Hubbard: Dick Motta deserves to be in Hall of Fame

In NBA history, only 10 coaches have won more games than Dick Motta, although that is misleading.

When he left the NBA after the 1996-97 season, his 935 victories were the third-most. He’s been passed by seven coaches while not coaching.

Unlike two recent inductees into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame – Don Nelson and Jerry Sloan – Motta also has that all-important championship. And it was an impressive one because by no means did his 1977-78 Washington Bullets have anywhere close to the best talent in the league.

That season, in fact, they won only 44 regular-season games. They had fewer great players than the Julius Erving-led Philadelphia 76ers and less size and explosiveness than the George Gervin-led San Antonio Spurs – the two top seeds in the Eastern Conference – yet beat both of them in the playoffs.

Motta then won a coaching duel with Lenny Wilkens – who is in the Hall of Fame – and the Bullets overcame a 3-2 deficit to win the final two games of the 1978 NBA Finals and a championship.

An objective look at those accomplishments suggests rather strongly that Dick Motta belongs in the Hall of Fame. But he is not, for one reason and one reason only:

He stayed too long – six years too long to be exact. Had Motta left when he was 55, he would have had a record of 808-750. That’s not too far off Red Holzman’s 696-604 record, or Jack Ramsay’s 864-783. And there is no doubt Bill Sharman is one of the all-time great players and executives in basketball history, but he is in the Hall of Fame as a head coach and he had a 333-240 record as an NBA coach (and 133-113 in the ABA).

The problem with Motta’s resume is that because of jobs with young teams in Sacramento and Dallas (during a second tenure), his losses exceed his wins. His 1,017 losses are fourth-most in NBA history behind only Wilkens, Bill Fitch and Don Nelson. Wilkens and Nelson, however, had a winning percentage better than .500. Motta and Fitch did not, and neither is in the Hall of Fame.

Motta’s record in particular produces a compelling debate. Unlike Fitch – who benefitted from coaching Larry Bird’s Celtics and Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets – Motta never coached a team that was favored to win a title. The issue is whether a coach more losses than wins be in the Hall of Fame? I asked two friends who served time on the voting committee and the results were mixed.

“I think above-.500 is immaterial in this case,” Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News said. “Every team in the league uses offensive stuff Motta pioneered and I think that merits his inclusion.”

But Jack McCallum, formerly of Sports Illustrated, says the record is part of the big picture.

“I just don’t see how a coach with that kind of record gets in,” McCallum said. “I think he would’ve had to have been so innovative — inventor of the fast break, inventor of the 1-3-1 zone or something like that. I probably wouldn’t vote for him.”

Motta was innovative, but more as a coach who perfected parts of the game that existed. No one was better at getting a 6-5 forward like Mark Aguirre, putting him in the low post and running an offense that repeatedly got Aguirre open shots.

Motta’s set offense was one of the best in NBA history, and although some judged him to be conservative because his teams were deliberate and disciplined, Motta encouraged his players to shoot as many 3-pointers as they could.

“I like the 3-pointer, especially when you don’t have much height,” Motta would say. “If you make it, it’s a psychological blow to the other team. If you miss it, the ball hits the rim so hard that it bounces out and gives you a better chance to rebound.”

Motta also was one of those rare college coaches who was successful in the NBA. NBA teams had rarely hired college coaches in the late-1960s, but Motta was part of a wave in 1968 that included Ramsay and a couple of years later, Cotton Fitzsimmons.


  1. Thomas Finocchio says

    To all voters for the Hall:
    Coach Motta took young inexperienced teams as a challenge and coached them to success. This is why his record is where it is. He could have been the type of coach where he only went for the winners, but he is the type of coach that coaches young and inexperience to the level of an NBA super team, this takes time and losses. His legacy is the winners he developed and the style that is used today. He is class in every sense and others should use him as a model for coaching and life. He is everything the Hall stands for as well as the NBA. Stearn and every writer in America should put Coach Motta in the hall immediately, He deserves it, his family deserves it and the NBA needs it.
    He is a class act in every way. and those losses should be looked at as a badge of honor not disrespect..

  2. DSC says

    Aguirre should be in over Dantley. Dantley was selfish, didn’t pass, couldn’t shoot 3-pointers, couldn’t post up. Aguirre could post up (OK, he was great at it!), was an effective passer, had a 3-point shot. And who was the better rebounder? Aguirre, oddly.

    Dantley would get the ball, and if he got an assist it was because he didn’t think he could score. Aguirre got assists because he passed the ball to the right guy, not just the nearest guy. I’d take Aguirre on my team over Dantley any day, just because he’d pass the ball and not freeze out teammates. And Aguirre made every team he played on better (Dallas was a contender until they dealt him, then fell to 9th and made the playoffs only once in 6 years; Detroit went up in winning % when Aguirre joined, dropped when he left; even the Clips saw an uptick with Aguirre, a drop without him). Plus his awesome DePaul career (If Sampson gets in for Virginia, Aguirre gets a lot for DePaul).

  3. DSC says

    Motta didn’t run an offense to get Aguirre open shots, Aguirre got his own shots. Motta ran plays mostly for Blackman and Harper, anyone who watched Dallas knows that. If Aguirre had a coach who indulged him like Bird, Thomas, Wilkins, and so many more did Aguirre would be in the Hall and Dallas would have won a title in the 80’s.

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