The true greatness of Rudy Tomjanovich

By Steve Jones
Apr. 17, 2020

Rudy Tomjanovich is finally in the Hall of Fame, and one of the biggest snubs ever is finally done with. Rockets fans and NBA coaches like Scott Brooks had blasted the Basketball Hall of Fame for not letting him in for year after year, and no one could offer a good explanation for why he was constantly off the list.

Some less educated individuals may claim that he was not a good enough player despite his 5 All-Star berths, or that his coaching career of 13 years was not long enough. Such claims are completely absurd (does anyone think that Steve Kerr with his health issues will be coaching for another 7 years?) Rudy Tomjanovich won 2 NBA titles and had only 2 losing seasons. He won a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. He was a solid player in his own right, whose All-Star winning career was derailed by an unfortunate incident that is not the topic of this article.

But there is more to Rudy T than his medals or trophies or accolades in his trophy room with its cabinet refinishing. There is also the fact that Rudy can be viewed as the predecessor to the modern NBA and the pace and space era. And that accomplishment is as important to basketball as any ring or medal.

The First 3-Point Believer

Consider what the NBA was like in 1992, the year in which Rudy T became a head coach. He nearly did not, as he believed he was not ready for the job when asked to take over for former coach Don Chaney. But the NBA was a league for big men even though Jordan had won his first title. And it most certainly was not a league for the 3-point shot which dominates the modern league. In the 1991-92 NBA season, the average NBA team took an average of 7.6 shots per game, less than the amount individual players take today.

But in an amusing prequel to the three-point happy Rockets of today, the Rockets throughout the 1990s were one of the top long-range shooting teams in the league. This trend predated Tomjanovich’s takeover as head coach, though he was an assistant coach starting in 1983. But for every season in the 1990s, the Rockets ranked in the top 3 in three-point attempts per game. In their two championship years, they were #1.

Tomjanovich made the three-point shot an integral part of his offense because he knew it was the best way to take advantage of Hakeem’s incredible offensive skillset. In the 1990s NBA, players were not allowed to zone or hedge on defense in ways common in the modern NBA (though the Seattle SuperSonics, Houston’s biggest rival, pushed the edge on what was allowed.)

Rudy T took advantage of this by emphasizing spacing and playing three-point shooters whom Hakeem could pass to when aggressively double teamed. Later, he took the then radical step of moving some dude named Robert Horry to the power forward position for his shooting skills, even though Horry had originally been a small forward.

There are many coaches and analysts who helped bring the NBA to its current state, from Mike D’Antoni to Don Nelson to even interesting figures such as Pete Maravich who shot the three-pointer before there were three-pointers. But Rudy Tomjanovich was not just some coach who won a title or two. He was an innovator, who helped design an at the time three-point heavy offense that would be a predecessor to the modern NBA. That fact alone should have been enough to put him in the Hall of Fame years ago.