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Former Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw will probably be the first to tell you that he isn’t slumming while working as associate coach of the Indiana Pacers. The team is firmly established as the Eastern Conference’s Number Two, and he and head coach Frank Vogel pack a formidable punch with a group that is far ahead of the Lakers in the winning percentage ranks. Privately, though, Shaw (and many others) will tell you that he should have been the Lakers’ first choice as head coach during the 2011 offseason, one that saw Phil Jackson step away from the game and leave a prime coaching spot for whoever wanted the privilege of being able to coach Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum.
Jim Buss, leery of anything that reminded him of Phil Jackson (up to and including his family members, reportedly) handed that honor to Mike Brown, and we saw how that turned out. The Lakers are in Indiana on Friday night, ill-prepared to meet an emerging Pacers squad due to injuries to Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant, and yet Shaw isn’t taking the time to gloat. As it’s been since leaving Los Angeles nearly two years ago, he’s taking the long view. Even if it means considering distancing himself from the man he learned so much from. From, again, Mark Medina at the Los Angeles Daily News:
"I'm just perceived as just a triangle guy," he said. "I have conversations with Phil and I said, 'I thought working for you and playing for you would be my biggest asset going into interviews. Actually it's been my biggest liability.'
"We've laughed about it. He's said to me on more than one occasion, 'It's best for you to distance yourself from me and our system.' "
Shaw refuses to shy away from that, considering Jackson's extensive success. Instead, he vows he will remain patient and enjoy his current gig.
"Someone will take a leap of faith and give me an opportunity," said Shaw, who's been an assistant for nine seasons. "That's the only reason why I haven't been a head coach yet.
Well, that’s not the only reason.
Medina reports that Shaw was offered the vacant Charlotte Bobcats head coaching position during the last offseason. Shaw reportedly turned the position down because, well … “Charlotte Bobcats.” Charlotte went with Bob Cobb lookalike Mike Dunlap instead, and Shaw explained his decision as such:
"I want to be in a situation where I have a chance," Shaw said. "Usually when you come into your first head coaching job, you don't get to dictate what the situation is going to be. But you want a chance and an organization that has a game plan going forward that's sustainable and where you have some pieces of value where you can put things together and get on the fast track."
So it isn’t as if Shaw has been completely bereft of opportunities. He just wants the right one, first. And considering Charlotte’s 14-50 record, worst in the NBA, we can’t blame the guy.
His partner, Indiana coach Frank Vogel, understands Shaw’s value; telling Medina that Brian will “be a coach of the year candidate every single year” once he finally gets that top job. Something that Bryant, who played alongside Shaw in the triangle offense and worked with him for years when Shaw was a member of the Laker coaching staff, probably doesn’t want to hear. Bryant wasn’t always enamored with the triangle, and by Jackson’s final season in Los Angeles he was just about ignoring it for long stretches, but he’d probably welcome the return to form as the Lakers continue to attempt to mold their disparate parts.
Shaw’s not just some gestalt-lovin’ Tex Winter-clone, though. He’s widely praised as one of the architects of Indiana’s league-best defense, and was considered to be (here comes that name again) Phil Jackson’s top defensive adviser during his time in Los Angeles – no small task, considering Los Angeles’ usually-lacking foot speed on the perimeter.
And in fairness to Shaw, Bobcat fans should not be taking his decision last summer as a slap in the face.
As late as last September we were still wondering if Bobcats owner Michael Jordan, who has had a terrible record as personnel boss with two different NBA teams, had fully handed the team’s decision-making process over to GM Rich Cho. It’s true that every owner in the NBA has the final say on player movement, but for someone as notoriously competitive (and notoriously bad at GM’ing) as Jordan, it was and is fair to assume that the Bobcats could have issues with this partnership moving forward.
For Shaw, still reeling from the Buss family’s meddling in GM Mitch Kupchak’s affairs, the arrangement probably hit too close to home. And then, last summer, there was that nagging feeling around the league that Mike Brown wasn’t long for Los Angeles. That probably played a part as well, even if the Lakers looked the other way when Brown was shown the door in hiring Mike D’Antoni.
Even if he isn’t a head coach yet, Shaw’s preferred placement is a good one. And he’s earned it, even if the Buss family disagrees.