TrueHoop: Jack Ramsay

The book on Rick Adelman

February, 6, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Rick Adelman
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesRick Adelman: The quiet innovator

Name: Rick Adelman

Birthdate: June 16, 1946

Is he an emotional leader or a tactician?
A tactician whose schemes have influenced coaches at every level of competitive basketball. When Adelman wants to motivate a player or address a potential conflict, he’s far more likely to sidle up next to the guy at a shootaround or at practice for a quick conversation than make a fuss. Adelman is not a consoler, pep squad leader or speechmaker. His dominant message? Practice is tomorrow at 11. For players who prefer more communication or need hand-holding, this can be difficult, but Adelman has a knack for maintaining harmony.

Is he intense or a go-along-get-along type?
He has the unique ability to manage diverse personalities with his even temperament. Clyde Drexler clashed with an intense Mike Schuler during his early years in Portland, but when Adelman took over, Drexler was on the same page as his new coach from the outset. Adelman errs on the side of less practice, not more, and is constantly mindful of whether his players are in a good place, and that basketball isn’t becoming a chore to them. He isn’t inclined to develop deep relationships with players, but they’re confident he won’t play favorites and won’t call them out in a group setting. Adelman is a quiet teacher, a stoic and somewhat of an introvert, which is a rarity in this profession. On the road, he’s more likely to spend a night in than go out to a dinner where basketball might be the leading topic of conversation. He requires time to recharge.

Does he rely on systems, or does he coach ad hoc to his personnel?
Although his schemes offer a fair amount of flexibility, Adelman certainly falls on the system end of the spectrum. He wants the game played a certain way, something expressed in his corner sets that have been replicated a million times over in the league. A few NBA teams actually refer to these play calls as “SAC” (as in Sacramento), where Adelman refined his offensive approach. While the principles of Adelman’s offense remain the same -- all five players engaged, move the ball quickly, remain aggressive as you read and react -- he will adjust and modify the primary options to accommodate different skill sets. The best example would be Yao Ming, who needed to be fed the ball in places on the floor that, in most circumstances, Adelman would prefer vacant.

Does he share decision-making with star players, or is he The Decider?
Adelman believes that a player who buys into the program is entitled to a piece of the enterprise. He doesn’t preside over a dictatorship, but most of all, he pre-empts any conflict by making decisions his players can get behind. His system also entrusts players to make decisions and unleash their creativity.

Does he prefer the explosive scorer or the lockdown defender?
He has an affection for high-IQ scorers -- Peja Stojakovic, Kevin Martin, Mike Bibby, even Von Wafer. Under Adelman in Houston, Aaron Brooks got the bulk of the minutes over Kyle Lowry at the point until Brooks went down with an ankle injury in Adelman’s final season with the organization.

Does he prefer a set rotation, or is he more likely to use his personnel situationally?
A set rotation works best for Adelman, who wants to avoid making waves that might divert the focus of the team away from what’s happening on the court. When Adelman assigns someone to the starting lineup, he’ll exercise patience with that player.

Will he trust young players in big spots, or is he more inclined to use his veterans?
Young players, especially those who can score, get plenty of opportunities under Adelman. He took immediately to Cliff Robinson in Portland when the Trail Blazers were among the elite. Rookie Jason Williams led the Kings in minutes during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. Houston was largely a veteran outfit during Adelman’s tenure. Minnesota has been a MASH unit -- any healthy body will do.

Are there any unique strategies that he particularly likes?
Adelman isn’t looking for one specific shot in a possession. He imagines a range of positive outcomes and has created a framework for achieving one of those objectives, which we know generally as the corner offense.

The corner isn’t so much a system of play calls as it is a systematic way to promote ball and player movement through smart reads. Multiple players are involved in just about every possession, which keeps offenses humming and players happy.

At its most basic, a corner set will feature three players on the strong side -- at the wing, corner and a big man at the elbow who has the instincts and skills to facilitate offense on the fly, players such as Chris Webber, Vlade Divac or Brad Miller. Offensive players size up the defense, then choose an action that best exploits what the defense surrenders.

