As we continue to work our way through the endless summer between the Finals and Opening Night, we'll pause each Friday to briefly consider and count down some NBA-related topic of note. We like starting lineups and round numbers, so we'll run through a handful of items each week. With a nod to our friends at Dr. Saturday, welcome to Ball Don't Five.
This week's installment: The top five NBA coaches who aren't in the Hall of Fame.
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NOTE: I'm limiting this to coaches who aren't presently active. George Karl would be here if he hadn't opted to take the reins of the Sacramento Kings. So would Gregg Popovich if he wasn't — still! somehow! — at the helm of a Western Conference title favorite led by Tim Duncan.
5. Rick Adelman. This is here, really, as a placeholder. Adelman stepped away from the Minnesota Timberwolves just over one year ago, a decision fueled in part by a desire to spend more time with his ailing wife and in part by feeling ground down after 23 years of one of the most successful coaching careers in NBA history. Only seven coaches have won more games than Adelman's 1,042; six are already enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., and the seventh (Karl) will be whenever he finally decides to hang 'em up.
Adelman's fabled corner offense has, in the words of ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz, "influenced coaches at every level of competitive basketball." It has also produced some of the most potent attacks of the last three decades: the late-'80s/early-'90s Portland Trail Blazers of Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey and Buck Williams that twice represented the Western Conference in the NBA Finals; the early-2000s Sacramento Kings that unleashed the passing gifts of Chris Webber and Vlade Divac, introduced the world to a live wire nicknamed "White Chocolate" and a sniper named Peja, and came this close to toppling those legends in La-La Land; and the latter-aughts Houston Rockets, a curious and brilliant mix of talents as varied as Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, Shane Battier, Bonzi Wells, Luis Scola, Rafer Alston and Ron Artest, that could just never seem to get everyone healthy enough at the same time when it mattered most.
Adelman's an all-timer who never got over the hump to win the ultimate prize, but whose teams still spread joy for the bulk of his tenure. He's not long for this list, but he deserves a doff of the cap all the same.
4. Rudy Tomjanovich. As NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper put it earlier this year, Rudy T's hard-luck case seems, to some degree, to be a matter of tough timing and rotten luck: "A skilled coach proven at the highest levels in Houston and international play didn't quit because he had enough and he didn't get fired. He got bladder cancer and ran himself into the ground, nearly literally, with accompanying stress."
In 11 full seasons on the bench for the Rockets, Tomjanovich rolled up a 487-383 regular-season record (.560 winning percentage), made seven trips to the postseason and, led by the great Hakeem Olajuwon, won back-to-back NBA championships in the 1993-'94 and '94-'95 season. He also owns a bronze medal with the U.S. men's national team from the 1998 FIBA World Championship — remember, that Team USA featured no NBA players due to the lockout; instead of coaching Webber, Tim Duncan, Tim Hardaway, Gary Payton, Kevin Garnett and Grant Hill, Tomjanovich led a squad of then-non-NBA players headlined by Brad Miller and Trajan Langdon — to go with a gold from the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
After leaving Houston to tend to his health, Tomjanovich took over the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004, but lasted only 41 games before once again bowing out due to health concerns. L.A. sputtered to a sub-.500 finish under interim coach Frank Hamblen, prompting the return of Phil Jackson, three more Finals trips and two more titles. Had Tomjanovich's health cooperated, maybe he'd have been the man overseeing that return to glory; then again, as he himself told Howard-Cooper, "a candidate should be judged on the bottom line of actual results without trying to project what may have happened."
We're left, then, to wonder whether two titles, a gold medal, a bronze medal and status as one of the best and most respected coaches of a decade constitutes enough of a Hall case. Thus far, it hasn't; maybe it should.
3. K.C. Jones. Now, we don't have to consider this a grand injustice. Jones already resides in Springfield as a result of his sterling playing career, headlined by his time as a teammate of Bill Russell on both the legendary San Francisco Dons of the mid-1950s and on eight straight Boston Celtics championship clubs between 1958 and 1966.
But Jones also boasts one of the most successful coaching resumes in league history. He owns a .674 regular-season winning percentage, sixth-best among coaches to have worked at least 100 games. He won five conference championships, fourth-most ever, in just 10 seasons on the bench. He also won two NBA championships, making him one of just 13 coaches with a pair of rings.
Granted, taking over the Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish Celtics in 1983 might not have been quite as arduous as building an expansion team; you can penalize Jones for good fortune if you like. But A) talent's a prerequisite for every winning coach; B) don't forget that he also took the 1974-75 Washington Bullets to the NBA Finals; and C) after taking over for a taskmaster of a head coach (who we'll meet later), Jones knew enough to pull back on the reins a bit to get the best out of his locker room full of studs. Plenty of coaches with Hall of Fame players still don't win better than two-thirds of their games and hoist the O'Brien. Knowing how not to coach your team matters, too.
2. Dick Motta. Motta made 14 playoff trips in 25 seasons as an NBA head coach; years before Phil, Michael and Scottie showed up, he put the Chicago Bulls on the map. He led the fledgling club to four straight 50-plus-win seasons and six consecutive postseasons, earning Coach of the Year honors after Chicago's 57-25 1970-71 campaign.
Motta was fired after the Bulls cratered to a 24-58 mark in '75-'76, but quickly caught on with the Washington Bullets, whom he led to four straight postseason berths and what remains the lone title in franchise history — the 1978 NBA championship, best remembered for the brilliant play of Elvin Hayes and Bobby Dandridge, the rebounding and outlet passing of Wes Unseld, and, of course, a catchphrase that's stood the test of time.
