DENVER - FILE: Head coach Jerry Sloan of the Utah Jazz leads his team against the Denver Nuggets during NBA action at Pepsi Center on October 28 2009 in Denver Colorado. According to reports Jerry Sloan will resign as head coach of the Utah Jazz on February 10 2011. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that by downloading and or using this photograph User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
There will soon be a few NBA head coach openings. Who are the top candidates to fill these jobs? We pry into the inexact art of coach assessment to deliver a master list.
This will be a weird offseason for coaching changes in the NBA. As of right now, there is exactly one opening: the Charlotte Bobcats are looking for a new leader after Paul Silas fled to Malta to live out his days as far as possible from Charlotte. (This is an underrated impact of the Bobcats' institutional tanking: Silas campaigned for and took the job in 2010-11 largely because he lived in North Carolina and wanted to stay home. Now he's doomed to proximity with a set of players he must openly loathe. The Bobcats not only ruined his 2011 and half of 2012, but they've ruined his city of choice. Possibly forever.)
There should be at least a couple more openings, however. The Portland Trail Blazers have not committed to interim Kaleb Caneles. The New York Knicks are getting funny with Mike Woodson, as the coach changed his agents in advance of talks with the front office to stay in Manhattan. (That's always a good sign. "We'll consider keeping you if you lose the Glass brothers as your agents." It shows a lot of faith in Woodson's coaching ability.) While the L.A. Clippers have advanced to the second round, Vinny Del Negro is always in danger of being bounced; all it will take is a sideways glance or two from Chris Paul.
There has certainly been a whirlwind of rumor around Stan Van Gundy's tenure with the Orlando Magic and Randy Wittman isn't a shoo-in to stay with the Washington Wizards. Anything less than a title could end Erik Spoelstra's tenure with the Miami Heat; Pat Riley never forgives failure. Beyond those situations, there's always a surprise canning at some point, in which a job becomes open out of the blue. I have my suspects, but will withhold their names to avoid distracting from the task at hand.
That task: assess the best options for these teams with coaching openings. Here are our NBA Free Agent Head Coaching Power Rankings. Note: not all of those listed are currently free agents. Also, we have attached conditions to each of them. Do I have some rankings wrong? Let us know in the comments and vote in our highly scientific poll.
NO. 1 WITH A BULLET: PHIL JACKSON
The most successful coach in the history of pro basketball is not working. Chances are he does not want to work again. But he has always romanticized the New York Knicks, and while the Knicks aren't championship-ready, the heart is a funny thing. If there's a remote chance he says yes, you chase.
Conditions: Knicks only. Sorry, Charlotte.
NO. 2 WITH A TRACTOR: JERRY SLOAN
The most successful coach to never win a Coach of the Year award is not working. And it kinda seems like he wants to work! He left the Jazz abruptly in February 2011 and has been linked to a couple of teams since. He was actually chased by at least one team (Warriors) in the offseason, and should have a few more suitors this time around. Whether his old, stodgy philosophy is a good fit with any of the teams looking is a huge question; how he deals with new environs and a lack of comfort is another mystery. But the man's record speaks for itself.
Conditions: Must have a point guard, players willing to lead the league in fouls.
NO. 3 WITH A SMILE: NATE MCMILLAN
McMillan was pushed out in the Great Portland Shake-Up Of 2012 as the team struggling to survive, y'know, the most awful string of career-killing injuries in history. Everyone acknowledges that he's a talented coach, despite the molasses-slow pace his teams employ and the fact that he hasn't had a whole lot of playoff success. (The 2005 Sonics are the best response to that complaint. Seattle smoked a good Sacramento team in five in the first round and gave the eventual champs, San Antonio, more than they wanted in a six-game second-round series.)
The question is whether there's a proper fit in both directions. You can't see Mac packing up for a team as green as Washington or Charlotte, can you? He's got to want some squad ready to win, like the Knicks or (A+ fit alert) Clippers.
Conditions: The Blazers are unfortunately ruled out.
NO. 4: STAN VAN GUNDY
Assuming Van Gundy parts ways with the Magic, he has two options: he can take another job in the NBA quickly, or he can fulfill his life's dream of joining Statler and Waldorf in the balcony. I'm cool with either resolution.
