The Rockets start another postseason run this weekend. The expectations are high, probably because this team, more than any other recent Rockets squad, is a perfect symbiosis of star player and head coach. James Harden and Mike D'Antoni were so seemingly made for each other that it's a shock it took so long for the two to be united.
But let's ignore the present for a moment and reflect on the past. Particularly on the moment in time when the Houston Rockets won back-to-back NBA titles. And particularly on the man who coached the Rockets to those titles, Rudy Tomjanovich.
Hakeem Olajuwon may be the most celebrated player in Rockets history. Harden is definitely the most loved player as of now. Calvin Murphy and Clyde Drexler pop up nightly on broadcasts. But for most of the team's history, the common thread was Tomjanovich, the forward drafted out of Michigan by the San Diego Rockets, who became a star player with the Houston Rockets. He was then a Rockets assistant coach who became the team's most successful head coach.
He was a finalist for the 2017 class to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, along with former Rocket Tracy McGrady. But he was not inducted. There were some who wondered why Tomjanovich was nominated. He only played 11 NBA seasons, and he finished with just 13,383 career points. But who knows how his career turns out if he did not end up on the wrong end of a Kermit Washington sucker punch in 1977. And he had a similarly short career as a head coach, going for just 13 years before leaving the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2004-05 season. And while he won two titles, detractors like to devalue them by saying he only won those titles during the years of Michael Jordan’s baseball odyssey.
Then again, Tomjanovich, as a head coach, won more NBA titles than celebrated coaches such as George Karl, Larry Brown, Bill Fitch, Doug Collins, Jerry Sloan and Jack Ramsay. His titles may have been won during the non-Jordan Bulls era, but Brown, Karl and Sloan were unable to win titles during that time. He also coached the 2000 US Olympic men's basketball team to the gold medal, and he took a 1998 national squad (stripped of all of its NBA talent and stars because of the 1998 lockout ) to a bronze in the FIBA World Championship.
Former Rockets forward Robert Horry, who also played for Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson, calls Tomjanovich the best coach he ever played for. And Yao Ming credits Tomjanovich with turning him into a great NBA center.
“Rudy was patient with me,” Yao wrote for The Players' Tribune. “He gave me time to make adjustments to my game in that first year. He would always tell me to slow down in the paint, that I was playing too rushed. He gave me room to make mistakes.”
But forget about that and think about this while watching playoff games this weekend. Just about every offense being run by playoff teams can be linked back to Tomjanovich. Specifically, they can be linked to a decision to have Robert Horry guard Charles Barkley in the 1995 playoffs. It was a defensive move made out of instinct that created an offensive shift for the Rockets.
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“With Horry on the floor instead of a plodding power forward, four shooters surrounded center Hakeem Olajuwon, and every player on the court had more space to operate,” detailed Adam Kilgore in a Washington Post story two years ago. “It gave Tomjanovich a sudden, clear insight: This is how teams should play.”
The offense generates mismatches that allow for quicker pace with shots coming in open space in the lane or outside the three point line. Advanced metrics showing the inefficiency of isolation plays and long two point shots have keyed into what Tomjanovich was instinctively striving for.
“There's a few teams that don't go by the formula,” Tomjanovich told the Post. “Numbers-wise, by the mathematics, you're not going to have a high-octane offense if you don't play that way. You're not going to generate many points by possession. If you don't play that way, you have to have a really good defense to win.”
Teams like the Rockets and the Warriors will thrill people during the playoffs with their fast-paced action based on three pointers and open looks in the lane. The tenets of what makes these offenses work were devised two decades ago by Rudy Tomjanovich. He may not yet be good enough for the Hall of Fame, and he may have been eclipsed in Houston's memory by flashier personalities. But don't forget that he did what no other coach in Houston has ever done: He led his team to a title in a major professional league, and he reshaped the game of basketball as we know it.