It has been three weeks since the Los Angeles Clippers parted ways with former head coach Vinny Del Negro. Since then, they have contacted some of their top coaching candidates and will begin the formal interview process this week, hoping to have a new coach in place by the NBA draft on June 27.
The Clippers are reportedly looking for a big-name hire who will provide the right balance of respect, pedigree, fit, personality, flexibility and tactical acumen. While that is certainly a difficult list to fulfill, there are plenty of good candidates available, especially if the Clippers are willing to spend a little extra money.
The short list of reported candidates, in no particular order: Indiana associate coach Brian Shaw, Memphis coach Lionel Hollins, former Denver coach George Karl, former Cleveland coach Byron Scott, former Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry and ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy.
Here are the three best candidates available in terms of potential and fit:
Career record: 1131-756 (.599 win percentage)
Playoff record: 80-105 (.432 win percentage)
Karl has long established himself as one of the best coaches in the league, and his decorated resume makes him a front-runner. Known as an offensive innovator, Karl’s teams have finished with a top-10 offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) in 18 of the 21 complete seasons he’s coached. He recently developed well-rounded teams in his 8 1/2 year tenure with Denver, as the Nuggets finished with a top-10 offensive rating six times and a top-11 defensive rating four times.
More important, Karl has had prior success coaching a similarly skilled big-little duo -- Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton in Seattle -- and would alleviate the immense pressure on Chris Paul to shoulder the offensive burden. Karl designs his offenses around layups and 3-pointers, the two most valuable shots per possession in basketball, over inefficient midrange jumpers, and would help reduce the offensive stagnation the Clippers endured at times this season.
While the Nuggets played an up-tempo brand of basketball, a stark contrast to Paul’s inherent preference of a slower pace, Karl has shown the unique ability to adjust his offensive tactics to his personnel’s strengths. The 2012-13 coach of the year would use Blake Griffin’s finishing ability more efficiently, instead of merely dumping the ball to him in the post, and likely unleash the Paul-Eric Bledsoe backcourt that’s had a lot of success in limited minutes the past two years.
Of course, the Clippers need a coach who can shore up their defensive issues (21st in defensive rating after Feb. 1) and guide them in the postseason. The two knocks on Karl are that he’s underachieved in the playoffs -- the Nuggets advanced past the first round once in eight postseasons -- and frequently ranked around league average or worse defensively. That’s certainly a cause for concern, but given his pedigree, and the fact that the Clippers would be one of the most talented teams he’s ever coached, it seems there isn’t a better candidate available.
Jeff Van Gundy
Career record: 430-318 (.575 win percentage)
Playoff record: 44-44 (.500 win percentage)
Despite not coaching for more than six years, there is good reason for the younger Van Gundy to be atop the Clippers’ list. He has amassed a stellar reputation as a stern, hard-nosed coach who excels defensively and has the track record to prove it. His teams have finished top six in defensive rating in all nine of the complete seasons he’s coached.
Van Gundy has formed cohesive defensive units with lumbering big men in the middle -- an old and injured Patrick Ewing and Kurt Thomas in New York; Yao Ming and Luis Scola in Houston -- so one can only imagine the schemes he would design with Griffin and DeAndre Jordan’s athletic gifts. His teams play tough, physical defense, a beneficial tactic for a Clippers squad that struggled to adjust to Memphis’ ferocity in the playoffs. The Clippers’ pace (19th in the NBA) also favors Van Gundy’s style, as he prefers a slog.
Though his teams have traditionally struggled offensively, ranking below league average in most cases, they have always shot a lot of 3-pointers and few midrange jumpers, which is encouraging. He has never had a dominant floor general like Paul, and would likely refrain from altering the offense too much. Since he’s been away from the sideline for so long, there’s also the strong possibility that Van Gundy will have added motivation to disprove any doubts or misconceptions of his coaching ability.
It’s unclear if Van Gundy would consider leaving the broadcast booth, though, especially considering the hefty price tag he will command. He has been a rumored candidate for several coaching vacancies over the past few years, but nothing has materialized. As Ramona Shelburne reported last week, talks between him and the Clippers have cooled down recently. If the Clippers can convince him they’d be a great fit and are willing to spend the money, there’s no doubt that Van Gundy would maximize their defensive potential and provide the respectable locker room voice they need.
Career record: 214-201 (.516 win percentage)
Playoff record: 18-17 (.514 win percentage)
After Karl and Van Gundy, the rest of the field is difficult to separate, as the remaining candidates each have considerable deficiencies or question marks. Hollins, however, is the hottest name on the coaching market, and rightfully so. The Grizzlies’ surprise trip to the Western Conference finals showed he can lead a flawed roster with mixed personalities, not unlike the Clippers, and his late-game adjustments proved too much for either L.A. or Oklahoma City to handle.
The Grizzlies’ defense improved each season under Hollins, and it’s clear he would insert aspects of his grind-it-out defense into the Clippers’ defensive ideology. He holds every player accountable for their role, and isn’t afraid to mix up his rotation and bench players if they’re struggling, as he routinely did this the postseason. The rapid growth of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley under Hollins’ watch also bodes well for the continued development of Griffin, Jordan and Bledsoe.
At the same time, what would it say about Hollins if the Grizzlies are willing to let him go after a 56-win campaign and near-Finals berth? He has an outspoken personality and publicly clashed with Memphis’ management, which wouldn’t sit well with the Clippers’ front office or ownership. His old-school approach and aversion to advanced statistics also makes it questionable as to how he’ll adapt as the NBA evolves into a smaller game reliant on spacing and 3-point shooting.
Still, Hollins would command the respect of Paul and Griffin, which is as important of a factor as any and provide the requisite toughness the Clippers spoke about in their exit interviews. His market price will probably be out of the Clippers’ ideal range, but Donald Sterling has already shown a vested interest in Hollins by scouting him at a playoff game in San Antonio. If Karl and Van Gundy sign elsewhere, are too expensive or are just not interested, Hollins is the best choice.
Stats used in this piece are from ESPN.com and Basketball-Reference.com.