Hall of Fame Coaching Game: Dick Motta, original Maverick and NBA champion

Should an NBA coach be a Hall of Famer simply because he won a title at some point? Consider the example of Paul Westhead, who won the 1980 NBA championship with the Los Angeles Lakers but was pushed out early in the 1981-1982 season. If you were to evaluate Westhead’s NBA career in isolation, it wouldn’t offer a body of work which would point the way to Springfield.

The best case for Westhead as a Hall of Fame candidate is not necessarily as a head coach (though that’s certainly allowable), but as a contributor. What Westhead has given to basketball, specifically his up-tempo offense — a distinctive way to play Naismith’s game — expanded a sense of possibility in the sport. Westhead’s leadership of the 1990 Loyola Marymount team represented an important contribution to basketball. Westhead was also a success in women’s professional hoops, coaching the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury to the 2007 championship of the league. An NBA-WNBA double puts Westhead in a unique spot. He has succeeded as a college coach and as a pro coach, in both men’s and women’s basketball. If viewed beyond the NBA alone, Westhead has an argument to make, but strictly within the league, no, you wouldn’t present him as a serious Hall of Fame candidate… even though he won a title.


The coaches who should make the Hall of Fame ought to have a title or some significant non-championship accomplishments, but those crowns and those moments of glory should be buttressed by a reasonable degree of longevity, which manifests the ability to succeed consistently.

Jerry Sloan never did win an NBA title in Utah with the Jazz, but he got a lot out of those teams for two decades, and he came very close to winning a title in the Jazz’s two Finals appearances. Being excellent for roughly two decades is not an official criterion for Hall of Fame selection, but it’s a pretty good (and expansive) way of expressing what a coach should need to do in order to gain this precious piece of basketball immortality.

The other day, we made the case for Bill Fitch to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Fitch generally did meet that (inexact) criterion mentioned above. He was a consistent winner, in three different places. He succeeded in three very different situations. He coached luminous stars at the beginnings of their respective careers (Larry Bird and Hakeem Olajuwon in particular), a sign that he knew how to develop high-end talent when he was entrusted with it. He built an expansion team from nothing and turned it into a success. He won a world title. He stood in the way of the Los Angeles Lakers’ Western Conference dynasty in the 1980s. That certainly seems to be worthy of a Hall pass.

A contemporary of Fitch’s, Dick Motta, should certainly be given the same honor, because he achieved on a very similar level.


Motta took over the Chicago Bulls in the late 1960s, but in just a few seasons, Motta had the team winning more than 50 games per season on a regular basis. The Bulls very nearly won the 1975 Western Conference championship and made their way to their first NBA Finals, but the Golden State Warriors denied them in a captivating series. Crossover Chronicles staff writer John Cannon told the story of that 1975 West Finals series from a Golden State perspective.

Motta took the Bulls as far as they could go. Missing the NBA Finals by one game is the kind of disappointment which can sidetrack many careers, but Motta managed to move forward and cement his legacy as a top-tier coach.

Motta moved to the nation’s capital to coach the Washington Bullets, who had been upset in the 1975 NBA Finals by the very same Warriors who denied Motta’s Bulls a chance to make history. Motta inherited a team capable of making the Finals; after all, it had done so before. However, one thing the 1975 Bullets didn’t have to deal with en route to their first NBA Finals in D.C. (the Bullets had made the Finals before in 1971, but that was in Baltimore) was Julius Erving.

In 1975, Doctor J. played in the ABA, but when it died, Erving — the foremost star of that short-lived league — came to the Philadelphia 76ers. In 1977, the Sixers won the NBA Eastern Conference and were poised to do the same in 1978. The Bullets had to go through Philly in the 1978 East Finals. It would take a strong coaching performance from Motta to turn The Doctor away. Sure enough, the Bullets were able to upset the Sixers. They had returned to the Finals.

With Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes hungering for the championship which eluded them in 1975 (and for Unseld, also in 1971 as a member of the Baltimore Bullets), Washington put the pieces together and knocked off the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1978 NBA Finals. The Bullets, down 3-2 in the series, won Game 6 at home and then flew one more time across the country to win Game 7 in Seattle. Dick Motta hadn’t accompanied Unseld and Hayes through the entirety of their journeys in the Beltway, but he had given them (and their teammates) the final added push to reach the winner’s circle.

Just in case you might view that 1978 title as something of a fluke or aberration, the Bullets and Motta defended their East title in 1979 and earned a rematch with Seattle in the NBA Finals. This time, the Sonics got the Bullets, but Washington had shown more than a little resilience in returning to the NBA’s showcase event. When the 1970s came to an end, a few coaches certainly stood above others: Bill Sharman of the Lakers; Red Holzman of the New York Knicks; Tom Heinsohn of the Celtics; Jack Ramsay of the Portland Trail Blazers; Larry Costello of the Milwaukee Bucks: Lenny Wilkens of the Sonics; and Motta, having taken two franchises to distinct heights.

Motta became the man Dallas Mavericks owner-founder Donald Carter wanted to lead the expansion team through its first years. The initial season in 1980-’81 was predictably painful, with a 15-67 record. However, just three seasons later, Motta had the Mavericks above .500 and in the playoffs. Three more seasons later, Dallas had won 55 games. The team could not get through the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference, but Motta had — like Bill Fitch — taken an expansion franchise and turned it into a winner.

Like Fitch, Motta won at a considerable rate in three different places, over roughly 20 years.

If Fitch is worthy of the Hall of Fame, so is Motta. He mattered, and this Maverick (Bull-headed and Bullet-sharp) deserves a place in Springfield as a result.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |