Greatness and Wolves rarely in same mix

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 29, 2011 - 6:17 AM

Among all the coaches in franchise history, Rick Adelman shoots straight to the top.

The Minnesota Timberwolves came into existence on April 22, 1987. They have employed hundreds of coaches, players and front office executives in nearly 25 years, and have held dozens of news conferences to celebrate hirings and acquisitions.

Wednesday, the Wolves staged the rare news conference in franchise history that did not require the willing suspension of disbelief.

In introducing Rick Adelman as their new head coach, for once all the Wolves had to do to impress the audience was mention a man's name, and get out of the way.

Adelman's hiring might rank as the most irrefutable move in franchise history.

The Wolves have made one decision in nearly 25 years that can be called an unequivocal success: When then-GM Kevin McHale displayed the wisdom and foresight to draft a raw high school kid from Chicago in the first round.

But nobody knew that day that Kevin Garnett would become a star, much less one of the greatest players in NBA history.

Garnett was a pulltab. Adelman is a cashier's check.

Rarely have the Wolves made such a sound yet ambitious decision.

McHale as a general manager? That was Glen Taylor hiring someone he admired as a basketball player and liked as a golf partner.

McHale as a coach? That was Taylor trying to keep McHale around without letting him run the basketball operation.

Flip Saunders? More cronyism, Taylor allowing McHale to hire his old Gophers teammate.

Jimmy Rodgers and Kurt Rambis? Desperate attempts to acquire some Celtics or Lakers mojo.

Randy Wittman and Sidney Lowe? They were hired because they were known and likeable, not because they had a chance to win.

David Kahn? Only the Wolves would have hired him as an NBA GM.

And let's avoid names that cause even more dyspepsia, like Bill Blair and Jack McCloskey.

Unlike so many other Wolves employees, Adelman is not a reach or a roll of the dice. He was not hired because he slaps backs on a golf course or tells the right jokes at Taylor family gatherings.

Adelman is an exceptional coach who wants to prove himself one more time before retiring. The Wolves are lucky to have him.

Until Adelman's hiring, only once in Wolves history has the franchise employed someone who ranked among the top five in the NBA at his job.

The Wolves have never employed a top-five general manager or front office executive.

Although Flip Saunders was a highly capable coach, he never cracked the top five, not in a league featuring Phil Jackson, George Karl, Don Nelson, Jerry Sloan, Gregg Popovich, Adelman and the random Van Gundy.

The only player who ever ranked among the five best in the NBA was Garnett, in his prime.

In Adelman, the Wolves might never be outclassed on the sideline. He's a top-five NBA coach, and that might be damning him with faint praise.

The only coaches in league history who rank ahead of him in terms of lifetime winning percentage are Jackson, Popovich, Red Auerbach and Pat Riley. All worked with better players than Adelman.

He ranks eighth all time in NBA victories despite never coaching a team featuring the best player in the league.

What current NBA coach is clearly better?

Perhaps Popovich, who has the second-best winning percentage in NBA history behind Jackson. But Popovich has coached two Hall of Fame centers in their prime. Adelman has never enjoyed that advantage.

Karl has a similar résumé, with a few more wins and a slightly lower winning percentage, but he's not clearly superior in any way.

Jackson, Riley, Sloan and Nelson are out of the game. Doc Rivers, Tom Thibodeau, Rick Carlisle, Scott Skiles, Stan Van Gundy and Nate McMillan have various strengths. None is clearly better than Adelman.

Whenever the NBA lockout ends, the Wolves will again begin promoting their talented young players. We'll see a lot of Ricky Rubio's mop top, Kevin Love's stubble, Derrick Williams' vertical and Darko Milicic's nicotine patch.

The best reason for optimism, though, will be standing on the sideline. For the second time in Timberwolves history, we'll get to watch one of the greats at work.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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