Adelman’s unflappable style belies his genius

MINNEAPOLIS – Rick Adelman is smiling.
Well, Rick Adelman was smiling at one precise moment, as a camera flashed and captured it forever. And the Minnesota Timberwolves took that smile and they magnified it. They dramatized it and stuck it on the wall of the windowless tunnel outside the team’s locker room, at the beginning of a line of portraits of each and every player.
They’re waist-up shots, as striking as they are faux-dramatic. Storm clouds swirl in the background. Brows are knitted. It’s all very Sturm und Drang, sort of a Gothic-Twilight feel. All, of course, except the jolly, whimsical Rick Adelman.
The who? The what?
That picture and its magnified grin lend the whole thing an extra air of comedy. Because Rick Adelman doesn’t smile. Not like that, not without a nagging care. His eyebrows don’t arch that high; no one had imagined it was even physically possible. You’ve got to wonder about airbrushing, or at least whether Ricky Rubio was lurking behind the camera making some ridiculous Ricky Rubio face.
Last season, the Timberwolves’ second-year coach didn’t belong in the portrait lineup. It was barely his team, that much-maligned bunch. He didn’t build it. He barely had time to leave his mark. In the mess of the post-lockout chaos, the coach was only able to make a dent, to do things piecemeal, to function as a shadow of himself. But now, in Year 2 of the Adelman Era, he gets a massive photo, his own spot. He’s leaving his mark, even now, so early and with so many injuries. He’s comfortable. He belongs. He feels like he knows us, the media, the fans, the community, and we him in turn.
Which is why the picture is so incongruous. We know Adelman, and that’s not him, not most of the time. A more fitting representation could have been taken Nov. 9 in the training facility, or really on one of many days late last season. That day, he sat behind a closed door, visible only through a window, in the trainer’s room off the end of the gym. He buried his head in his hands, thinking, wondering, ready to rub those aching temples. 
That’s Rick Adelman in Minnesota. Plotting, planning, exhausted, incredulous.  
When Adelman signed on to coach the Timberwolves last year, he knew he was getting a good, emerging power forward in Kevin Love. He knew there was an unproven Spanish point guard. He knew there was hype, a particular breed of Ricky and Kevin mania fueled by years of losing, but beyond those two, there was little else of note, so few things for certain.
In that respect, Adelman was lucky. Love, who was good, became great. Rubio, who was unknown, became a sensation. Nikola Pekovic, who was a fouling block of lead, became an actual, even talented, center. Then it all fell apart, for a bit, with Rubio’s torn ACL, and then Pekovic’s bone spurs, and then Love’s concussion, but last summer, Adelman and president of basketball operations David Kahn built it back up. The coach was invested, even after the 26-40 finish, and the Timberwolves rolled into this season on their highest high since Kevin Garnett.
And then, in the most jaw-dropping, superstition-inspiring way, it fell apart again. Everything seemed to be going so well. Rubio’s rehab was (and is) on track, proceeding not at an Adrian Peterson clip but at something not too much slower. There were trades and signings, a rebooted roster and a measure of chemistry that was absent a year ago.
But then a broken hand (Love). The despair should have set in, and it didn’t. Without Love and Rubio, the team was 2-1. Then a sprained foot (J.J. Barea), yet still a 3-1 mark. Then a sore knee (Brandon Roy), yet still 4-1.
It was a sick kind of silly. Down four players, yet three games above .500. Down four players, yet with one of the league’s best defenses. There was no panic, not then, not when the team rolled into Chicago, ready to beat the Bulls and keep stockpiling those wins.
That’s when things fell off the track. Chase Budinger went down with a torn meniscus, out three or four months. Two nights later, it was Pekovic’s turn to fall, literally, spraining his left ankle. Their record went to 4-2, 5-2, then 5-3, after a shorthanded near-win against Charlotte. They skidded finally to 5-4 after yet another botched comeback against Golden State on Friday, and now, in the midst of four full days off, the team attempts to stop the bleeding. It hopes that players will return Wednesday against Denver, because at this point, the injuries are so many that they’re overshadowing the magic.
