Wednesday April 16th, 2008

(Editor's note: This column was published before Thursday's coaching changes in Milwaukee and Chicago.)

The coaching carousel should be in full swing this offseason. Most of the changes likely will come in the Eastern Conference, where there are several underachievers hoping a new voice will change their fortunes (or at the very least earn them the eighth playoff spot). Based on conversations with coaches, scouts and NBA front-office sources, here is an early look at some of the most likely openings.

Chicago Bulls

Current coach: Jim Boylan

Analysis: No one is expecting the interim coach to return to the Bulls, who were doomed from the start by contract issues, bad chemistry and Kobe Bryant trade rumors. After taking over for Scott Skiles in December, Boylan's tenure was marred by discipline issues involving Tyrus Thomas, Joakim Noah and Chris Duhon. There were questions in the locker room about whether Boylan commanded the appropriate amount of respect. With a different voice, the talented Bulls should be back in the playoff hunt next season.

Possible candidates: Rick Carlisle, Larry Brown, John Calipari (despite his agreeing to a contract extension with Memphis)

Milwaukee Bucks

Current coach: Larry Krystkowiak

Analysis: In training camp, Krystkowiak made defense a priority. Unfortunately, that emphasis didn't translate into regular-season success. The Bucks entered the final day of the regular season ranked 23rd in points allowed (103.8) and last in field-goal defense (48.1). While new general manager John Hammond said no decision has been made on Krystkowiak's future (what else is he supposed to say right now?), the other Coach K has seemingly accepted his fate. "If I had to do it all over again, things would be different," Krystkowiak told reporters Monday. "Some [things] were self-inflicted. Some were external."

Possible candidates: Carlisle. Carlisle. Carlisle. At the moment, there is no second choice.

New York Knicks

Current coach: Isiah Thomas

Analysis: New Knicks president Donnie Walsh is unpredictable when it comes to hiring coaches. On one hand, Walsh's track record indicates that he is not afraid to take a chance on an inexperienced coach, as he did with Larry Bird and Thomas in Indiana. But Walsh also understands that it is going to take someone with a lot of mental toughness (and perhaps a lot of experience) to be effective in New York.

That said, the Knicks could exhume Red Auerbach for next season and they would still be terrible. The chemistry is abysmal and the mismatched parts Thomas has assembled a) don't like each other and b) don't like playing with each other. This is at least a three-year project and patience will be required across the board. Remember this too: The GM whom Walsh hires (Billy King is said to be the front-runner) will likely have a significant say in picking the next coach.

Possible candidates: Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau, Mark Jackson, Paul Silas, Jeff Van Gundy

Miami Heat

Current coach: Pat Riley

Analysis: Instead of riding off into the sunset, as he could have done after the Heat's 2006 championship, Riley is set to stagger off the bench. Riley's successor was once believed to be assistant coach Erik Spoelstra. But Riley's decision to let veteran assistant Ron Rothstein take over during his scouting trips raised questions about whether the 37-year-old Spoelstra is ready to run the show. Word is that Riley hasn't totally abandoned the idea of promoting Spoelstra, so expect a more seasoned hand to take over with Spoelstra waiting until the next time around.

Possible candidates: Skiles, Carlisle, Rothstein

Atlanta Hawks

Current coach: Mike Woodson

Analysis: The Hawks don't have to fire Woodson; his contract is up after the season and they can just let him walk away. Woodson deserves credit for getting the Hawks into the playoffs, but when you combine four sub-.500 seasons (106-221 overall for a .324 winning percentage) with the fact that GM Billy Knight has reportedly tried to fire him already, Woodson appears to be a goner. The fate of Knight is also up in the air, so expect the Hawks to take their time making a decision.

Possible candidates: Brown, Silas, Thibodeau

Charlotte Bobcats

Current coach: Sam Vincent

Analysis: One league source recently described the Bobcats as a "team in turmoil." Vincent received the dreaded vote of confidence from Bobcats owner Robert Johnson earlier this month, but even that was tempered: Johnson described Vincent's performance in his first season as "credible." Johnson also said managing partner Michael Jordan will have the final word on Vincent's fate. In Washington, Jordan hired an inexperienced NBA coach (Leonard Hamilton), let him go after one season and brought in a veteran hand (Doug Collins). That could happen again in Charlotte.

