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The Genius Assistants Behind the NBA's Best Head Coaches

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistSeptember 10, 2012

The Genius Assistants Behind the NBA's Best Head Coaches

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    Before becoming the head coach of the Chicago Bulls and winning the Coach of the Year award in 2011, Tom Thibodeau played a far less-heralded role. He was the second in command to a head coach that never seems like he needs much help: Doc Rivers.

    Such is the life of an assistant coach.

    Assistant coaches are last in line when it comes to media attention. They probably come somewhere after the superstars, head coaches, role players, general managers, announcers, cheerleaders and ball boys.

    Well, so much for media attention. These are, after all, the coaches who spend their days digging into the scouting and game-to-game preparation that determine how ready a team is every night. The buck may stop with the head coach, but that's only because he relies so heavily on the staff he's assembled.

    The best of the best—like Thibodeau—go on to earn some recognition as head coaches. In fact, Thibodeau's contributions to the Boston Celtics defense were so significant that he even developed a pretty high profile as an assistant.

    That's really saying something given the kind of shadow Rivers casts.

    Here are five assistant coaches who have similarly made names for themselves in spite of (and because of) working with head coaches who are big names in their own rights.

Mike Budenholzer, San Antonio Spurs

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    Head Coach Gregg Popovich has gotten plenty of credit for so consistently putting the San Antonio Spurs in a position to be successful, but general managers around the league also consider assistant Mike Budenholzer to be one of the very best.

    Budenholzer has been with the organization since 1994 and was promoted from video coordinator to assistant coach after just two seasons. He's become a source of stability for a bench that's launched careers for guys like Mike Brown, serving as Pop's No. 1 guy since 2007-08.

    Most importantly, Budenholzer has helped Popovich oversee a change of offensive philosophy in which San Antonio runs more of its offense through Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. To spare Tim Duncan the constant pounding that typified his early career (and generate a more lethal up-tempo pace), the Spurs rely more heavily now on running the pick-and-roll early and often.

    If there's any question about how solid this coaching staff is, one need only re-watch the tape from this team's playoff run last season.

    Until the shots just stopped falling against the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio's offensive execution was a thing of beauty and no doubt a testament to the coaching staff's concepts and implementation.

Brian Shaw, Indiana Pacers

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    The Indiana Pacers have quickly turned a young roster into one of the league's most successful units, and that's typically a sign the coaches are doing something right. Head Coach Frank Vogel has obviously had a lot to do with that, but it would be a mistake to overlook assistant Brian Shaw.

    Shaw was at one point in the running for the previously vacant Orlando Magic head coaching gig, and he also received interest from the Charlotte Bobcats and Portland Trail Blazers. It's only a matter of time before the respected coach lands a job as a team's top dog, and he may very well be waiting for the right fit.

    Besides, the opportunity to continue working with such a promising team in Indiana isn't exactly chopped liver.

    The 46-year-old has plenty of time to coach at the next level, and he already built a wealth of experience as an assistant for the Los Angeles Lakers from 2004 to 2011.

    In other words, his credentials are highlighted by having worked with Phil Jackson for so many years, an asset that no doubt translates into an exceptional ability to manage and motivate people in addition to all the learned Xs and Os.

Ron Adams, Chicago Bulls

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    One might assume that Tom Thibodeau is the sole architect of the Chicago Bulls' stout defense, but he can't take all of the credit.

    Some share has to go to Ron Adams, who helped set the Oklahoma City Thunder's defense on track before returning to the Bulls when Thibodeau was hired as the head coach. Adams brings tons of experience to the table along with the reputation as something of a guru.

    The Bulls held opponents to an NBA-best 88.2 points per game last season and narrowly trailed the Boston Celtics in opponents' field-goal percentage.

    Players like Ronnie Brewer became overnight defensive specialists, and it's hard to imagine he had any choice in the matter with guys like Thibodeau and Adams dictating practice routines.

    The fact Chicago survived so much of the season without Derrick Rose says a lot not only about this club's defense, but also of its coaching staff's ability to get the most out of role players like Brewer (who signed with the New York Knicks this summer). This is not a franchise that has the luxury of relying upon a trio of superstars.

David Fizdale, Miami Heat

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    The Miami Heat's assistant coaches are usually the last ones to get any attention. After covering three All-Stars, a solid supporting cast and Erik Spoelstra, is there really any attention left to go around?

    There should be.

    Assistant Coach David Fizdale's contributions certainly weren't lost on the Portland Trail Blazers, who were interested in him taking their head coaching job earlier this summer.

    Fizdale focuses on, "player development, scouting, [and] game preparation," and the results speak for themselves. The Heat have been nothing short of dominant over the course of the last two postseasons, when adjustments between games are at an all-time premium.

    Though relatively unheralded, guys like Fizdale deserve a lot of the recognition for doing the legwork needed to make those adjustments. Spoelstra may make the final decision, but his ability to make those decisions effectively ultimately rests in the hands of his staff.

    Before joining Spoelstra's staff, Fizdale also held assistant roles with the Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks. With his experience and record of success, he won't have any trouble landing a head coaching job whenever he tires of contending for titles in Miami.

P.J. Carlesimo, Brooklyn Nets

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    You might remember him better as the guy who got choked by Latrell Sprewell when he was with the Golden State Warriors, but P.J. Carlesimo has had a long career and is currently working on turning Avery Johnson's Brooklyn Nets into a legitimate contender.

    Carlesimo already has a fair amount of head coaching experience, and he spent five seasons under Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs.

    His most recent stint in the head coaching ranks (with the Oklahoma City Thunder) wasn't very successful, and Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski claims it might have had something to do with the guy remaining something of a strict authoritarian.

    None of that changes the fact that the guy is one of the league's better offensive minds. He's known for helping players work out kinks and better execute the game plan, and that should come in handy as Brooklyn attempts to integrate some new faces to the roster.

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