Because through it all, Adelman has kept coaching. He’s stuck to his philosophy, his hard-nosed, head-in-hands, resolute philosophy, ignoring as best he could the injuries and talk of what he’s missing.
Rick Adelman deals only in what he has.
When Love broke his hand Oct. 17, Adelman joked that the team was banned from push-ups. He’s become risk averse, this 66-year-old veteran coach. He doesn’t even like to watch his players rehab. In that, perhaps, he’s a bit superstitious. But in all else, he’s painfully realistic.
One day shortly after Love’s injury, the coach happened upon Love and Rubio sitting together at the team’s practice facility. He turned to the two of them, his stars, his team’s hopes at someday contending. They are the core he and Kahn built around, and there they were, one in a cast and the other with a painfully long, tan scar down the side of his right knee.
“Well, other guys just have to step up,” Adelman said to the two, and he turned and walked away.
That was it, and it’s a moment Love won’t forget anytime soon.
“It’s a simplistic view to think about it, but I truly believe that’s how he feels,” Love said. “He puts guys . . . in the position to succeed and (plays) to guys’ strengths. In practice, he works on the weaknesses. He gets guys out of their comfort zones to work on different things. He’s won at every place he’s been at. He’s won where he’s had superstars. He’s won where he hasn’t had superstars.”
Now add this to the resume: He’s won with players dropping in four consecutive games, with his superstars sidelined and his role players stepping up in ways he never could have imagined. Consider that, and it makes his 976 NBA wins that much more impressive. It makes you wonder why he doesn’t smile more, and then you realize maybe that’s the trick. Don’t smile. Don’t frown. Remain even-keeled, and somehow, this all falls into place.
Early in his career, Adelman was often the butt of criticism for complaining about referees, even to referees. Whining, his detractors called it. Sticking up for them, his players countered. In March 2000, when Adelman was with the Kings, he got in a particularly heated tiff with a referee, Luis Grillo, in Seattle. In the course of their back and forth, Grillo told Adelman to relax, at which point Kings forward Chris Webber got involved. “You can’t embarrass the coach like that,” Webber told Grillo, and after the game, he explained himself further:
“Coach, that’s my man,” Webber said. “He’d do the same for me. You can’t let the refs go after the coach.”
Coach, that’s my man. Maybe Adelman hasn’t quite mellowed with age, but now that he’s reached his mid-60s, it’s easier just to call him a curmudgeon and leave it almost endearingly at that. Today, you could imagine Love doing and saying the same thing as Webber a decade ago. Or Andrei Kirilenko, or Barea, or really any one of his players. It hasn’t taken long for Adelman to instill a level of trust in them, from his starters down to his lowliest reserves, and in his up-front, egalitarian approach to this year’s team, he’s earned a deep loyalty.
Before the worst of the injuries hit, when there were actually options and combinations, Adelman adopted a somewhat unique approach. The adage of “it doesn’t matter who starts, only who finishes” became something more than a cliché, as the coach repeatedly went with whomever was playing well, often deferring from putting his starters back in to end games when the second unit was in a rhythm.
That’s what happened in Brooklyn, when the team mounted a 22-point comeback, and as the wins piled up, it seemed like the Timberwolves’ best option. But in the plan, there could have been a flaw. Starters could have been angry, slighted even, by their fourth-quarter snubs. Somehow, though, it never happened
“It’s a little unusual for me,” Kirilenko said. “You always expect at the end of the game, you’re going to go, you’re going to go. And then you see they’re playing well . . . (and) if you’ve got a good stretch of people scoring, you keep them on the floor. I like that. It’s how it’s supposed to be.”
