I think it’s relatively easy to look at the NBA these days and realize that there is a new generation of coaches who could be among the greats by the time they get a decade’s worth of seasons under their belt. Men like Tom Thibodeau of the Chicago Bulls, Scott Brooks of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Lionel Hollins of the Memphis Grizzlies have taken teams from the lottery to the upper echelons of the playoffs already. Others like Monty Williams of the New Orleans Hornets and Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors have kept their teams competitive in the face of injuries and adversity.
The top tier is harder to parse. Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, Rick Carlisle of the Dallas Mavericks, Nate McMillan of the Portland Trailblazers, George Karl of the Denver Nuggets and Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat are easy choices. Rick Adelman of the Minnesota Timberwolves belongs in this class too. He’s a veteran coach with a stellar record. This is his 21st season and he has a winning percentage of .604, which means the average Adelman team is 50-32 over an 82 game season. He’s taken two teams to the Finals (Portland in the Clyde Drexler era) and was flat out robbed of another chance (the 2002 Sacramento Kings). During his career, he rebuilt the Blazers into a contender, built the Kings into an iconic team, shepherded the Houston Rockets out of the Ya0 Ming/Tracy McGrady era, all while winning. His only failed tenure was with the Golden State Warriors during a phase when no one could win with that club.
Adelman, now 65, may be doing his best work yet this season. His Timberwolves are 9-10 following last night’s win over San Antonio, and their point differential is characteristic of an 11-8 team. If, as is often the case, point differential is an accurate forecaster of future performance, then the T-Wolves are en route to a 36-30 record. No, that won’t make them a contender to come out of the Western Conference playoff bracket, but it will mark an incredible turnaround. Contrast the projected .545 winning percentage with last season’s .207, a 17-65 record under Kurt Rambis, a coach who seemed to believe that the best offensive strategy was make Darko Milicic the first option on offense (throwing the ball into the pivot did work fine during Rambis’s playing days with the ’80s Lakers but the center on that team was Kareem Abdul Jabbar).
The stories about the Wolves have centered on the fine play of power forward Kevin Love, but on a per minute basis, his numbers haven’t dramatically improved (his points per game are up, but that’s because what used to be garbage time at Wolves games is now crunchtime, Love’s minutes are up but his shooting percentage is actually down). Another worthy subject of coverage is the stellar play of Ricky Rubio, but a rookie’s growth and development is one of a coach’s primary responsibilities.
The best marker of a good coach is improvement on the defensive end. Defense requires commitment and hustle in equal parts to talent, and the big story of the Wolves is their improved defense. They are currently 13th in the league in Defensive Efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions). That might not sound prepossessing but they haven’t been outside of the bottom 10 since Kevin Garnett left town. And aside from Rubio and fellow rookie Derrick Williams, who is still finding his way in the Association, this is essentially the same roster. They are just playing more organized basketball and with more passion, i.e., they are much better coached.
It’s routine to think about coaching greatness in terms of titles, but Adelman is a great example of a very good coach whose teams consistently improve or weather adversity during his tenure. We shouldn’t wait for one of his teams to hold a championship parade (as happened with Carlisle) to recognize Adelman as one of the NBA’s top coaches.