One thousand is just one more than 999 and Rick Adelman is no better coach today than he was yesterday. But large, even numbers serve as milestone thresholds that, when reached, afford the opportunity to reflect on all that led up to the achievement. In the case of our coach, that period spans 22 seasons. It includes not only the 1,000 regular season wins, but also 79 in the playoffs. It inevitably includes many losses as well; Games 6 and 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals being the most memorable (infamous?) in non-Finals playoff history. Game 6 was the night that Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter alone, and was later described by referee Tim Donaghy as fixed by a league conspiracy. Game 7 was the night, on Sacramento’s home floor, that Adelman’s Kings were absolutely snake bit while shooting. They were 16 of 30 from the foul line, 2 for 20 from three-point range, and still took the game to overtime when they lost to the eventual three-peat champion Lakers.
It’s difficult for me not to dwell on those losses because I came to appreciate Rick Adelman the Coach during his time in Sacramento. I was cheering for the Kings in that series about as hard as I can remember for any Minnesota team. I even attended Game 3 at Staples Center; a game the Kings won, going away. Why the attachment to a team so far away — at a time when the Wolves were in the middle of the Kevin Garnett Era?
Let me count the reasons.
Adelman’s Kings were young and exciting. They ran the floor in transition. In his first season in Sacramento, Adelman coached rookie Jason Williams who wowed fans on the fast break with flashy passes and dribbles that rival the best work of our own Ricky Rubio. Williams was later traded to make room for Mike Bibby, a better point guard for the halfcourt offense that Adelman was installing. Rather than force feed an isolation scorer or post man, the Kings borrowed Pete Carril’s Princeton Offense (Carril was Adelman’s assistant in Sacramento after he retired from head coaching) and encouraged every player to be a passer and initiator of offense. That included superstar power forward, Chris Webber, and the gregarious Yugoslavian center, Vlade Divac. Hedo Turkoglu was something of a point forward. Peja Stojakovic was a 6’9″ three-point bomber. Ball movement was emphasized. Isolation was a word more foreign to Kings vocab than the ethnically diverse makeup of their roster.
This wildly entertaining brand of pro basketball had not been seen since the 1980’s and it was Rick Adelman at the wheel of the entire process of building it and thriving in it.
By NBA standards of that era, they were an aesthetic treasure.
Make no mistake: They won, too. The early aughts Kings were an elite team; an offensive powerhouse that contended for championships. From 2001 through 2004 their lowest win total was 55. If not for the refs in Game 6 and the shooting woes in Game 7, Adelman would likely have a championship ring from the 2002 squad. If not for Chris Webber’s knee injury, he might have one from one of the later seasons. But rather than focus on what if, it’s best to focus on what was. And what was, was a revolutionary team that blended the modernized landscape of player-controlled basketball with coaching leadership and resulting teamwork reminiscent of Reds Auerbach and Holzman, or perhaps more appropriately, of Dr. Jack Ramsay; Adelman’s coaching mentor in Portland. Adelman’s longevity and success certainly seem tied to his ability to strike a balance between the concerns of his players and the needs of the team. To win at such historic levels without ever having coached an MVP-caliber player evinces that much, if it wasn’t already obvious from watching his teams play, or listening to his players and peers speak about him.
Here in Minnesota, Adelman has not [yet] had the same level of success that he experienced in Sacramento (or Portland or Houston). But the impact Adelman has had is still so significant that I consider his acquisition to be the second best personnel move in franchise history; a distant second to drafting Kevin Garnett in 1995, but ahead of the trades for Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, and whatever else this team has gotten right in its 20-plus years. After arguably the worst two-season stretch in NBA history (15 and 17 wins in 2010 and 2011, respectively) Adelman took over and the winning percentage nearly doubled. Had Ricky Rubio not torn his ACL the team might’ve made the playoffs which was a wildly unrealistic proposition before Adelman took over. This year, again ruined by key injuries, the team’s winning percentage is about the same. If they can win 4 of their last 6, they’ll eclipse the .400 mark; nothing special but decidedly not-terrible. “Not terrible” is an astronomic climb from The State of the Timberwolves as Adelman inherited it. If Rick sticks around for another season, and the team decides to pay Pekovic and Budinger, he just might get them back in the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
It’s been a pleasure watching Rick Adelman’s teams, here and elsewhere. Whether his last game is coached on April 17 at San Antonio, or in a year or two, I appreciate all he’s done to set the Wolves on a trajectory of progress and wish him congratulations on 1,000 career wins.