This is the fifth in a series of profiles of the members of Cleveland Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown’s coaching staff. Today Right Down Euclid will preview a coach who is no stranger to long-time Cavalier fans; Vitaly Potapenko.
When Vitaly Potapenko was hired as assistant director of player development by the Cleveland Cavaliers in June, many fans had a variety of reactions. Some were excited to see Potapenko returning to the Cavaliers and being reunited with front office executive Zydrunas Ilgauskas in this capacity (the Cavaliers picked Potapenko 12th and Ilgauskas 20th in the 1996 NBA draft). Others were skeptical that a player who was essentially a career backup (189 starts in 610 career games) can teach young players who have far more ability than Potapenko did. In all likelihood, neither of thoughts were a factor in the Cavaliers hiring Potapenko. As anyone who has followed the Cavaliers will tell you, Chris Grant and Mike Brown both base their decisions on what is best for the team and its culture, both in the short and long term. Potapenko’s hiring was entirely based on what he brings to the table as a coach, and that is what we will focus on.
After an 11-year NBA playing career that ended after the 2006-2007 season (he also spent the 2007-2008 season in playing in Spain), Vitaly Potapenko began his coaching career as a volunteer assistant with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA Developmental League in 2009. From there Potapenko was hired as an assistant coach by then Indiana Pacers Coach Jim O’Brien as a member of his staff for the 2010-2011 season. Potapenko stayed on staff through O’Brien’s dismissal and the promotion of Frank Vogel to head coach, helping the Pacers reach the playoffs for the first time in five years. Potapenko then spent the next two seasons as an assistant coach with the Santa Cruz Warriors, helping the team reach the NBADL Finals this past season.
So what does Potapenko bring to the Cleveland Cavaliers as an assistant coach? For one thing, Potpenko brings a tremendous desire to succeed in his role. This is a man who played 11 seasons in the NBA. Financially, he is set for life. His willingness to work as volunteer assistant for a D-League team to start his coaching career shows how important being a successful coach is to him. Another strength related to his role as assistant director of player development is his ability to work with the Cavaliers’ big men through both demonstration and having an understanding of their roles from personal experience. Many excellent coaches of normal size have been successful in coaching big men, but having a coach on staff who can relate to them on a physical level is a huge bonus. Potapenko can actually demonstrate the skills the big men need to work on and, if he so desires, can work with them on the court in much the same manner Ilgauskas did with Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller last season. While it is unlikely the Cavaliers hired Potapenko due to his status as a former member of the team, the fact that he is a former player will probably help him gain the respect of the current team. He will also be able to relate to them regarding the needs and stresses of being an NBA player. While being an NBA player is undoubtedly glamorous and rewarding, it also requires an incredible amount of hard work and patience with the various demands placed upon each player. Having a coach on staff who can sympathize with the trials players go through can help each player feel comfortable and supported by the team, and therefore more willing to contribute to the greater good of the Cavaliers.
Much like fellow young coaches Bret Brielmaier and Phil Handy, no one really is really sure what Potapenko will bring to the table for the Cleveland Cavaliers coaching staff. Hopefully we will look back upon this hiring a year from now as a huge step in the development of the Cavaliers both as individual players and as a whole team.