Mo Cheeks, Brian Shaw among head coaches in waiting
The coaching carousel spun early this season, with Mike Brown, Avery Johson and Scott Skiles stepping off and Mike D'Antoni, P.J. Carlesimo and Jim Boylan stepping on to replace them, all before the All-Star break. More jobs, in all likelihood, will open this summer, and -- with the understanding that the usual suspects (Phil Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy, Nate McMillan) will be checked out -- here are some of the top assistants who should get a few phone calls.
Mo Cheeks, Oklahoma City: Cheeks, 56, has quietly spent the last four seasons as Scott Brooks' confidante on the Thunder bench. He has been instrumental in the development of Russell Westbrook, spending countless hours working with the dynamic but volatile point guard. Cheeks has had turbulent tenures as head coach of Portland and Philadelphia, and some in the Thunder organization have said he may not be interested in another top job. Still, his experience coupled with his effectiveness with the Thunder will make him a sought-after interview candidate.
Brian Shaw, Indiana: Pacers coach Frank Vogel told me recently that he couldn't give Shaw a higher recommendation. The even-keeled Shaw -- once recommended by Kobe Bryant for the Lakers' job -- has worked closely with young players Paul George and Lance Stephenson, while maintaining a high level of respect in the locker room. It was Shaw who visited George last summer and told him Indiana would only improve as much as he did; George has responded with an All-Star season.
Shaw has been down this road before: He interviewed for the head-coaching jobs in Charlotte, Orlando and Portland last summer, even turning down a formal offer from the Bobcats to return to Indiana. He'll remain in demand after another strong season with the Pacers.
"He is going to be at the top of everyone's interview list," a Western Conference general manager said.
Lester Conner, Atlanta: The affable Conner, a longtime lieutenant of Jim O'Brien's in Boston, Philadelphia and Indiana, as well as a former assistant in Milwaukee, is in his third season in Atlanta under Larry Drew. Conner is regarded as a strong communicator; his strength is working with young players, which has led to him being connected to college jobs, including his alma mater, Oregon State. In Atlanta, Conner has an active role in the Hawks' defense, which ranks 10th in points allowed per possession.
Mike Budenholzer, San Antonio: It seems like we are discussing Budenholzer every year, doesn't it? A longtime assistant in San Antonio, Budenholzer has had his share of interviews, yet almost inexplicably has never been given a shot. It's Budenholzer who is largely charged with instructing new players on the subtle details of Gregg Popovich's complex system, while often serving as the strongest voice in practices. Popovich often praises Budenholzer for his ability to speak the truth to star players in practice.
The knock on Budenholzer is ... well, it's unclear what the knock is. "Honestly, I couldn't tell you," an Eastern Conference executive said. "He is as qualified as anyone."
Mike Malone, Golden State: Credit Mark Jackson for turning Golden State into a credible defensive team in his second season. But don't overlook the contributions of Malone, one of the NBA's hottest young assistants who was one of the primary architects of a defense that defended the paint without the presence of Andrew Bogut in the lineup. With an inexperienced head coach in Jackson, it's Malone who is responsible for most of the X's and O's in practice.
Malone was voted the top NBA assistant by general managers in 2011-2012 and finished tied for third in the poll at the start of this season (Shaw was first and Budenholzer second). One executive described Malone, who was a finalist for the Orlando job last year, as "a lock" to get a job this summer.
Kelvin Sampson, Houston: It wasn't long ago that Sampson, 57, was a disgraced college coach, forced to resign from Indiana for major recruiting violations. But Sampson has reinvented himself in the NBA, working in San Antonio and Milwaukee before taking the job as Kevin McHale's lead assistant in Houston. NBA executives are impressed with who Sampson has chosen to work for: McHale, Skiles and Popovich, three of the most intelligent coaches in the league. Sampson's stock grew considerably, executives said, after a 7-6 stint as Houston's interim coach in McHale's absence. Brooklyn was interested in Sampson after the Nets parted ways with Johnson.
Stephen Silas, Charlotte: Last season, then-Bobcats coach Paul Silas gave his son a few reps as head coach, grooming him for a possible position down the road. The younger Silas comes with terrific references from Golden State, where he worked closely with Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis, and Charlotte, where he has been heavily involved with the development of the Bobcats' slew of young players, particularly their perimeter talent. Silas, 36, interviewed for the Bobcats' head-coaching position last summer. Though the belief around the league is that he may not be ready for a top job yet, he can get there with his smarts and ability to relate to players.
Elston Turner: Turner was the top assistant in Phoenix before Alvin Gentry was let go and bedlam broke out: Player assistant coordinator Lindsey Hunter was promoted to the top job and Turner, who was denied the opportunity to move to Minnesota to work under Rick Adelman in 2011, was moved out. Turner is regarded as a smart defensive mind. It's unclear how the drama in Phoenix will affect his chances of landing a top job this summer, but at the very least expect Turner to interview and land on someone's bench in a top assistant role.
Kaleb Canales, Portland: The Blazers surprised everyone when they promoted Canales, 34, a former video coordinator, to the head-coaching job after firing McMillan last year. They surprised more people last summer when they hired Terry Stotts, and not Canales, as coach for this season. Like most video coordinators turned coaches (a group that includes Miami's Erik Spoelstra and Vogel) Canales is a maniacal worker -- McMillan once called him the hardest-working person in the Blazers' organization -- who led the Blazers to an 8-15 record last season. Portland would like to keep him, but Canales has a strong reputation around the league.
Dave Joerger, Memphis: Joerger doesn't have any NBA head-coaching experience but is one of the most decorated head coaches in minor league basketball history: He has won five titles -- one in the National Basketball Development League (2006-07 with the Dakota Wizards), one in the International Basketball Association and three in the Continental Basketball Association. With Memphis, Joerger has a strong voice in the team's defensive philosophy and in preparing the daily scouting reports.