Conditions: The Magic are regrettably out. A veteran-ish team is far more likely.
NO. 5: MIKE BUDENHOLZER
This dude has been Gregg Popovich's right-hand man for almost two decades, and he's in his early 40s. His entire adult life has been spent soaking up knowledge and good wine from Gregg Popovich! How in Hades does this man not have a head coach job yet?
Conditions: NBA decision-makers are blind, apparently.
NO. 6: BRIAN SHAW
The man who was screwed out of the L.A. Lakers' job a year ago has sat patiently behind Frank Vogel as a sort of elevated top assistant; it's almost as if Indiana framed it so that Vogel was Head Coach 1a and Shaw served as Head Coach 1b. Someone is going to solve that problem soon for Indiana; I have a strong belief that he'd be good for the Magic, whether the team keeps Dwight Howard or not. If they do, Shaw knows drama having served in L.A. for so long. If not, Shaw appears to be a strong motivator who can squeeze a good bit out of lesser players while evolving as a coach as the roster grows up. Washington could also be a lovely fit for Shaw. Portland would troll the Lakers hard by picking him up.
Conditions: City must have a great tailor.
NO. 7: SAM CASSELL
This is a selfish pick. I have no clue whether Cassell will be a good NBA coach. But I do know that he will be a hilarious NBA coach.
NO. 8: FLIP SAUNDERS
It's always been difficult to properly judge Flip Saunders, but I think we can all admit he had a disastrous Washington tenure, even if little or none of it was his fault. He had a flawed roster closer to its end than beginning, and the franchise's outlook and situation changed soon after he arrived. And by "changed" I mean "made a 180-degree pivot." He was brought in to boost a veteran squad; he left flailing with a young team suffering from institutional ADHD. Two of the players at the center of the romper room atmosphere are gone, and the third's days are numbered. (Andray Blatche might become the first player whose team announces his amnesty waiver with a press release that includes the phrase "good riddance" in the first paragraph.) What was true about Saunders remains true, despite all the Wizards trouble. He's a (really) smart Xs and Os guy that has real trouble as a motivator and can't handle drama. There are teams that could use him. He's not dissimilar from, say, Rick Carlisle, right? (The key difference: Carlisle is better with defense. Saunders might be better with offense.)
Conditions: No locker room drama, no kids, no outsized personalities. Portland might be a good fit.
NO. 9: MARIO ELIE
Of all of the league's assistants who retired from the game not too long ago, Elie has struck me as one with a lot of potential in the first chair. Think Monty Williams with more panache. (Panache from head coaches is not necessarily a good thing.)
NO. 10: MIKE WOODSON
If the Knicks don't keep Woody, he'll become a top defensive candidate, just as he was a year ago before joining New York as Mike D'Antoni's No. 2. The funny thing to watch will be whether he returns to his former agents if the Knicks don't hire him. It would be very New York Knicks to convince a coach to change agents and then not re-hire him. Very, very New York Knicks.
And now, a bit further down the list ...
NO. 15: PATRICK EWING
NO. 20: MIKE D'ANTONI
I think Mike D'Antoni and the NBA need to cool off for a while. Gain some perspective, breathe a little. It'll make sense to get back together at some point but... we need time to heal.
NO. 25: ERIC MUSSELMAN
Muss is clearly knowledgeable about basketball: he turned Gerald Green's career around and is probably the best coach in the D-League, which actually does mean something.
NO. 35: JOHN CALIPARI
He has a championship, so I'll leave the Xs and Os barbs in the drawer. But when roughly 90 percent of your success is based on an ability to recruit teenagers to spend a year on ESPN and CBS with your program before heading off toward NBA millions, you are not automatically a great NBA coaching prospect. It's just not something that will translate.
NO. 36: ISIAH THOMAS
Reminder: this is a coach ranking, not a GM ranking.
NO. 501: KURT RAMBIS
Other than Phil Jackson, who is the best coaching candidate available or likely to be available?
Jerry Sloan (149 votes)
Nate McMillan (74 votes)
Brian Shaw (10 votes)
Stan Van Gundy (49 votes)
Mike Budenholzer (35 votes)
Mike D'Antoni (15 votes)
332 total votes