In short, read and react.

For instance, a dribble handoff is a popular option within the corner. A wing who can capably read a defense will play out the sequence based on what the defense affords him. If his defender is trying to deny the handoff by hugging him tightly, he can slip back door. If the defender goes under the big man, the wing can stop and pop. If the defender is trailing, then take the ball and penetrate, draw contact or, if help comes from the weak side to collapse, make a pass to a shooter in the corner (Stojakovic and Shane Battier were frequent beneficiaries). Of course, the big man can always fake the handoff and, if his defender bites, turn around and shoot an open jumper. While all this is going on, the weakside big might give his weakside small a down screen. This gives the corner crew another option -- a shooter popping out to the perimeter.

A lot of cool stuff can materialize with the corner, and most playbooks around the league include a couple of “C-sets” with multiple triggers. Ultimately, the collective instincts of the five-man unit drive the offense, and each player on the floor is empowered to do something over the course of the possession to test the defense and keep it guessing. The ball moves and, when run correctly, the offense never starts and rarely finishes with isolation basketball. The corner doesn’t offer the level of structure found in the Triangle or the continuity offense in San Antonio, but it’s easier to pick up and allows players to be a bit more creative -- which can be both an asset and a drawback.

What were his characteristics as a player?
A standout at Loyola Marymount, Adelman was a 6-foot-1 point guard without much of an outside shot and zero speed. But he could defend in the half court, move the ball to the scorers and make a pass on the move. He was chosen by the San Diego Rockets in the seventh round of the 1968 draft, and wore a hockey mask for the first couple of months of his NBA career after breaking his jaw in a preseason game. That Rockets team included Pat Riley. Two years later, Adelman became a charter member of the expansion Portland Trail Blazers team.

Which coaches did he play for?
His first NBA coach was Jack McMahon, regarded as a players’ coach. He also played for Rolland Todd, Stu Inman and Jack McCloskey, all of whom lost a lot of games. Adelman then moved to Chicago, where he played for Dick Motta, before moving on to New Orleans, where he played for the nomadic, fiery, profane Butch van Breda Kolff, then finished his career with the Kings and Phil Johnson.

What is his coaching pedigree?
Adelman got his start at Chemeketa Community College in Oregon, where coaching basketball was just one part of the gig. The position was actually the province of the college’s counseling department and Adelman’s other responsibilities included educating high school kids about the junior college system. Adelman’s big break came in 1983, when he got a phone call from Dr. Jack Ramsay asking him to join the Trail Blazers’ coaching staff. Ramsay’s “turnout” offense, with its continuity, multiple screens, cuts and quick passing, was foundational for Adelman, and Ramsay is very much the spiritual godfather for much of what Adelman has developed as an offensive practitioner. After Ramsay’s departure from Portland, Adelman stayed on under Schuler, then took over the head job when Schuler was let go in February 1989.

If basketball didn't exist, what might he be doing?
A lover of history who appreciates time to contemplate, Adelman would be on the faculty of a junior college in California or Oregon.

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Obscurity has been one of the hallmarks of the NBA franchise born as the Buffalo Braves in 1970, which later became the Clippers. No player personified that anonymity more than Braves star Randy Smith, who died Thursday from an apparent heart attack at his home in Connecticut. 

Randy Smith
Randy Smith: Buffalo Soldier (Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images)

Smith was drafted in 1971 by the Braves out of nearby Buffalo State, where he starred not only in hoops -- but soccer and track and field. He was the 104th overall pick (to find Smith's name, scroll down, then scroll down some more). Although Smith was regarded as a top-flight athlete, the expectations that he would ever develop enough of a pro game to stick around in the NBA were low.