"We had just gone ahead of Philadelphia in that match-up for the conference championship," Motta recalled in an interview with the Washington Wizards' website back in 2011. "We went ahead 3 to 1 at home and they had a really good team with Dr. J [Julius Erving] and World B. Free. They had the home court advantage, so if it played on out, they were going to get the seventh game on their court. We weren’t the least bit overconfident.
"The dressing room was full of reporters and this one young guy kept saying, 'How does it feel to play to be in the championship series?'" Motta continued. "And he must’ve repeated it 7 or 8 times and I was kind of exasperated with him, so just to shake him off, I said, 'You know, it ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.' And I didn’t think any more of it. I came home that night and my wife said, 'You know, of all of the dumb things you ever said in your life, that’s the most stupid one.' And for some reason it caught on, and it got to be a battle cry, and it’s on the championship ring."
Motta never played organized hoops at any level — not high school, not college, not pro — but as NBA.com's Steve Aschburner noted earlier this year, his "offensive schemes, highly efficient plays built on intricate screens and backdoor cuts," fueled the success of those early-years Bulls and laid the groundwork for the development of another successful system: the variation on the flex offense favored by Jerry Sloan, one of Motta's pupils in Chicago, en route to the third-most wins in NBA history with the Utah Jazz and a Hall of Fame plaque all his own.
1. Bill Fitch. A two-time Coach of the Year named one of the NBA's 10 Greatest Coaches in 1996, Fitch's 944 wins rank 10th on the all-time NBA coaching list. Now, if you looked at that link, I know what you're thinking: what about those 1,106 losses, the second-most defeats in NBA history?
Well, for most of his 25-year NBA coaching career, Fitch was tasked with taking over and turning around tragic teams, injecting hope into hopeless situations.
"I've made my living taking teams that were down and trying to bring them up," Fitch told Mary Schmitt Boyer of the Cleveland Plain Dealer back in 2013. "College, pros, about every place I went. There have been a lot of nights you think, 'Never surrender, no matter what the odds.'"
He did that job exceedingly well.
Under Fitch's stewardship, the expansion Cleveland Cavaliers went from a 15-win laughingstock in their inaugural 1970-71 campaign to a 49-win conference finalist five years later, winning his first Coach of the Year award for helping Jim Chones, Campy Russell, Jim Brewer, Bingo Smith, Jim Cleamons and Austin Carr lead the beloved "Miracle of Richfield" squad into battle against the Celtics.
Red Auerbach, evidently liking what he saw in the opposition, brought Fitch over to the Boston bench in 1979, hoping the fiery Fitch could rekindle the Celtics' flame after consecutive disappointing seasons. With the help of a pretty important rookie by the name of Bird, Fitch oversaw a 32-game improvement, a 61-win return to the postseason that earned him his second Coach of the Year nod. The C's hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy the following year, and Fitch rolled up a sterling 242-86 mark in his four years in the Hub.
When Fitch took over the Houston Rockets in 1983, they were coming off a dismal 14-68 campaign following the trade of MVP center Moses Malone. They won 29 the next season, 48 the year after that and 51 in the '85-'86 campaign, with Fitch leading the dominant young tandem of Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson all the way to the NBA Finals.
When he joined the New Jersey Nets in 1989, they'd just posted their fourth straight losing season, finishing 11th out of 12 teams in the East. He didn't get them over .500, but he shepherded a fun and frisky 40-42 Nets squad led by Drazen Petrovic, Derrick Coleman and the point-guard tandem of Mookie Blaylock and Kenny Anderson into the playoffs in Year 3. He then turned the same trick on the West Coast, taking the historically moribund Los Angeles Clippers from rubble to relative respectability, capped by a playoff berth in 1997.
Fitch earned a reputation as a hard-nosed, old-school coach, a disciplinarian and authoritarian who didn't hesitate to let his players know that it was his way or the highway. That approach had its proponents — Bird was "shocked and sad" when he learned Fitch would no longer be coaching the Celtics, and remained "one of Fitch's biggest boosters" even after his exit. It also had its detractors; Danny Ainge said just two years ago that he still thinks Fitch's hard-ass routine was “all crap, and I don’t think he toughened me up."
Wherever you land on his approach, Fitch's methods — which included early adoption of film study to analyze opponents and scout talent, earning him the nickname "Captain Video" — produced results, and helped shape and kickstart the careers of a number of coaches who continue to make an impact on the game today, including Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle.
"He's third all-time in games coached [...] He took five different franchises [from] deep lottery to either championships, Finals, Conference Finals, or playoff success," Carlisle told CBSSports.com's Matt Moore this spring. "When you take on those kinds of challenges, you're going to have more losses. His coaching record doesn't shine as bright as some other people that are in [the Hall of Fame], but with over 25 years of longevity and some of the things he did to change the game — for example, he was one of the early guys using video, to teach players and for scouting; he was a pioneer in that area — he's one of the most well-thought-of competitors in the history of our game."
And, from where I sit, the as-yet-unenshrined coach most worthy of a trip to Springfield.
Previously on Ball Don't Five:
• Top 5 players who have never been to the playoffs
• Top 5 teams with 5 or fewer national TV games
• Top 5 great teams that never won a title
• Top 5 players facing a make-or-break season
• Top 5 retired players who never made an All-Star team
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