Kurt Rambis, Brian Shaw prime examples of unpredictable coaching profession
Kurt Rambis left Phil Jackson's coaching staff on the Lakers concerned that sticking around would deny him possible coaching opportunities. Brian Shaw stayed with the Lakers believing his patience would pay off.
Each approach seemed sensible at the time, well thought-out and mindful of the unpredictable coaching field. But their plan didn't turn out as hoped.
When Rambis accepted a four-year deal two years ago to coach the Minnesota Timberwolves, he knew he was inheriting a young team whose roster averaged about four years of NBA experience and finished 24-58 in the 2008-09 season. But he believed assurances from the Timberwolves' front office that his four-year deal would grant him enough patience during the rebuilding process. Instead, as reported by Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski and Marc Spears, Minnesota General Manager David Kahn plans to either fire Rambis or reassign him within the front office because of dissatisfaction over the Timberwolves' 32-132 record under his watch, including a league-worst 17-65 in the 2010-2011 season.
When Shaw stayed on as the Lakers' assistant for the past seven seasons and six under Jackson, there was always a hope he could land the head coaching spot whenever Jackson ultimately retired. Shaw certainly recognized that mantle would never automatically be handed to him, but he believed he'd able to prove himself even though he lacked head coaching experience. But despite receiving public support from Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, Shaw was passed over for the coaching spot in favor of Mike Brown, and settled for an assistant coaching spot with the Indiana Pacers.
It's only human nature that Shaw and Rambis might be wondering what would have happened had they chosen a different path. Would Shaw have done a better job than Byron Scott coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers, which finished with an Eastern Conference worst 19-63 record? Would Rambis have had better support and fared better with the likes of the Sacramento Kings and Philadelphia 76ers, teams that also interviewed him for their respective head-coaching vacancies?
Welcome to the coaching profession, where openings come up unexpectedly, candidates have to be positioned in the right place at the right time and their fortunes are as fleeting as winning at a blackjack table.
Of course, some observers might point out that Jackson's coaching tree leaves a lot to be desired. Former Lakers assistant Jim Cleamons went 28-72 with the Dallas Mavericks before being fired 16 games into the 1997-98 season. Frank Hamblen became the longest-tenured coach in the NBA at 42 years, but his head coaching stints only came on an interim basis with a combined 33-71 record with the Milwaukee Bucks and Lakers. And though Shaw and Chuck Person landed assistant coaching jobs with the Pacers and Lakers, respectively, they were both passed over for head-coaching opportunities with both the Lakers, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors.
But that would discount the presence they provided on Jackson's coaching staff. For Rambis and Shaw, it's interesting how their paths interweave. Rambis took over the Lakers on an interim basis in the 1998-99 season, taking over after the Lakers fired Del Harris and finished 25-13. He juggled handling the antics of Dennis Rodman and the butting of heads between Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. Many accounts indicate Rambis didn't command enough respect from the players, but the Lakers still found him valuable enough to keep him on as an assistant upon hiring Jackson the following season.
During Rambis' last season with Lakers, he filled in at times as head coach because of medical issues involving Jackson, who briefly floated the idea that Rambis could assume coaching duties on various road trips in the 2009-10 season. That season also marked Rambis running the team's defense, which limited the Orlando Magic to an average of 91.2 points a game in the 2009 NBA Finals. When Rambis left, the Lakers didn't immediately fill his position, spreading defensive duties to coaches Cleamons, Hamblen and Shaw. Though Rambis' departure ultimately opened the door for Person to assume the defensive responsibilities, Bryant noticed Rambis' absence also elevated Shaw's role among the coaching staff.
"He was extremely vocal for us," Bryant said of Rambis during the 2009-2010 season. "So Shaw has had to step up and take more of that responsibility with Kurt not being here."
Unlike Rambis, Shaw solidified his reputation within the Lakers as someone able to handle the egos on the team's roster. He emulated Jackson's temperament in staying calm and collected. He tactfully and constructively criticized players when he saw fit. And like Rambis, Shaw leaned on his playing experience with the Lakers in hopes of bridging the gap with the current players. But unlike Rambis, the Lakers decided not to keep Shaw on to help in any transition period with Brown. Shaw soon found out firsthand during the 2011 off-season why Rambis refused to wait his turn to possibly succeed Jackson.
"I saw myself as a viable candidate, above many and equal to most, but this was a timing thing," said Rambis days after accepting the Minnesota Timberwolves' gig. "They made me no promises. Phil is a competitor. He loves coaching that team right now and they are built to win for a long time. I envision him being there for a long time."
If Shaw and Rambis were able to rethink their decisions, they might have gone in another direction. But it's hard to fault them for playing what appeared to be a strong hand in the cards they were dealt.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Head coach Phil Jackson, right, looks on as Kurt Rambis yells from the bench. Credit: Richard Hartog / LAT / Nov. 28, 2006
Photo: Lakers assistant Brian Shaw had acknowledged interest in succeeding Phil Jackson as Lakers coach. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.