Author Tim Wendell has just written a comprehensive history of the Braves titled "Buffalo: Home of the Braves," filled with tons of interviews and anecdotes. Wendell describes the early conventional wisdom on Smith, and the improbability that he'd ever amount to anything in the pro game: 

At first glance it was easy to underestimate Smith. Despite his athletic ability, he was so soft-spoken that his manner often bordered upon the laconic. Even though he was considered the greatest athlete in Buffalo State history, the school wasn't a stop with many scouts. In fact, Smith won national honors for his soccer ability rather than his basketball play. 

... During his senior year at Buffalo State, Smith didn't show as well as in his junior year. Most of his scores came on drives to the basket, which most scouts didn't think would happen with any regularity in either professional league – the NBA or the rival ABA ...

How does an underestimated seventh-round pick give himself a chance to make it? He works his butt off: 

Most scouts felt Smith lacked a dependable jump shot. So, in the weeks before the Braves' training camp at Paul Snyder's resort in Darien Lake, New York, Smith worked to develop more confidence in it. He realized he was releasing the ball well after he jumped in the air -- too often on the way back down the floor. Before attending the Indiana Pacers' rookie camp, one of the few invitations he received from the rival league, he reworked the mechanics of his shot. After that Smith started to let the ball go on the way up. Right away Smith saw his jumper had better arc and rotation. 

One of the recurring themes of Smith's career was a tireless devotion to refining his raw game. Hall of Fame coach Dr. Jack Ramsay was a formative influence for Smith. Ramsay joined the Braves as the expansion franchise's third coach in two years. Initially, Ramsay didn't have much of a roster to work with, but he instantly recognized Smith's potential.

"He was a great athlete who became a great ballplayer," Ramsay said. "He was a player with rough skills, great athleticism, could run like the wind, and jump." 

Ramsay recounted one of his favorite anecdotes that captured Smith's gifts:

We had an out-of-bounds play after an opposing team's free throw where one of our big forwards, Garfield Heard, would take the ball out of the net. Randy would position himself near halfcourt, start back as if to receive the ball, foul line extended at that end of the floor. When [Smith's] man came, took one step, Randy would take off. Garfield would throw the ball. I'd say, "Garfield, you throw it and Randy will catch it." Randy would always catch up with the ball. Sometimes the ball would seem to be ahead of him, and he'd go an get it. He was an incredible athlete. 

Molding that athleticism was one of Ramsay's many achievements in Buffalo. In one practice, Ramsay, a coach's coach, demanded that the right-handed-dominant Smith use only his left hand. "He gradually became skilled at using his left hand and became a more versatile player," said Ramsay. According to Ramsay, Walt Frazier once told him, "I hate playing against that guy." 

With his confidence brimming as he settled in as a pillar of the Braves' much-improved squad, Smith -- never known for his handle -- actually begged Ramsay to let him run the break: 

Randy wanted to handle the ball more, and I said, "No. [Braves point guard] Ernie DiGregorio handles the ball." Randy would come to me and say, "Coach, I can make the play!" I said, "Randy, look, if you're me, and you're getting a fast break going ... think of it this way: If we're on the fast break, do you want Ernie DiGregorio on the wing, or Randy Smith?" Smith said, "Well, I think Randy Smith." I said, "Right! Ernie can make the pass, and you can make the pass, too. But Ernie can't finish on the fast break like you can." I would pump him up and say, "Nobody runs the fast break like you do." And Randy would say, "You're right coach." 

One of the reasons Smith was characterized as soft-spoken was that he had to overcome a stammer in his youth. Smith once told Ramsay that he got hit a lot as a kid. Ironically, Smith ultimately overcame that stammer by hitting himself in the leg whenever he'd struggle to get the words out. "That would get him going," said Ramsay.

Smith finished his career with 14,218 points and is the Braves/Clippers' all-time franchise leader in points (by a mile), games played, steals, and assists. But his most notable achievement in NBA history is his consecutive games streak. Between 1972 and 1983, Smith played in 906 consecutive games, a record he held for 14 years until it was bested by A.C. Green in 1997. 

