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The Most Qualified Assistant Coach in the NBA?

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

November 6, 2012

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Brian Shaw must surely be the most qualified assistant coach in the NBA, a lukewarm honor as appealing as being the best backup quarterback in the NFL or the best Vice-President in corporate America. It's a good thing, sure, but not the best thing and hardly the thing he really wants—not after clocking in for 15 professional seasons as a player and embarking on his ninth as an assistant coach.

But it's the role he's chosen. For now, at least.

Amid all the personnel changes that impacted the Pacers over the summer, none were more surprising than the non-change that kept Shaw in Indianapolis. He was considered as good as gone after last season, a virtual lock for the head coaching position that had eluded him for so long. Head coach Frank Vogel even joked about it in his season-ending press conference, saying he was going to lie and tell other teams that Shaw just wasn't ready yet, that he needed more time to develop despite his decades of NBA experience.

There were three head coaching openings at the time—Charlotte, Orlando and Portland—and Shaw seemed destined for one of them. He talked with all three teams and was formally offered by Charlotte, but turned it down to stay with the Pacers for a second season. He wants his first head coaching opportunity to be the right one, as opposed to one that buries him beneath a hopeless pile of career-killing losses. He also likes the possibilities this season for the Pacers and his family loves living in Indianapolis. In fact, when Shaw decided not to take Charlotte's offer and not to further pursue the other openings, his son, B.J., breathed a sigh of relief. "I had my fingers crossed that you weren't getting any of them, because I love it in Indiana," he told his dad.

All this makes Shaw one of the NBA's most intriguing, even mysterious, figures. He gained widespread respect as a player over 14 NBA seasons (and one in Europe). He played on three championship teams with the Lakers from 2000-2002. Superstar teammates such as Larry Bird and Shaquille O'Neal thought highly of him. O'Neal called him the teammate he most respected, while Bird interviewed him for the head coaching position that went to Jim O'Brien in 2007, just to get other teams to start thinking of him as a candidate.

Shaw also spent seven seasons as an assistant coach on Phil Jackson's staff with the Lakers, contributing to another championship in 2009. And yet when Jackson gathered up his 11 rings and retired in 2011, Shaw —who seemed the obvious successor—was let go while the franchise decided to see what (Mike) Brown could do for them. It seemed an insult to Shaw at first, but the Lakers were going through simultaneous changes in the Lakers' power structure that suddenly made Shaw's connection with Jackson a negative.

Shaw joined the Pacers then, after Frank Vogel—who hadn't even officially been hired as head coach yet—brought him to Indianapolis and subjected him to an aggressive recruiting effort. But it wasn't his first trip to the city for a job interview. Bird, who was winding down his career in Boston while Shaw was starting his in the early nineties, flew him to Indianapolis to interview for the head coaching position after Rick Carlisle left.

Bird and then-general manager David Morway met with Shaw at the downtown Conrad hotel and talked for nearly three hours. Bird, however, began the conversation by saying, "I'm not going to hire you." Bird told Shaw he wanted to give him an interview experience while also leaking his name as a candidate to help get the process started. The Pacers' rebuilding job at that time, Bird believed, wasn't the right one for a new head coach, but rather one more suited for a veteran like Jim O'Brien.

Bird's assist paid off, though. Sacramento called Shaw a week later for an interview, gave him a second interview, then ultimately hired Reggie Theus. From that moment on, Shaw's name has been one of the first mentioned for virtually every opening in the league.

He's in a bit of a predicament, though. At this point he's respected enough that he can afford to be choosy. But he can't afford to be too particular.

"Obviously, I want to be a head coach, but I want my first opportunity to be the right one," he said. "It's a Catch-22 situation, because every time a team calls and asks for permission to talk to you, if you've never been a head coach before, you can't say no because then people think, Who does he think he is? At the same time I don't want to keep piling up interviews and then they look and say, Well, he's interviewed seven different times and doesn't have a job yet, what's wrong with him?"

It does pay to be careful. Longtime and legendary NBA assistant Dick Harter got his big break when he was hired to be the expansion Charlotte Bobcats' head coach in 1988. He lasted 1 1/2 seasons in a hopeless situation, and returned to being a helper for the rest of his career. A coaching position with a poorly-run franchise can devour even a Hall of Fame coach, such as Larry Brown.

On the other hand, as Shaw says, you can't say no forever and expect the phone to keep ringing.

Shaw, however, knows how to be patient and flexible. He wasn't even a starter on his high school team in Oakland, but still managed to land a scholarship to St. Mary's. Two years later, frustrated with the program's slow pace of play, he transferred to UC-Santa Barbara, where he became an all-conference point guard and a first-round draft pick of the Celtics in 1988. He wound up playing for seven NBA teams, and was involved in three classic playoff series against the Pacers.

He was on the Boston team that defeated them in 1991, when Bird made a dramatic return in Game 5 after diving for a loose ball and hitting his head on the parquet floor in Boston Garden. He was on the Orlando team that defeated the Pacers in seven games in 1995, a series highlighted by the multiple lead changes in the final minute of Game 4. Shaw produced one of them, hitting a three-pointer that gave the Magic a lead with 13.4 seconds left. There were two more before Rik Smits ultimately hit the game-winning jumper at the buzzer. Shaw also also was on the Lakers team that defeated the Pacers in the NBA Finals in 2000.

So, it's a bit ironic that he's so content to be with the Pacers now. Just don't expect it to last much longer.

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