Before the triangle offense was being inserted into the Los Angeles Lakers' lexicon, Kurt Rambis was asked to bridge the gap between the disappointing Del Harris era and the jewelry-laden Phil Jackson dynasty.
With a team of Shaquille O’Neal, a 20-year-old Kobe Bryant, Eddie Jones, Glen Rice and budding role players who eventually would help restore glory to the Lakers, Rambis took over 13 games into the 1998-99 lockout-shortened campaign and had a regular-season coaching record of 24-13. He coached Los Angeles past the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs before they were swept by the Spurs in the second round.
Although it’s a small sample size to examine, I think it’s reasonable to say that Rambis was capable of coaching really good players. He helped coach the Lakers to the fourth seed in the conference after a 7-6 start before losing to the eventual NBA champions.
After a brief stint as the Lakers' assistant general manager while moonlighting as Coach Cleary on the TV show "7th Heaven" (no, seriously), he was brought back to the coaching ranks as an assistant to Phil Jackson in 2002. Over the next seven years, when Jackson was coaching, Rambis was assisting him and learning from every bit of knowledge Jackson kicked his way.
When Minnesota hired Rambis in 2009 to be David Kahn’s first head-coaching hire, there was both good and bad with the move. Taking the triangle system he learned from Jackson and Tex Winter and applying it to the lowly Timberwolves seemed like an odd move. The triangle had worked only when run/broken off by two of the greatest scorers in NBA history had been involved. Plus, you essentially needed at least two stars to be a part of it, and counting Al Jefferson and second-year player Kevin Love, the Wolves had exactly zero stars to help execute the complicated system at the start.
Not only that, but Kahn had just selected back-to-back point guards with the fifth and sixth picks in the '09 draft, and neither of those players had skills conducive to shining in the triangle system. The Wolves' plan was supposedly to play fast, then run the triangle when the game pace slowed down. However, only five times in Jackson’s 20 years of coaching did his team finish higher than 14th in the NBA in pace.
Aside from Love, the majority of the roster didn’t seem to fit the triangle system at all. Rambis was given Ramon Sessions and Jonny Flynn as his point guards the first season and Luke Ridnour, Sebastian Telfair and an injured Flynn the second season. In his first season, he had Corey Brewer and Ryan Gomes as his best wing scorers. Last season, he had Michael Beasley inefficiently throwing the ball at the rim with Martell Webster as the next-best wing option. Love shined last season (after finally being given consistent minutes), but Darko Milicic ended up being one of the worst offensive weapons in the NBA, despite his reportedly legendary passing ability.
Defensively, the Wolves' best interior defender has been a close race between Ryan Hollins and Milicic. Love barely looked like he was finally starting to understand rotating on defense by the end of last season. The rest of the team was constantly out of position, not staying in front of its matchups, too small to bang inside and unable to get back on defense.
A lot of those issues can be linked to coaching, but a lot of them also can be linked to just not having good enough NBA talent.
Kahn has been the laughingstock of the NBA because he’s been both arrogant in the way he discusses his moves and because of the moves themselves. Rambis was never the right hire for this job, considering he wasn’t involved initially at the beginning of this Kahn-led rebuilding process.
Between the time Kahn took over the team in late May 2009, and when Rambis was hired in early August 2009, Kahn had already made five trades involving 17 different players. He also had butchered four of the 30 first-round picks in the 2009 draft.
Rambis was not a very good coach over the past two years. His teams were inefficient offensively and abhorrent defensively. Last season, it seemed that he was one of the worst fourth-quarter coaches in the entire league because of how the Wolves seemed to kick away leads. (Yes, they actually had fourth-quarter leads.) But I’m not so sure he was as bad as his 32-132 record would suggest.
Rambis is not a good coach when he’s given a bad team. That’s been proved. However, the way he’s been treated by Kahn and the Wolves organization in the past two months might be the most embarrassing part of this entire era. Rambis should have been fired right after the regular season ended. There was no real reason to drag this out. It’s just another case of the Wolves mismanaging a personnel decision within the organization. The Wolves already should have a head coach and be ready to make roster decisions once the lockout ends. Instead, they've once again been making moves without a head coach in place for the upcoming season.
Just as it’s nearly impossible to know whether Rambis is a good coach based on 37 games plus playoffs from a lockout-sliced NBA season more then a decade ago, it’s not really fair to judge him based on the past two years he endured in Minnesota.