Laimbeer has faith in assistants to keep Shock winning

Mahorn, Reeve Ready to Lead

Even as he celebrated his third WNBA championship last October, Bill Laimbeer acknowledged he felt conflicted about his future with the Detroit Shock.

“I feel like I’m in the way a little bit of my two assistants. It’s becoming their time, and it bothers me,” he said following the Shock’s third straight win over San Antonio. “But at the same time, I enjoy doing what I’m doing.”

Laimbeer ended that dilemma Monday, stepping down as general manager and head coach to pursue possibilities in the NBA. Laimbeer’s assistants will divvy up his responsibilities. Rick Mahorn will take over as head coach while Cheryl Reeve will remain on the bench and also assume duties as general manager.

Since the triumvirate first formed in 2006, the Shock have reached the WNBA Finals every season, winning two titles. That track record only begins to explain why Mahorn and Reeve are held in such high regard, both in the Shock locker room and front offices leaguewide. No two people could be more prepared to steady the franchise in the wake of Laimbeer’s jolting departure.

Laimbeer convinced Mahorn to join him on the Detroit bench in 2005, and Reeve arrived a year later. Though less visible than the former Bad Boys - often overshadowed as the only coach under 6-foot-10 - Reeve has strong WNBA credentials, having served as an assistant coach since 2001. She’s also the Shock director of player personnel, overseeing all off-season scouting in preparation for the collegiate draft.

“Cheryl Reeve right now is prepared to be a head coach and, in my estimation, a general manager in this league,” WNBA analyst Doris Burke said during last year’s finals, “and I would bet she would tell you the primary reason for that is her time with Bill.”

Laimbeer paid his assistants the ultimate compliment - his trust - by allowing them to write the blueprint for Detroit’s defense. He had so much faith in them to teach the schemes at practice that sometimes he didn’t even watch.

"I leave a large section of the practice to them," he said. "I don't even participate in the practice. I sit over on the side, dribble, run and chew gum. They are in charge of our defense. They do a magnificent job. And both in their own right are deserving of every opportunity in the future."

The opportunity is a unique one, as Reeve will work both beneath Mahorn as an assistant coach and above him as general manager. That power structure would seem problematic for any number of teams. But not with the gregarious Mahorn, who has a remarkably small ego in his bulging frame.

“If you take Rick out of the picture, which we had to do for a few days with the suspension [last July], it’s a lot different atmosphere because Rick is so much fun,” Reeve said. “He lightens the atmosphere. Both Bill and Rick are players’ coaches but in different ways.”

Laimbeer concurred, saying Mahorn can get along with anybody. “A head coach needs a buffer zone. Not every problem can go to the head coach,” he said. “So having a good assistant that is able to solve problems before they get to me is a big bonus and he’s able to do that.”

Alexis Hornbuckle, who endured growing pains as a rookie in 2008, said Mahorn excels at “making you smile when you just want to hit something.”

He’s just constantly in your ear with positive reinforcement about what you need to do and what you can do to do better,” she said. Whether Mahorn can make the leap from supportive assistant to demanding boss is one of the intriguing storylines to play out in 2009. Mahorn was previously a head coach for one season, leading the CBA’s Rockford Lightning to a 15-7 record and a conference title in 2000.

As far as midseason coaching changes go, the shift to Laimbeer’s lieutenants should go pretty smoothly. There’s even a built-in adjustment period. In addition to having the last four days off, the Shock don’t play again until Friday, when they host the Indiana Fever. That should give Mahorn and Reeve extra time to sort out the details - like who’s going to run the offense.

What’s not left up in the air is the message the Shock sent by promoting from within:

Laimbeer is leaving, but the winning ways are here to stay.