Adelman quietly builds yet another contender
HOUSTON It was going to take the right situation to lure him back to the NBA for one more coaching stint. When the Houston Rockets called, Adelman knew it was a good fit, and their first season together has turned out as well as anyone could've expected. The Rockets reeled off 22 consecutive wins to reach first place in the Western Conference, an unthinkable plateau when they were 15-17 in late December. The streak ended in a 20-point loss to Boston on Tuesday and the Rockets looked exhausted in a 90-69 loss in New Orleans on Wednesday. But Houston is still in the thick of the playoff race nearly four weeks after Yao Ming sustained a season-ending foot injury. Role players are having career years, rookies are making valuable contributions and a smothering defense is keeping the Rockets competitive in every game. "It's been very satisfying," said Adelman, who signed a four-year contract with Houston. "Just to see the guys play the way they've played, with the excitement that they have and the energy level they've brought night after night no matter who we've played, as a coach, it's been fun to see." The streak alone -- the second-longest in NBA history -- may be enough to earn the 61-year-old Adelman his first coach of the year award in 17 seasons. He's only missed the postseason twice, and heading into Friday night's game against Golden State needed two wins to become the 13th coach to reach 800. "He's a very astute guy about the game behind that kind of 'Oh, shucks' demeanor,"' said Jack Ramsay, the Hall of Fame coach who hired Adelman as an assistant in Portland in 1983. "He's a bright, thoughtful guy with great experience as a player and a coach. He's always taken what he has and maximized it. That's the sign of a really good coach." Adelman was promoted to head coach in Portland during the 1988-89 season, replacing the fired Mike Schuler. Clyde Drexler, then a Blazers guard and now an analyst on Rockets' local television broadcasts, said Adelman instantly connected with the team. "He's a good human being and the players sensed that immediately," Drexler said. "He'll never embarrass a player, he'll never call one out to make a point. He's always respected his players and always got a lot of respect from his players because of that." Drexler said Adelman also always invited players' input and was willing to adjust his strategy. The Blazers went 59-23 in Adelman's first full season and made the NBA finals. "It worked so well, because he would be open to suggestions," Drexler said. "We would ask to change things and he would say, 'OK. Yeah, let's try it. That will work.' It all came together through communication, and then with the hard work to get to that stage." The Blazers won 63 games in the regular season in 1990-91, then reached the finals again in '91-92. Portland ranked among the NBA's top five scoring teams in each of Adelman's first three seasons, but Drexler said Adelman never got his due for how well he coached defense. "That's why we won so many, we created offense from our defense," he said. "Most teams never knew what hit them." Adelman has led five teams in his career that finished regular seasons ranked among the top five in scoring defense. Drexler said Adelman liked building a roster with "interchangeable" players, giving him more versatility to match up with teams, particularly at the defensive end. With the Rockets, he's lucky to have Shane Battier, who gamely guards each opponents' best individual scorer, and Dikembe Mutombo, still a shot-blocking presence at age 41. He also has energetic forwards Luis Scola, Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes grabbing 17 rebounds per game. At the start of this week, the Rockets ranked fourth in scoring defense (91.7 points per game), trailing only Boston, Detroit and San Antonio. "As a team, they truly believe they all have a stake in this team winning," Adelman said. "No one's been down. If they haven't played, they just keep playing. Sticking together as a team is about as true as you can get with this group." Adelman built the same team concept in eight years in Sacramento. He tweaked his motion offense with the help of former Princeton coach Pete Carril, but gave his players the freedom to improvise, like he did in Portland. Houston point guard Bobby Jackson, who played in Sacramento from 2000-05, said the offense gave everyone a chance to score and that Adelman benched players who didn't take advantage. The Kings led the NBA in scoring three straight seasons and reached 50 wins in five straight. "His plays are not set for one player, they're set for all five guys on the court," said Jackson, who averaged 15 points per game in 2002-03. "And if you're not shooting the ball, then you're coming out of the game." Jackson came to Houston in a trade with New Orleans last month. Adelman hadn't changed a bit. "Sometimes, I don't want to play point guard all the time. Sometimes, I need to be free, so I can be more aggressive," Jackson said. "He gives me that freedom. He's not like, 'No, this is my way.' He adjusts. If his players say something isn't going right, he'll listen and make that change. That's why players like him so much." The Rockets took a while to grasp Adelman's system. They dropped six straight games in November and never won more than three in a row before the end of 2007. Adelman kept promising his players that the offense, similar to what he ran in Sacramento, would eventually click. "It's not too hard for me to remember the way it was," he said. "We were shooting very poorly, we were playing very inconsistent, we had a really difficult schedule, so we were just up and down, all over the place." Leading scorer Tracy McGrady went out with a knee injury in late December and the season was leaning toward a disaster. But Adelman calmly turned to rookies Landry and Aaron Brooks and reserves like Hayes, Luther Head and Steve Novak, and finally, it all started to work. "I said I was going to give it about 25 games, then evaluate where we were," he said. "The young guys really gave us a lot of energy. That was the time we started turning it around." McGrady returned on Jan. 19 and the Rockets have lost only three games since. When Yao went out, Adelman adjusted again, giving more minutes to Scola, another rookie, and calling more pick-and-roll plays. The Rockets went on their winning streak one game after Scola entered the starting five. "Rick has been through every situation you can imagine in the NBA," Battier said. "There is no situation that can surprise him. He's been great from the standpoint of, even when we struggled early on, he maintained faith in our team and kept telling us to keep believing in the plan. It's served us well." Adelman never got too excited during the streak, just like he never panicked through the spate of early losses. He never talked about the streak, but set more tangible goals -- getting the No. 1 spot in the West, finishing off a perfect February, mentally preparing for the inevitable loss. And the Rockets listened. "Rick is probably the most calm guy. He's probably a Triple-C -- he's cool, calm and collected," said point guard Rafer Alston, who put up career-best numbers during the streak. "We were losing six or seven in a row and Rick didn't flinch. And we won 18 straight and Rick still didn't flinch, did not jump for joy. That's one thing that impressed me most about him." Adelman, with a 61 percent postseason winning percentage, always says he's looking no further than the next game. But Drexler said his old coach wouldn't have taken this job if he didn't think the Rockets had the potential to win a championship soon. "He's the best coach out there who's never won an NBA championship," Drexler said. "This team is probably the most talented team that's never been to the second round of the NBA playoffs in the last five years. When you get a team that's talented, with a coach that's capable, qualified and hungry, that's a great mix. "He hasn't won a championship and that's what this team needs. It seems like they're driving each other right now."
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