Good fits for coaching vacancies?
Maybe we should rename it Coach to Coach this week, because that's our topic. And before we get going on the particulars, we need to have a philosophical discussion: Is it OK for stars to have a say in coaching hirings and firings? I say yes. When Magic Johnson had enough of Paul Westhead in 1981 it led to the rise of Pat Riley. Shaquille O'Neal demanded the Lakers hire a "real coach" in 1999 and they answered with Phil Jackson. Even Carmelo Anthony turned out to be right when he bickered with Mike D'Antoni. At first I thought D'Antoni should have had final say, since he had more success doing it his way in Phoenix than Anthony had doing it his way in Denver. But we've seen that the Knicks were better off with Mike Woodson than they were with D'Antoni. Advantage, Melo.
Remember how vocal Carmelo and the other Knicks were about retaining Woodson last year? Did you hear anything of the sort from the key Clippers players when their season ended? That was the biggest indication that Vinny Del Negro was doomed in L.A. It's harsh that Del Negro was let go on the heels of the best regular season in Clippers history ... but we can agree that the Clippers' Pacific Division title was a greater reflection of Chris Paul's presence on the court than Del Negro's presence on the sidelines. And with Paul facing the biggest decision of his career -- where to spend his prime years -- then it's fair for him to see what type of choice and financial commitment the Clippers are willing to make on a coach before Paul signs on the line which is dotted.
That makes the Clippers' vacancy the most significant of all the job openings in the NBA. So, Israel, whom do you think they should choose?
For starters, I have absolutely no issue with star players having input on coaching decisions -- provided it's level-headed veterans like Chris Paul providing the input and not emotionally driven players like Dwight Howard.
You have to consider the source, in these situations, and if Paul gave any indication he wasn't happy with Del Negro, I think the Clippers did the intelligent thing by not re-signing Del Negro. It's not as if Del Negro has a great track record, anyway. In fact, if the players didn't speak up, and it was his performance that was the lone factor, it was still fair to look elsewhere for a coach who either has had significant success or has entirely different strengths than Del Negro.
My initial choice for this opening, and frankly any opening in the league right now, would be Stan Van Gundy.
We all know his departure from Orlando had little to do with performance and more to do with Howard's immature handling of the situation there. He is only one year removed from coaching -- unlike his brother, Jeff, who's probably grown to like his post-coaching gig after six years away from the bench -- and has taken two separate teams to the conference finals or deeper. He can provide the defensive identity the Clippers desperately need.
Problem is, big brother has his priorities in order and doesn't want to coach again this year for family reasons. He hasn't ruled anything out, but it's unlikely.
The next intriguing candidate on my list would be Nate McMillan. While he never got Portland out of the first round in three tries and got Seattle to only the conference semifinals in five seasons there, he has always been considered a quality coach. The plan in Portland fell apart when Brandon Roy's and Greg Oden's knees failed them, leaving McMillan with LaMarcus Aldridge and little else.
It would be a gamble, taking a guy who hasn't coached deep into the playoffs, but if Paul gives the green light, it could be a smart gamble.
Well, Byron Scott is a guy who has gone deep into the playoffs. All the way to the NBA Finals in back-to-back years with the Nets. He also has ties to Chris Paul going back to New Orleans.
We know Donald Sterling is interested in Memphis coach Lionel Hollins. I really doubt Sterling was hanging out in San Antonio for the Tex-Mex food. (Although they do make some good guacamole dip down there.) No coach has gone as far this season with less offensive talent as Hollins. His team has completely bought into his defensive-oriented system. The guy can coach.
The only issue is, what would it say if Memphis lets him leave? If he meant that much to the Grizzlies, wouldn't they keep him at all costs? And what would it say, even subconsciously, to the Clippers players if a guy left the team that beat them to join them? The Memphis players would have the right to feel betrayed and Clippers players would be wise to wonder how loyal Hollins would be to them if another opportunity arose.
Alvin Gentry, another candidate, knows how to navigate the Clippers' unusual landscape from his prior stint there from 2000 to 2003. That was a young team that came undone when ownership wouldn't make long-term contract commitments to the players. Gentry had his greatest success coaching the Phoenix Suns to the conference finals in 2010, but that was a veteran team that understood what it had to do. The Clippers need more instruction, could use someone to bark at them. They need someone more established than Mike Malone or Mike Budenholzer, two assistants who are currently on the "next" list.
