MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — As the clock ticks down on the Minnesota Timberwolves’ regular season finale on Wednesday night, one of the most quietly successful coaching careers the NBA has ever seen could be coming to a close right with it.
Over the past quarter century, Rick Adelman has won more than 1,000 games, developed an innovative offense that influences everyone from Gregg Popovich to Erik Spoelstra and developed a reputation as a master of exploiting opponents’ weaknesses while maximizing the talents on his own roster.
But as his 23rd season draws to a close, it does so with everyone involved — a coach who wanted to make one last playoff push, a franchise hoping to convince its star player not to abandon it, a fan base worn down by mediocrity — left wanting more.
The “coaching lifer,” as Popovich describes Adelman, who has always been able to come up with right answers to basketball problems has been frustrated like never before by an inability to squeeze more out of a talented but flawed team.
“This year it just seems like we have a good game, and then it could be from one half to the next half,” Adelman said recently.
“That’s been the hard part, trusting what’s going to come. It’s just been a very difficult year. I don’t think I’ve ever really experienced (this).”
Adelman’s contract has a mutual option included for the final season, meaning either side can opt out of the deal. Adelman will turn 68 in June and the contract calls for a decision to be made no later than two weeks after the season ends.
Adelman and Wolves president Flip Saunders have said they will sit down to discuss things after the season is over. Adelman did help bring a team that had won just 17 games the season before he took over back to respectability. A win in the finale on Wednesday night against Utah would mean the Wolves (40-41) would finish with a non-losing record for the first time since 2004-05.
But this season also began with playoff expectations, and Adelman has shouldered some of the blame.
Among the biggest criticisms:
—He played All-Star forward Kevin Love the entire third quarter all season long, which caused him to rest for long stretches of the fourth quarter and never changed that even as the Wolves routinely let leads slip away in the final period.
“He’s had to throw different lineups out there and give us different looks in order to get over the hump,” said Love, who has one more year on his contract before he can opt out as well. “We’ve been able to get better through the season. … With coach, he’s not out there playing. It’s definitely on us that last quarter.”
—The competitive fire that helped him lead Portland to two NBA Finals, turn woebegone Sacramento into a hoops hotbed and take an undermanned Houston team to Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals against the mighty Lakers wasn’t as present.
—He didn’t play young players enough. Rookie Gorgui Dieng has had a terrific final month of the season, but hardly played until Nikola Pekovic’s injury forced Adelman’s hand in March. Shabazz Muhammad also showed some promise as a scorer of the bench but rarely got consistent minutes behind struggling veteran Chase Budinger.
The last one is particularly difficult for Adelman to swallow. At 67 years old and having never won a championship, Adelman says he has no time to play favorites.
“I’ve just been searching,” Adelman said. “I’ve been in this business a long time. I understand if the coach doesn’t win, they’re not going to be there very long. Whoever I feel can win the game for us, that’s who I tried to play.”
The last two weeks of the season offer a perfect window into the season as a whole. Victories at Miami and home against Memphis, San Antonio and Houston. Losses at Orlando and Sacramento, a maddeningly inconsistent team.
“If you play like you really want it, you take the losses,” Adelman said a few days after a particularly ugly loss to the Kings in January. “You’re going to have some. But when you don’t see that, like you saw in the Sacramento game, then it becomes really difficult because you’re just trying to find answers and you’re not sure if they’re there.”
Intensely private and introverted, Adelman has shown a softer, warmer side over the past two months. He’s patted a struggling player on the behind as he exited the court, engaged those around Target Center in casual conversation about golf, travel and family, things he rarely did over the past three seasons.
Is that a sign that his mind is made up? If it is, this is not the way his players wanted to see him go.
“I’m sure it’s been tough on him, dealing with us knuckleheads and then he has to deal with his family problems,” said Kevin Martin, who has played for Adelman both in Minnesota and Houston.
“He did a great job of managing it and being there for us at night, coaching us to victories. You just wish him the best, whatever he feels like he needs to do. We’ll be right beside him.”
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