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Blazers Top 100: The Winningest Coach

A look at the 100 players and personnel who have influenced the Trail Blazers’ 50-year history.

1992 NBA Finals: Portland Trail Blazers v Chicago Bulls Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.

No. 32 | Rick Adelman

Games Played with Blazers: 237 Regular Season, 0 Postseason

*PTS: 9.8 | AST: 4.6 | REB: 2.8 | FG%: 42.4

Head Coach 1988-1994

Regular Season: 445 games, 291-154 record (.654)

Playoffs: 69 games, 36-33 record (.522)

*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland

Joined Club: May 1970, drafted in NBA Expansion Draft

Departed Club: October 1973, traded to the Chicago Bulls for a second-round pick

Joined Club: Summer 1983, hired as assistant coach

Departed Club: May 1994

Place in History: Rick Adelman was one of the original Trail Blazers, featured at point guard on the 1970-71 team that started it all. He played three years in Portland, averaging 12.6 points and 4.7 assists over 81 games in the inaugural season. His 237 games as a player wouldn’t begin to encompass his contributions to the organization, however. Adelman’s real legacy with the club began midway through the 1988-89 season.

The Blazers had parted ways with legendary head coach Jack Ramsay two and a half years prior, at the end of 1985-86. Ramsay left a World Championship and a solid decade of coaching in his wake. By ‘86 it was winding down as the team struggled to a 40-42 record. Ramsay’s old-school style was reportedly not meshing with the new wave of Portland talent, which included explosive shooting guard Clyde Drexler. Injuries to prized center Sam Bowie were not helping matters. The Blazers decided they needed a new voice.

Though Ramsay had hired Adelman as an assistant in 1983—straight out of Salem’s Chemeketa Community College—the former point guard would not replace him directly. That honor went to Mike Schuler, a hard-nosed, X’s and O’s coach who would earn NBA Coach of the Year honors in his rookie season of 1986-87. The Blazers won 49 that year, 53 the year after, but couldn’t get out of the first round of the playoffs either time.

By his third season, Schuler’s approach was wearing thin. By January, the roster was in semi-open rebellion. After a particularly wrenching February loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, Schuler was shown the door. Adelman stepped into the void.

Following up a legend and a minted C.O.Y. who then left a locker room in turmoil couldn’t have been easy, but you could almost feel the collective exhale in the weeks after Adelman took charge. He established a reputation as a player-friendly coach, calling basketball a “game of mistakes” and claiming that coaches had to live with them sometimes in order to get the best out of their charges. Adelman would rather have a lineup try something and fail than not try for worrying if it was the right thing.

Better yet, of course, would be trying and succeeding, which is just what the Blazers did.

It wasn’t instant. Portland finished the year 14-21 and got swept out of the 1989 NBA Playoffs by the Lakers. That summer, though, they traded Bowie for New Jersey Nets forward Buck Williams. Williams completed a starting five that included Drexler, Jerome Kersey, Terry Porter, and ascending big man Kevin Duckworth. Adelman helped the seven-footer out of the post and onto the baseline, clearing room for Williams to operate and lanes for the wings to slash through the corners of the key. As freedom and motion increased, so did the production and morale of the squad. Mistakes eased because, frankly, there wasn’t a bad person in the lineup to throw the ball to. It was a match made in heaven.

The very next season, the Blazers would reach the NBA Finals, falling to the Detroit Pistons. The year after, they’d win a franchise-record 63 games before falling once more to the Lakers in the Conference Finals. After that, they’d hit the NBA Finals again against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

Adelman’s teams did not win a title. That’s one of the few lingering regrets from his era. Some claimed at the time that he tended to “roll the ball out” rather than coach, but that’s the basic approach needed with a veteran, ultra-talented squad. He was known to pound on the table when the situation called for it. Until his final season, his Portland teams were in the Top 5 defensively. They were usually in the Top 5 for offense as well.

Adelman’s years included the longest sustained run of success in franchise history. Ramsay had the title. Schuler and later Mike Dunleavy earned Coach of the Year honors. To this day Adelman still holds the record for highest winning percentage of any Portland head coach in both regular- and post-season play, with the fourth-longest tenure. No other coach has taken the Blazers to the Conference Finals three straight years. No other coach has appeared with them in the NBA Finals twice.

When Adelman left the team in 1994, it was clear that the run was over, not just for him but for his roster. Drexler was on his way out. The rest of the lineup would follow in short order. The Blazers were ready to rebuild and they wanted to go a different direction. Like Ramsay had before him, Adelman found himself carting yesterday’s successes (and expectations) into a new, unknown tomorrow. They didn’t match up.

Adelman would go on to a brief, less-distinguished stint with the Golden State Warriors (a roster in transition at the time) before taking the reins of another rising veteran team, the Sacramento Kings. There he would coach more games (624) than anyone in franchise history, again with the franchise record for regular-season winning percentage, second in post-season winning percentage by a single game.

Adelman would also spend four years with the Houston Rockets. He is currently third on their regular-season winning percentage list all-time. He’d finish his career in Minnesota between 2011 and 2014. Those teams lacked the talent and gaudy stats of his earlier rosters, but they still grew from 26 wins to 40 over his three seasons. In total, Adelman’s teams would reach the playoffs in 16 of his 23 years.

In Minnesota, Adelman won his 1000th game as a head coach. He ranks 9th all-time in NBA wins, 10th in total games.

Adelman would retire following the 2003-04 season, expressing a desire to spend time with his family, especially his wife Mary Kay. An ESPN article marked the retirement with tributes from fellow coaches. Among them:

“I think every coach in this league has taken some of his concepts,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “You can see every team has part of his corner series as part of their offense.”

“A lot of people have run the elbow action, but no one’s run it like him,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “He started doing it in Portland and then in Sac; everywhere he’s gone he’s won, for the most part. He’s one of the better coaches that we’ve ever had in the league and a lot of people don’t realize that. And I think that’s too bad. But he’s been good for the game. He’s brought a lot to the game.”

“He’s been what I call a lifer,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s been in several different programs, made them all better, done a heck of a job wherever he’s gone, has always been underrated and has been a guy that players have really enjoyed playing for. That’s who he is.”

“I’ve stolen from him, very honestly,” Popovich said.

For proving that nice guys can coach too, for being a Trail Blazers and Portland icon, for rising up through the ranks in and around Oregon, for the winning percentages, the Finals appearances, for upholding his family and being a part of ours, Rick Adelman earns the 32nd spot on our Top 100 List of Trail Blazers players and influencers.

Thank you, Rick. It was more of a run than we could have expected, or deserved.

Share your memories and thoughts of Rick Adelman below, and stick with us as we continue towards #1!

*An earlier edit of this article had the incorrect information that the Adelmans had lost Mary Kay. We offer apologies. We remember R.J. Adelman who lost his life in 2018 after a car accident.