Assistants who could be next in line for head-coaching opportunities
Tom Thibodeau has received a lot of credit for the Celtics' defensive improvement
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is high on his top assistant, Mike Budenholzer
Ex-NBA players Elston Turner and Tyrone Corbin are well-regarded assistants
In the NBA, assistant coaches are like backup quarterbacks: They are beloved for the abilities they show in practice and praised for how well they support the man in front of them on the sideline. But like many backup quarterbacks, assistant coaches don't always live up to the hype.
Last year, Suns assistant coach Marc Iavaroni's name was on the tip of every general manager's tongue after he completed another successful season alongside Mike D'Antoni in Phoenix. A little more than a year later, Iavaroni has amassed a 22-60 record as the Grizzlies' coach, and if Memphis struggles as much as expected in 2008-09, he may not last the season.
At least Iavaroni is getting a second season. Sam Vincent, hired by Michael Jordan in Charlotte after only one season as an NBA assistant coach (in Dallas), was fired following 11 months on the job. Not that Vincent didn't give Jordan good reason; the Bobcats failed to make progress while finishing 32-50 in '07-08.
Two assistants who were all the rage this past offseason both hailed from Detroit. Former Pistons assistant Terry Porter (who was 71-93 as the head coach in Milwaukee from 2003-2005) took over for D'Antoni in Phoenix, and Detroit promoted Michael Curry to replace the fired Flip Saunders.
It won't be a walk in the park for either of them. Porter will be making radical philosophical changes to a team that looked to be on the decline last season, while Curry must figure out a way to manage a veteran team that seemed to tune out Saunders toward the end of last season.
With the potential for several head-coaching jobs to become available either during or after this season, the landscape is ripe for another "hot assistant" to emerge. Let's look at four who are likely to make everyone's list.
Tom Thibodeau, Boston. The Celtics' defensive guru was a head-coaching candidate last season, but Boston's championship run prevented him from receiving any serious interest. There is no question Thibodeau is qualified; he has worked under Bill Musselman, Jeff Van Gundy and Doc Rivers, and in 18 years as an assistant, his teams have finished in the top 10 in team defense 15 times. Thibodeau built a staggeringly stingy defense last season behind Defensive Player of the Year Kevin Garnett, transforming Boston from the league's seventh-worst field-goal-percentage defense (46.8) in 2006-2007 to the NBA's best (41.9) last season.
Perhaps the only thing holding Thibodeau back is a perceived lack of communication skills. His abrupt style is fine as an assistant but may work against him if he is elevated to the top job.
"He is a lot like Dick Harter," a Western Conference executive said. "That's not a knock; Harter is a great coach. But he wasn't a great head coach." (In his only head-coaching job, Harter went 28-94 with the expansion Charlotte Hornets from 1988-90.)
Mike Budenholzer, San Antonio. The Suns interviewed the 38-year-old Budenholzer during their search for D'Antoni's replacement. Phoenix eventually settled on Porter, but the buzz has grown around Gregg Popovich's No. 1 assistant. Budenholzer began his career as the Spurs' video coordinator in 1994 and is starting his 13th season as an assistant coach.
"First of all, Mike has a wonderful understanding of the game," Popovich said. "That's a requirement. He's really good relationship-wise, too. He's secure in his own skin and he's able to tell a player the truth whether the player wants to hear it or not."
Elston Turner, Houston. Like Budenholzer, Turner's name began to circulate near the end of last season. Turner was Rick Adelman's assistant for six seasons in Sacramento before following him to Houston. He served as Adelman's chief game strategist and organized the Rockets' game plans during the 2008 playoffs. A tenacious defender in eight seasons as a player, Turner is considered a strong communicator who has embraced Adelman's read-and-react offensive system.
"Elston, sooner or later, someone that knows what he does will give him an opportunity," Adelman said.
Tyrone Corbin, Utah. As is the case for many in the Jazz organization, Corbin operates out of the spotlight. Entering his fifth year on the Utah bench after a 15-year playing career, Corbin has played a key role in the development of the Jazz's frontcourt, including All-Stars Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur. Corbin didn't get any of the three jobs he interviewed for over the last two years (Oklahoma City, Chicago and Phoenix), but he was endorsed recently by former NBA star Reggie Miller and ex-NBA coach Doug Collins as a rising star in the coaching ranks.
One of the things that may be hurting Corbin is his position on the Jazz bench as the No. 2 assistant, behind Jerry Sloan's longtime top aide Phil Johnson. Corbin turned down a lead assistant position with Detroit in the offseason. Getting a more high-profile role with another team could help Corbin's chances of landing a head-coaching job.
I made some predictions earlier in the week, but here is my complete list for the NBA's official awards. (Executive of the Year is voted on by front-office officials.)
MVP: LeBron James, Cavaliers. The league's most dominant player is officially recognized as such.
Coach of the Year: Rick Adelman, Rockets. His ability to appease all the egos will make the Rockets contenders.
Rookie of the Year: Michael Beasley, Heat. He is as NBA-ready as Kevin Durant was last season.
Defensive Player of the Year: Kevin Garnett, Celtics. An absolute mortal lock.
Sixth Man Award: Manu Ginobili, Spurs. The early-season rest while recovering from ankle surgery will make Ginobili stronger down the stretch.
Most Improved Player: Lou Williams, 76ers. The fourth-year guard can flat-out score.
Executive of the Year: John Hammond, Bucks. Left for dead at the end of last season, the retooled Bucks will earn a playoff spot.