams of the early aughts.  Later, in Houston, Adelman led very-good Rockets teams with Yao Ming from China, Luis Scola from Argentina, and Goran Dragic from Slovenia.

Did failing to appreciate Drazen Petrovic open Adelman’s mind to what foreign stars could accomplish on the NBA floor?  Do Ricky Rubio and Alexey Shved have Petrovic to thank for the early trust and commitment they received from Coach?  Maybe, maybe not.  I’m sure if Adelman were asked he would say no and dismiss the idea.  He’s not big into narratives.



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6 responses to “Drazen Petrovic: The one time Rick Adelman got it wrong

  1. drey

    While your article offers an interesting critique the actual facts and circumstances of that time heavily favor Adelman. While he was with Portland I watched Drazen frequently in practice as well as the games he did play in. First and foremost his defense was horrific. In his first years in the NBA he couldn’t guard a third string guard with a rifle. Second, and most importantly the Blazer teams Drazen was on were built to fast break and run. Drazen was and remained a very poor rebounder. While Ainge wasn’t much stronger like the other guards Drexler, Porter, and Danny Young, his facilitating of the offense and team defense was head and shoulders above Drazen. Nor was his ball handeling at that time on the same level as the group named above. What should be noted and more emphasized was his agents role in his Portland fallout. From day one he put pressure on Portland to play Drazen significant minutes. With Clyde Drexler ( a top 5 MVP vote getter from ’89-’91 ) on the team this was not going to happen. Drazen’s agent was vying to establish his own reputation and pipeline with European players and would not relent on his position and he forced Portlands hand. The trade resulted in Walter Davis coming to Portland, which on paper seemed like a strong pick up but the ” Greyhound ” never clicked with the Blazer offense. Drazen did blossom and find a role with the Kenny Anderson and Derrick Coleman Net’s. But with the deficiencies in his game and the skill set he possessed verses the guys he was up against in Portland , Adelman played his cards correctly and led the team to two NBA final appearances .

    • drey–

      Thanks for the input. You were obviously close to the situation and make good counter points to my suggestion that Adelman screwed this up. Though I can’t escape the conclusion that if 28-year old Drazen was All-NBA (roughly a Top-15 player in the league) then 26-year old Drazen was really, really good too and that letting him go was a mistake. I admit in the article that this is with the benefit of hindsight, but it was a mistake nonetheless. Whatever improvements Petro made between ages 26 and 28 (probably marginal, given that 26 is well into “you are who you are” territory) could have just been done in Portland with better management of the situation.

      Interesting stuff about his agent. Thanks again for sharing.


  2. greg m

    I think the “All-NBA” term is wildly overstated. He was a decent player on a bad Nets team. Take a look at the entirety of the NBA and tell me he’d be in the top 30, let alone top 15 players if you were putting together a fantasy team in 1993.

  3. jn

    I think that Drazen Petrovic was an all-nba talent on offense, but not on defense. Adelman used him as “instant offense” off the bench, and I don’t see how he could have used him otherwise: Drexler was the franchise player and Porter was a better point guard than Petrovic, who could play the position but always as a shoot-first guard. Perhaps he could have moved ahead of Danny Young in the rotation, but even that is debatable as Young (nothing more than a journeyman) provided better defense.

    This article does not consider two major issues: first, Vinnie Johnson destroyed the Blazers in the finals, which is the reason why they signed Danny Ainge; second, Drazen Petrovic underwent a complete transformation during his time in the NBA, bulking up visibly and trimming down his gameplay to become a dedicated shooter off the screens like a Reggie Miller.

    There is one great book on Yugoslav basketball (“Stolen Dreams”, originally in Spanish but translated into several languages) that covers this issue in much detail, including interviews with Drazen’s brother and former teammates.

  4. Reblogged this on Punch-Drunk Wolves and commented:

    Today marks the 20th Anniversary of Petrovic’s death, seems appropriate to re-post this one that looked back on his Portland days with Rick Adelman. RIP.

  5. Pingback: Drazen Petrovic: Rick Adelman’ın tek hatası | TrendBasket