Every year in the NBA draft, there are a few promising yet raw prospects out of mid-major colleges that cause headaches for team executives. Those players have the potential for greatness, but unlike their colleagues from the ACC or Big Ten, they do not come with built-in justifications if they turn out to be busts.
Kaleb Canales seems to be this summer's coaching equivalent of those prospects. The interim coach of the Portland Trail Blazers reportedly is the front-runner to get the job permanently, but there has been some hand-wringing over the decision. Many have campaigned for Mike Malone, one of the top assistant coaches in the league, while Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing told ESPN that he will interview for the position soon.
The Blazers are well-served to perform their due diligence. If anything, holding a formal search and interviewing several candidates should strengthen Canales' standing if he is hired, since there would be less intimation that he was simply handed the job. Even if the interviews are mostly cosmetic — new Blazers general manager Neil Olshey gushed over Canales at a June news conference — the league's youngest head coach and its first Mexican-American head coach would be the right choice.
Canales, 34, did not follow the same path to coaching as Warriors coach Mark Jackson or Hornets coach Monty Williams, both former players who have both voiced support for Malone getting hired by some team, somewhere. Canales was a kinesiology major at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he did not play varsity basketball, and broke into the NBA as a video intern with the Blazers in 2005. Right around that time, Erik Spoelstra, another former video coordinator, was being credited with helping relentless slasher Dwyane Wade develop a more consistent jump shot.
The argument that a coach cannot know anything about basketball if he never played no longer holds water, if it ever did. For every Larry Bird, Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan there is Sam Mitchell, Byron Scott and Fred Carter. As stars take greater control over not only locker room culture but also front office dealings, the coach's position on many teams is more about guidance and caretaking than imparting the lessons of the old days. Playing experience is less important as long as the candidate knows the game and is able to relay his message to players, and Canales does both. One person who worked with Canales in the past told me he "absolutely" was deserving of the head coach job.
Still, Canales has the same problem as those mid-major prospects. The Blazers are insulated if they hire a former playing legend like Ewing or a seasoned assistant like Malone, just as a team can always rationalize drafting a player out of Duke or Michigan State. Take a reach on a center from Colgate or a video intern from Texas-Arlington, and the miss lays entirely on the front office.
That could put Olshey is an uncomfortable position in Portland, which does not have the best history with general managers recently. Retaining Canales will not be the easy move, but it would be the right one.