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Opportunity knocks for assistant coaches

There will be vacancies. On that, you can go to the proverbial bank. There always is coaching turnover in the NBA; the only unknown is how many teams will be looking for new head coaches in 2010.

We can pretty much identify two of them: the New Jersey Nets and the New Orleans Hornets. They already have cashiered the coaches who started the season; in the case of the Nets’ Lawrence Frank, it marked the end of the longest tenured coach (same team) in the Eastern Conference. Boston’s Doc Rivers now has that distinction.

Assistant coach Tom Thibodeau overhauled the Celtics' defense, a big reason why Boston won the 2008 title.
(NBAE/ Getty Images)

Interestingly, neither New Jersey nor New Orleans went out and hired a replacement. They turned to someone already on the payroll (though both teams brought in new assistants to help the new boss). But whom will the Nets, Hornets and (pick a few teams) consider when it comes time to make a permanent move later this season or next summer?

There are the usual suspects: Jeff Van Gundy, Mike Fratello, Avery Johnson, Sam Mitchell, Byron Scott and even, perhaps, Frank. Those gents all have one thing in common: $$$$$. And now, more than ever, teams are watching their costs.

Says one general manager: “It is a fact of NBA life. Teams are losing money. Teams are watching what they spend and it has trickled down to the assistants, to the scouts, to the assistant scouts. There is no question about it.”

Added agent Steve Kauffman, who counts Sacramento Kings coach Paul Westphal as a client: “It’s certainly a factor right now. I believe after the next lockout – and there will be a lockout – then you’ll start to see salaries gradually rise again, sort of like the housing market.”

Using the economy (and a not-so-subtle admonishment last year from league commissioner David Stern), teams may instead look more closely into current NBA assistant coaches, who (a) have been waiting for their shot; and (b) would come much cheaper than anyone from the above group. The Pistons went that route with John Kuester. The Bulls went that route with Vinny Del Negro, although he was not an assistant coach. Miami’s Erik Spoelstra probably fits that description as well.

But whom might the next ones be? Here is a list of current NBA assistant coaches who might well be on the short lists of several teams. These fellows all have one thing in common – and it’s not $$$$$. They have never been an NBA head coach.

Elston Turner, Houston: Other than the Utah Jazz’s Phil Johnson and Jerry Sloan and the San Antonio Spurs’ Mike Budenholzer and Gregg Popovich, there may not be a more solid relationship between a head coach and his top lieutenant than the one between Houston Rockets head coach Rick Adelman and Turner. They have been together for the past three years in Houston and for six years before that in Sacramento. Turner also was an assistant for four years in Portland. He nearly got the Phoenix Suns job two years ago instead of Terry Porter and was a finalist last summer for the Minnesota Timberwolves job that went to Kurt Rambis. He turned 50 last June and appears more than ready for his first head-coaching job.

Tom Thibodeau, Boston: The coach credited with revamping the Boston Celtics’ defense is in his third season as Doc Rivers’ top assistant. Prior to that, he spent four seasons in Houston and seven in New York, working alongside Van Gundy on defensive-minded teams. He’s also done stints in Philadelphia, Minnesota and San Antonio. The success of the Celtics has raised Thibodeau’s profile and he should be on every general manager’s short list.

Longtime Jazz assistant coach Tyrone Corbin was a candidate for Oklahoma City's top job in 2007.
(NBAE/ Getty Images)

Tyrone Corbin, Utah: A former player for the Jazz (and eight other teams!), Corbin is in his seventh season as an assistant to Sloan. (Talk about job security: Work for Jerry.) Prior to that, he worked in the Knicks’ front office as manager of player development. Who knows when Sloan will finally call it a day and go back to his John Deere in Illinois? When that day comes, Corbin would seem to be a logical successor, if some other team hasn’t already gotten him. He is 47.

Monty Williams, Portland: The 38-year-old Williams was interviewed for the Wolves job last summer that went to Rambis. He is in his fifth season with the Blazers after spending one year in San Antonio as an intern. Williams is credited in Portland for the development of Travis Outlaw(notes) and Nicolas Batum(notes). Williams bounced around in his NBA career after being a first-round pick of the Knicks in 1994.

Brian Shaw, L.A. Lakers: The 43-year-old Shaw has been on the Lakers’ bench since 2004-05, first for Rudy Tomjanovich (and Frank Hamblen after Rudy T) and then for Phil Jackson. There is some chatter around the league that Shaw might be the Coach in Waiting in Los Angeles once Jackson decides to head for the Montana hills and never come back. He has four rings as a Laker – three as a player (2000, 2001, 2002) and the other as an assistant from last season.

Mario Elie, Sacramento: The hard-nosed Elie, who has three rings (two from Houston and the other from San Antonio) is in his first season on the Kings’ bench as Westphal’s assistant. The previous two years he had been an assistant in Dallas. He also has been an assistant coach in San Antonio and Golden State. The guy has been around; 11 years in the NBA as well as stops in Portugal, Argentina, Ireland, the USBL, the WBL and the CBA. He also speaks Spanish, French and Portuguese. He is 46.

Larry Drew, Atlanta: He has been on the Atlanta sidelines since 2004 and, prior to that, did assistantships with the Wizards, Pistons and Lakers. Overall, Drew has more than enough coaching cred – 16 years as an NBA assistant – and also had a serviceable career as a player. He turns 52 in April.

Also worth noting: Keith Smart, a Golden State Warriors assistant coach, who was the last coach of the Cavs prior to the arrival of LeBron (9-31 in 2002-03). He took over this season for an ill Don Nelson on a five-game road trip and went 1-4. … Budenholzer, who has been on Popovich’s staff in San Antonio for the past 14 seasons, has been recommended for various openings in recent years and could some day succeed his mentor. … Bill Laimbeer, in his first year as an NBA assistant (Minnesota) after guiding the Detroit Shock of the WNBA to three titles in six years. … Lester Conner, who has been with Rick Pitino and Jim O’Brien in Boston and with O’Brien in Philadelphia and currently in Indiana. He also spent two seasons as an assistant in Milwaukee and has 10 years of coaching experience in the league. … Mark Jackson, though not an NBA assistant, has been on a lot of short lists and did interview for the Wolves position.

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Updated Sunday, Jan 17, 2010