If Memphis allows Hollins to test the free-agent coaching market, it would speak volumes about that team's commitment to winning, and not in a good way. I'm not even willing to consider him available, because he's such a great fit in Memphis, coaching that Grit and Grind game as if he were on the court.
And I'm sorry, but I'm also ruling out Byron Scott. I know this team would be somewhat similar to his Finals teams in New Jersey, with a star veteran point guard still in his prime (Paul in L.A and Jason Kidd in Jersey) and an elite athlete at the power forward spot (Blake Griffin in L.A. and Kenyon Martin in Jersey) leading the way. But Scott may have officially become one of those retreads who maybe needs some time away. His Cavaliers teams, while obviously not the most talented on the planet, were regularly bottom of the league in defensive efficiency.
Scott is considered to be a defense-first coach, and that roster was at least good enough to defend at a better rate than it did. And his relationship with Paul may be overstated when it's relationships with players that have been Scott's unofficial downfall.
Rather than try to recreate what happened with Scott in New Jersey, why not try to discover the next Tom Thibodeau? Why not go after an assistant whose name has been in the mix for years, like Brian Shaw?
Shaw, an assistant in Indiana, is constantly being credited with helping guys like Paul George and Lance Stephenson raise their games significantly this season. No, he doesn't have a track record yet, but neither did Thibs, who won NBA Coach of the Year and reached the Eastern Conference finals in his first season in Chicago.
But the Clippers aren't the only team in desperate search for an impact head coach who can create a culture and an identity for a franchise.
The Nets should be desperate to find the right man after their first season in Brooklyn was disappointing, to put it lightly. They could probably use an offensive guru who can utilize the trio of Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson. Because right now, that franchise is in no-man's-land.
I like Brian Shaw a lot. I can't believe he isn't a head coach somewhere right now. The Lakers and Magic come to mind immediately. One problem for Shaw is that as great a coach as Phil Jackson is, he doesn't have a network throughout the league. Jackson was all about winning championships, so he didn't have time to simultaneously turn his team into a basketball seminar and groom a new generation of coaches or executives.
The San Antonio Spurs worked that way, and as their web has spread throughout the league they have found a way of bringing along members of the family.
Maybe the fact that Shaw has been to more NBA Finals as a player and coach than Gregg Popovich and his crew should count for something. He has knowledge plus the ability to connect to stars and young players. They all respect him. I think he'd be good for the Brooklyn gig. No, he isn't the biggest name the Nets could get (and I'm convinced they want a name they can put on the marquee -- or at least the oculus). But he could easily grow into a name. Right now they're just a team that could go to the second round of the playoffs, not a championship contender, so they can afford the initial mistakes.
But if they become a destination franchise and land an elite free agent, then Shaw would be prepared to coach him after his years of brokering truces between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
I do think any team with an opening would be wise to wait out these playoffs. After it's over, see if the time's right for Shaw to make the jump, or if there's a price that can pry Hollins from Memphis, or an opportunity to give longtime Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer a shot.
The funny part about searching for an established name or marquee name is you could be missing out on the actual best coach available.
Look at the Hawks. They're apparently considering going way off the board and hiring CSKA Moscow's Ettore Messina. Not sure if his style is entirely unique relative to what we're used to seeing in the NBA, but if it is, you could be getting a Phoenix Suns type situation when Mike D'Antoni and Steve Nash changed the game a bit.
And it's teams like the Hawks, Sixers and Bucks that could benefit the most from getting the perfect fit as their coach.
The Hawks are always considered a perplexing team, but with the right direction (and possibly without Josh Smith to take ill-timed 20-foot jumpers) and the right tweaks to the roster, that team could make a Pacers-like jump into actual contention. Same with the Bucks, who need to address their backcourt duplication but have strong building pieces in Larry Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova.
The Pistons can be considered attractive with Greg Monroe's and Andre Drummond's futures appearing bright. I actually think Jerry Sloan can do wonders in Detroit if he gets the right point guard to pair with those bigs.
I know this much for certain: It'll probably take me until about January 2014 to actually remember who's coaching what teams next season, because this carousel is getting pretty dizzying.