But — and it’s a considerable “but” — both men got tagged with a lot of defeats through the years. In fact, Fitch ranks second all-time with 1,106 losses, behind only Wilkens’ 1,155. And Motta ranks fourth at 1,017, after Don Nelson’s 1,063. And their winning percentages surely weigh down their candidacies even more: Motta’s .479 ranks 107th among the 313 fellows who have coached at least one NBA game, according to basketball-reference.com. And Fitch is 127th at .460.
Dick Motta was the first coach in Mavs history.
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Both, in other words, won at rates worse than those that got the likes of Brian Hill, Jim O’Brien, Scott Skiles, Bob Hill, Mike D’Antoni, Nate McMillan, John MacLeod and many other coaches fired.
Should that keep Fitch and Motta out? Jack McCallum, former NBA writer for Sports Illustrated who had a stint in the Hall’s selection process, said a couple years ago he probably wouldn’t vote for Motta because of it. And Fitch is even more underwater in sheer W-L.
Goldberg, though, focused on other aspects in making cases for both. Each man won an NBA title. Each was named Coach of the Year — Fitch won that award twice, with Cleveland and Boston, and was voted one of the top 10 coaches of all-time when the NBA celebrated its first 50 years at the 1997 All-Star Game.
Each has spawned impressive “trees,” in the form of players and assistants who went on to make their own marks as coaches. Fitch’s includes Larry Bird, Rick Carlisle, Butch Beard, Don Chaney, Lionel Hollins, Kevin McHale and way back at the University of North Dakota, Phil Jackson. Motta influenced and/or worked with Jerry Sloan, Bernie Bickerstaff, Scott Brooks, Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson, Bob Weiss and Rick Adelman, among others.
Both were known as innovators, too. Fitch earned the nickname “Captain Video” for his early use of film and videotape to break down opponents and scout talent. Intended as a tease, he took it as a source of pride and eventually was proven right.
Motta’s offensive schemes, highly efficient plays built on intricate screens and backdoor cuts, earned the Chicago Bulls an early and nearly forgotten era of pre-Michael Jordan success. They also influenced numerous rivals and devotees, including Sloan all those years in Utah.
Goldberg pitches the fact that neither man was afraid of heavy lifting.
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Fitch broke into the NBA with the expansion Cavaliers in 1970 and lasted nine seasons there, tasting the playoffs three times. He took over a 29-53 Boston team and, with Bird’s not-insignificant help, got the Celtics to 61-21 the next season. Houston went from 29-53 in Fitch’s first season there to 48-34 and four straight postseason appearances.
Motta steered the Bulls to four consecutive 50-win seasons without a superstar, and got Washington to The Finals in 1978 and ’79 against fierce (and arguably better) competition. He was Dallas’ first coach in 1980-81 and paid the price with a 15-67 mark, but had the Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals in their fourth year.
Both coaches would have been better off if they retired early. Instead, they stuck around to lend their experience and strategies to teams too moribund to revive. If not for Fitch’s final seven seasons with the Nets and the Clippers (182-392), he would have finished with a 762-714 mark, solidly above .500 (.516). Ditto for Motta, who went 127-267 in six seasons with Sacramento, Dallas a second time and Denver. Erase that and he exits at 808-750 (.519).
Both, for what it’s worth, added color and zest to the game with their personalities, too. Fitch was adept as a quipster, once saying: “Going into a game against Lew Alcindor is like going into a knife fight and finding there’s no blade in your handle.” And “Sometimes you wake up in the morning and wish your parents had never met.”
Mudiay shined in Denver’s weeklong stay in Vegas, exhibiting the poise and playmaking that had the Nuggets thrilled he was there for them with the No. 7 pick. He averaged 12.0 points, 5.8 assists and 1.3 steals in four games and was one of the top rookies on display.
“We knew he was a natural playmaker and certainly he excels in transition,” Nuggets GM Tim Connelly said. “What stood out in summer league was his patience and letting things develop. I think it’s a term that’s rarely used anymore. He’s a true point guard.”
These summer games always need to be taken with a grain of salt considering the small sample size and a level of competition that is generally far inferior to the NBA. Mudiay also shot just 38.5 percent, underscoring a concern about that part of his game that scouts expressed during the pre-draft process.
“I didn’t shoot it how I wanted to shoot, but I’m going to keep shooting,” Mudiay said. “You’ve got to put pressure on the defense. It’s only four games we played. You can’t go off of four games.”
What set Mudiay apart over seven days in Vegas was his court vision, instincts and aptitude for the game uncommon in a 19-year-old.
“I love playmaking. I love making other people better,” Mudiay said. “This week I wasn’t too focused on the scoring part just because I wanted to facilitate. The reads I was making were wide open for my teammates. I should’ve probably done a better job of scoring probably.”
For Mudiay, this week was the culmination of a long journey. He was born in what was called Zaire at the time in 1996, lost his father in 1998 and left the war-torn country for Texas in 2002.
“There are some things you don’t forget growing up,” Mudiay said. “Seeing your mama struggles. The civil war was going on. Dead bodies, gun shots. But it’s made me who I am today, mentally, physically, all that.”
The 6-foot-5 Mudiay played the first four games for the Nuggets, leading them to a 3-1 record before sitting out the finale to rest a body that has taken a beating over the last year in China, the pre-draft preparation and in a tough mini-training camp in Denver before coming to Vegas.
He watched the final game from the bench, wearing a throwback Dikembe Mutombo Nuggets jersey, a little hat tip to his new home.
“He really has already embraced Denver,” Connelly said. “We talked on draft night and he was thankful for us giving him the opportunity. He’s desperate to show our fans and the league he can be one of the special lead point guards.”
A shorter learning curve could be crucial for the Nuggets after starting point guard Ty Lawson was arrested for DUI and entered a treatment facility.
Connelly said the Nuggets stand firmly behind Lawson. But the uncertainty surrounding a veteran at one of the game’s most important positions is unsettling as new coach Michael Malone prepares to take over a team that was disjointed under previous coach Brian Shaw.
The Nuggets have other veterans like Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari on the roster, but the team appears to be Mudiay’s for the taking.
The Nuggets are being careful not to put too much on his plate too early. But after an impressive debut, they left Vegas brimming with optimism