Adelman hasn’t always been like that. Not in Sacramento, with his perennial contenders of the early 2000s, when it was Vlade Divac, Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic down the stretch. But in Houston, with its own set of injury issues, Adelman saw that it worked. It’ll work again with this team, too, when the options are healthy again, which will come as soon as next week.
“That gives you a good confidence boost that you can continue to play,” Dante Cunningham said. “We actually say that to each other, come on, let’s get it going so we can get some more minutes. It’s kind of a bonus to kind of know that.”
It’s a motivating factor. It makes the starters treasure their minutes and the reserves clamor for theirs. Each unit in a way competes with the other, somehow without lingering resentment afterward. And when you’re winning, that works.
The winning part, though, has been getting harder. Adelman is getting more exasperated, looking a little older, harrowed, worse for the wear. Six injuries will do that to a man, especially when these aren’t just injured strangers, injured celebrity athletes. They’re injured men, injured people he cares about, and it hurts.
That’s where the narrowed focus comes in. After last Wednesday’s improbable comeback, in which the Timberwolves lost to the Bobcats at the buzzer despite using only nine players, Adelman reiterated his point. “The guys have to understand,” he said. “It doesn’t matter, with all the people out and everything else. We have the ability to win games.”
Coming from him, that’s high praise. This is not a man who dishes out compliments with the frequency (or dexterity) Rubio does assists. Praise can be hard to come by; his staff knows that as well as his players. Shawn Respert, who’s been with the coach since 2008 in Houston, said that Adelman is a man of few words and fewer compliments. If he’s pleased, Respert said, then he knows he’s done a hell of a job. He’s not going to say things he’ll have to take back, and so when he’s happy, he means it. When he compliments, it’s for a good reason, for something more than just a flash in the pan.
So when wins have been solid early this season, they really have been. When the team does a nice job in games, you know it must have really done something right. And when he says that the team is going to be okay – well, there’s some level of belief involved when you hear Adelman say it, or grunt it, or sigh it.
Belief. That’s what this whole grand experiment hinges on, and of course it’s a tenuous hold. The past two games, it’s seemed as if the down-and-out team has believed too late, maybe even by a few seconds. The comebacks have thus fallen short. 
Belief. When Adelman talks about the plays he’s drawn up and practice plans he’s hatched that he’s put into storage, he has to believe that someday soon he’ll drag them out, someday soon they’ll work.
Belief. Adelman has stopped asking when his players will return. He leaves that to the trainers, he’s learned, and he has to believe they’ll make the right decisions. He has to believe that though Pekovic says he can play, the trainers are right in saying he can’t, that this decision to perhaps sacrifice a win Friday for more full recoveries after the four-day break was the right decision.
Belief. That by December, this won’t be out of reach. That Love and Rubio can transition back in and this team will keep ticking. That Barea won’t break again next week, that Pekovic’s ankles are stronger than they were last year, that Roy’s knees aren’t completely shot, even after he underwent arthroscopic surgery and as he waits for yet another answer as to whether he has a chance.
That’s a lot to believe in, but Adelman can quietly instill it. Before Pekovic went down, there were murmurs that if the coach of the year were recognized two weeks in, it would be Adelman’s award. When the team fields a roster of more than nine players again, those murmurs will likely be back. But there’s no way Adelman is listening.
Remember, he deals only in what he has. Only in what’s here, now, in front of him, and any personal recognition is a long way off. Players must return and offense must improve. Role players must go back to being role players, and the wins have to start coming again. Rick Adelman is a long way from that. Is he tantalized or depressed by the talent he has and cannot use, of the future that should be so much better than the messy present? Does he dare think about it? He’ll never let on.
And so he’ll shove his hands in the pockets of his black pants – always black pants for pregame – and he’ll sigh. His voice will crack a little bit when he thinks about the reality of it all, and he’ll utter a Freudian slip about “when J.J. returns next year.” This is a twisted hand Rick Adelman has been dealt, in what’s likely his final crack and building something great.

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