The other lasting achievement in Smith's career was his special place as a hero in Buffalo. On Wendell's blog, "Buffalo Nation," he describes that unique relationship between man and city

Some players only see the world through a prism of their own statistics and accomplishments. Others have no choice but to be a part of team – to be a spokesman for something larger than themselves.

That's how it was with Randy Smith, who died unexpectedly last night of a heart attack. He was the spokesman for the old Buffalo Braves. He not only realized that but came to embrace that role.

"Sometimes I felt like I was the last of the Mohicans,” Smith told me during the writing of "Buffalo, Home of the Braves." "But I was the guy who was there pretty much from the beginning to the end. I guess you could say I became the institutional memory of that team.”

Nobody loved the Braves and nobody loved Buffalo more than Smith. After starring as a soccer player at Buffalo State, the basketball Braves drafted him in the seventh round of 1971 draft. After working on his jump shot and then thrilling fans with his two-handed slam dunks in the preseason, he surprisingly made the NBA team.

The Clippers have no jerseys hanging from the rafters in Staples Center. With Smith's passing, it might be time fo
r the franchise to sew some baby blue threads with a big number 9 to commemorate their most enduring star.

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Finals Comeback 101

June, 12, 2007

Beloved small city teams down 0-2 in the NBA Finals to the super dominant team that everyone knows will win should all study the 1977 Blazers. ESPN's Eric Neel explains why, in an article that (I don't say this lightly) is my new answer to the question "why do you like sports?":

Maybe it was the us-against-the-world love affair that gave them their edge in the postseason. Maybe neglect and disrespect from the rest of the country, and often their opponents, fueled their resolve ("The Sixers were talking sweep, they gave us no respect," Lucas says). Whatever it was, down 0-2 to the 76ers in the Finals, the Blazers didn't flinch. "Dr. Jack called a meeting," Walton recalls. "He said we had nothing to worry about, that we hadn't played anywhere near where we could. He said he wasn't changing a thing. He just wanted us to be who we were and to remember what we do and why. Run, attack, fast break." And so they turned up the volume at home, with the Maniacs doing their thing in the stands, and the passing game and pressure defense doing its thing on the floor. And that was all it took.

As they'd done back in November, they took it to the headliners, left them standing still and all twisted in knots, winning the next four games by an average of 15-plus points (including a 32-point win in Game 4). Walton was dominant in the clinching Game 6, going for 20 points, 23 rebounds, seven assists and eight blocked shots.

You hear words like euphoria and magic tossed around too casually in sports. We have a tendency to glorify moments for the sake of glory itself, to dress things up. But if you look back at images from the Trail Blazers' celebration -- Walton with his jersey off striding through the delirious crowd, some 200,000 turned out in the streets of Portland for the championship victory parade, Ramsay and his players hugging in the locker room under a shower of champagne -- you see something genuine, some pure bit of joy and surprise, some magical euphoria, frankly.

"Things felt so perfect," Walton says. "It was the best feeling I ever had in my life." It wasn't just what they'd done, but how they'd done it. They had come from nowhere to stand at the top of the heap. They had come together to accomplish something no one had thought possible. "That's the look you see on our faces," Davis says. "Satisfaction. Pride. We had an opportunity to do something special -- we knew that from very early on in the season -- and we did it. I can't tell you what that feels like. It's just so ... sweet."

I love how Dr. Jack Ramsay (who is, incidentally, in the very Cleveland hotel where I now sit) filled that team with confidence. Amazing stuff.

One other historical footnote about the mood of that series turning -- the players and coaches told me that a key factor was Maurice Lucas' coming to his teammates aid and slugging Darryl Dawkins near the end of Game 2. (It was a different time, such things did not result in suspensions.) It sent the message, loud and clear, that the Blazers were not scared. I don't love that part of the story, and I don't advocate it for the Cavaliers or anybody else. But if you want to know how Portland turned that series around, that's certainly part of it.