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MINNEAPOLIS – For decades, they have been the NBA's anonymous grinders courtside, "the substance that fills the cracks," as Ron Adams likes to say.
Adams is one of the most respected assistant coaches in the league, and over the last few seasons, his reputation to the casual NBA observer is finally catching up to what those closely connected to the game have known for years.
With head coaching positions starting to be filled by former players with no head coaching experience or successful retreads who are given executive powers to go with their coaching responsibilities, experienced assistants like Adams are in demand like a shooting guard who can hit 3s and defend.
In the last few years, the Golden State Warriors, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks have hired coaches with no head coaching experience. The Warriors have done it twice with Mark Jackson and now Steve Kerr.
Other spots where assistants are put at a premium include Cleveland, where David Blatt is making the transition from Israel to the NBA; Minnesota, where head coach Flip Saunders also serves as the president of basketball operations and a part owner; and Detroit, where Stan Van Gundy is both coach and president.
Adams has worked for seven teams since breaking into the league with San Antonio in 1992 and has helped Scott Brooks get going in Oklahoma City, Tom Thibodeau get started in Chicago and Brad Stevens make the jump from Butler to Boston.
"You might be working for a coach who is excellent at player relations," he said. "You might be working with a person who that isn't their strength. So you as the support person are really trying to prop up the coach in the areas that they need help. Sometimes it's unbeknownst to them. That's your job. I've been in both. But I think at the core your job is to adapt and to do your job and grow the program."
When Kerr was hired to replace Jackson, he knew he would need a top-flight staff to help him navigate his first season as a head coach at any level. The Warriors went out and got Adams from the Celtics and former head coach Alvin Gentry from the Los Angeles Clippers.
"The staff is huge for me," Kerr said. "We're doing this together. We've got guys with different skill sets, and the idea is for all of those skills to blend together and form a really good teaching group. I feel really good about the people involved."
Coming off the franchise's fifth championship, the biggest moves the Spurs made were adding European coaching legend Ettore Messina and retired WNBA star Becky Hammon as assistants under Gregg Popovich.
With increased recognition come increased paychecks as well.
The Cavaliers paid Tyronn Lue a reported $6.5 million over four years to leave Doc Rivers' staff with the Clippers and come help Blatt acclimate himself to the NBA game. Last year, the Nets signed Lawrence Frank to a contract that paid him $1 million annually to be Jason Kidd's right-hand man, a decision that blew up in their faces when the two had a falling out.
Knicks President Phil Jackson chose one of his former players, Derek Fisher, to coach the struggling franchise just a few months after he retired. Jackson also gave Kurt Rambis the title of associate head coach and brought another longtime assistant of his — Jim Cleamons — to help Fisher get his coaching feet underneath him.
"What Steve and Derek will realize is there's a lot more to head coaching than actual coaching," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. "There's a lot of other stuff that comes up. To try to put your full effort into everything is tough to do. That's where the assistants become really valuable in terms of getting the basketball stuff ready, narrowing it down for you to look at the game plan and it's already done pretty much for you and just go from there."
In Minnesota, Saunders brought in Sam Mitchell and Sidney Lowe, two former NBA head coaches who also played for Saunders in his first stint as Timberwolves coach. The familiarity and experience were imperative for Saunders, who has as much power and responsibility as any head coach in the league.
"We're cognizant of the fact that Flip has a lot of titles and they're going to be times when he comes in and he has things on his mind," Mitchell said. "That's why you have to have a staff that you have confidence in, that you trust. And Flip has been great.
"We all have a whistle, and he's told us from Day One: If a player is not doing something within in the framework of what we want, blow the whistle and stop practice and make the correction. And that's something a lot of head coaches don't do that."
When the front office duties come calling, Saunders can lean on Mitchell and Lowe and not have to worry about the message being muddled along the way.
"I used to tell my coaches all the time: I'm stressed out and burned out from dealing with 15 players, management, the media and everything that goes with being a head coach," Mitchell said. "I need you guys to be fresh and rested so you guys can catch the mistakes before I make them. Don't let me do dumb things."
Adams will turn 67 in November and says he knows he'll never be a head coach in the league. But if Kerr and Stevens reach the same level that Thibodeau has, he'll have made as big of an impact.
"I've worked with a lot of coaches the last few years who were early in their careers or starting out," Adams said. "Seeing them gain confidence and become more expert in what they do and in the back of your mind thinking that maybe you had something to do with that, that's always been a good feeling for me."