Possible candidates: Brown, Thibodeau, Calipari

Memphis Grizzlies

Current coach: Marc Iavaroni

Analysis: Chris Wallace is the GM, but Iavaroni's fate rests solely with owner Michael Heisley. With Jerry West gone, Heisley has taken a more active role, frequently meeting with Iavaroni and giving the rookie coach a strong say in personnel decisions. Like any first-year coach, Iavaroni has experienced some growing pains -- the Grizzlies, for instance, are a league-worst 2-11 in games decided by three points or fewer. But Memphis has been all over the map this season. The Pau Gasol trade left the Grizzlies devoid of a low-post presence, and most of the young talent on the roster plays the same position, point guard. Iavaroni should probably get another season, but if Heisley has eyes for a more experienced hand, he could pull the trigger.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Current coach: Randy Wittman

Analysis: Wittman isn't believed to be in trouble, but how can't he be? Yes, the Timberwolves booked their tickets to Secaucus in October, but Wittman is 33-90 in 1½ seasons in the Twin Cities and has no history of success to fall back on. Plus, Wolves vice president Kevin McHale may decide to let Wittman go if he thinks it will help him save his own job.

New Jersey Nets

Current coach: Lawrence Frank

Analysis: Frank has the support of Nets president Rod Thorn, so his job is not in jeopardy in the offseason. But with two first-round picks in the June draft and a strong core to build around, Frank will need to keep his team in playoff contention to remain in Thorn's good graces.

Dallas Mavericks

Current coach: Avery Johnson

I don't read too much into a reported shouting match between Cuban and Johnson last month other than it being an active owner disagreeing with a passionate coach. Still, if Dallas loses in the first round again this season, the pressure will mount on the 2006 Coach of the Year. After all, Mark Cuban isn't paying a league-high $105.4 million in salaries for early playoff exits.

Toronto Raptors

Current coach: Sam Mitchell

Analysis: It was widely assumed that Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo would bring in his own man when he was hired in February 2006, but Toronto's strong 2006-07 season not only saved Mitchell's job but also earned him a three-year extension. Still, Mitchell was never Colangelo's guy, so if the Raptors flame out in the playoffs after struggling in the second half of the season, Colangelo may be tempted to let Mitchell go.

• Remember Fran Vazquez? Orlando's 2005 first-round pick (No. 11) who passed on the NBA to remain in Europe? While many fans are salivating at the prospect of pairing Vazquez with Dwight Howard next season, they might want to temper that excitement. "He's terrible," said an NBA international scout who has seen the FC Barcelona forward play recently. "Not bad, terrible. He's actually doing [Magic GM] Otis Smith a favor by staying overseas. He can't play at all."

• I made the mistake of getting into an MVP debate with Celtics coach Doc Rivers the other night (I picked Kobe Bryant as my MVP in last week's Sports Illustrated). Not that I expected Rivers to support anyone but Kevin Garnett, but when Rivers told me that he believes the MVP award should go to a team's most important player, I responded by suggesting that in that case, Garnett might be eliminated from contention, as he is probably less important to Boston's success than, say, Bryant is to the Lakers'. (That is not to say KG is not important; he is a defensive beast, a scoring machine from the low post and the greatest team player in the league. He is vital). Doc, predictably, disagreed, citing KG's influence in the locker room as well as on the court.

Rivers and I did agree about one thing: Bryant is long overdue for the award. "You look at what Michael Jordan did his first 10 years and you look at what Kobe has done," Rivers said, "and you wonder how in the world this guy has not been an MVP yet."

• One college scout's top five potential draft picks:

1. Michael Beasley ("the top pick unless Miami gets it," the scout said) 2. Derrick Rose 3. Anthony Randolph 4. Brook Lopez 5. Eric Gordon

One player the scout didn't like: Texas A&M freshman center DeAndre Jordan, who has been compared to Orlando's Howard. "He is nothing like Howard," the scout said. "If he stays in the draft, he's a first-round bust." (Jordan has declared for the draft but didn't hire an agent.)

• An interesting sidebar to the potential Hornets-Mavs first-round matchup: It would be the first time Jason Kidd faces Byron Scott, his former coach in New Jersey, in a playoff series. "You know Byron is dying for a piece of Jason in that series," one of Kidd's former Nets teammates said. "You know he wants to beat Jason real bad."

• The best decision the Knicks have made all season.

• Congratulations to veteran NBA referee Jack Nies, who officiated his 2,000th game Tuesday in New Jersey. Nies is actually the second-most-famous member of his family. Reality TV fans will remember Eric Nies, a former star on MTV's The Real World.

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