Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Branching Out

By Jonathan Lowe

Leave it to the home of the "Happiest Place on Earth" to steal a few headlines from Team USA during their trek to another gold medal. While Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol were battling each other in the championship game, you couldn't help but wonder if their minds might be looking across the Atlantic to a future with new teammate Dwight Howard.

As the 30th Olympiad got underway, though, the Orlando Magic made another move to try and bolster their future. New GM Rob Hennigan chose San Antonio assistant coach Jacque Vaughn as the successor to embroiled ex-coach Stan Van Gundy. When I first heard this news, my curiosity was peaked. I knew the former University of Kansas star had made his way to the bench, but let's be honest. Vaughn's name hasn't been the first one mentioned for many head coaching vacancies.

The next thing I thought ... man, Gregg Popovich must be doing something right. Vaughn provides yet another opportunity to show that there may be waters of knowledge in the Riverwalk. Since "Pop" took over the Spurs bench in 1996, he's left his own mark on the Association (winning four titles). However, he's also planted seeds for his impact to continue well after he leaves the sidelines.

In terms of legacy, a coaching tree is an underestimated, but important, factor in how much effect a coach leaves in the annals of his league's history. It doesn't just show that the head honcho can be good with X's and O's. It displays his (or her) ability to teach the emotional aspects of the game (chemistry, balance, and camaraderie). And if you look up the background of most great coaches, you'll usually see a litany of disciples spreading the teachings to courts and fields across the country.

That's getting to be the case for Popovich, who has had both players and assistants achieve success on the bench. The shining example of this came from former player Doc Rivers. Rivers spent a successful term of four years in Orlando (with a bad start to his fifth) before winding up in Boston, guiding the "Big Three" to a championship.

The most successful Popovich assistant has to be Mike Brown. After getting the main gig in Cleveland, Brown helped steer LeBron James to his first NBA Finals. The Cavs didn't win less than 45 games in Brown's five seasons and had 60-plus wins the last two. Now, he gets the chance to coach Howard in Lakers purple and gold.

It doesn't stop there with the branches of this tree. Current NBA coaches Avery Johnson, Monty Williams, and Vinny del Negro also absorbed some kind of tutelage from the two-time Coach of the Year. Now,Vaughn gets his own stick on this growing oak.

There's two interesting notes about this. First, you might expect a man with the pedigree of a Popovich to establish his own roots in this way. What may not be expected is that those roots would be stronger than some of his peers. With 11 titles, you'd figure that pupils of Phil Jackson's legacy would be running the league. That's not the case, according to the three prime examples of Phil's time on the bench.

Tex Winter will forever be synonymous with establishing the success Jackson's teams. Hell, he's in the Hall of Fame for it. But the innovator of the Triangle offense didn't even get two seasons as a head coach in the Association. I don't even remember hearing his name mentioned for many openings, especially after moving to L.A.

Kurt Rambis finally got his shot to run a team when the Timberwolves gave him the job three years ago. Sure, the Wolves would have been a disaster with or without Rambis' involvement. But he didn't make it any better. Now he's an analyst at ESPN. Not saying that he won't get another chance down the road, but only time will tell.

Speaking of biding time, that's what Brian Shaw seems to be doing. You'd have to think that the most publicized of Phil's assistants has been a leading candidate for several positions across the league. Yet he keeps getting passed over. This could be a bit of reluctance from management staffs and an unwillingness on his part to go to certain teams. But with so many opportunities floating by, you wonder when (or if) Shaw will ultimately get the call.

The second interesting note about the Popovich tree is that it's only a branch itself. Sure, most folks (including me) had no idea who this guy was when he became an NBA coach (or even after the franchise's first title), but even he had some help along the way. That help came in the name of one of the most hallowed names in all of coaching ... Larry Brown. Yes, that Larry Brown. The man that could build a team from scratch, only to get happy feet and move on to the next project.

Popovich served under Brown in the same position that his assistants served under him (head coach of the Spurs). And with Larry being a direct branch of the Dean Smith tree, Pop has a lot of hoop lineage backing him up. It's a lineage that has separate trees rooted in the names of Pat Riley, Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Larry, Dean, etc. Now, the man on the Riverwalk has his own root in that lineage.

With Hennigan basically hitting the 'Reset' button on the Magic organization, Vaughn will have to lean on his coaching lineage to help guide this team into the future. He hopes his branch won't be a short one on the newest coaching tree.

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