NBA head coach matchmaker: Best (and worst) candidates for each job
The NBA coaching carousel has whirled violently in recent weeks, with several teams making moves at the end of their bench.
In the last few weeks, we've seen 10 NBA teams either fire, hire or lose their head coaches. On Thursday, Scott Skiles abruptly resigned as the Magic's head coach. Last week we saw two recently-dismissed playoff teams make major moves, with the Pacers canning Frank Vogel and the Grizzlies axing Dave Joerger (only to sign a deal with the Kings on Monday).
After the slew of movement, only five NBA teams—the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies and Orlando Magic—remain without head coaches in place. To examine the current openings, SI.com asked five NBA writers to pick their best- and worst-case scenario candidates for each team.
Written by Ben Golliver, Rob Mahoney Andrew Sharp, Matt Dollinger and DeAntae Prince.
Editor's note: This story was updated May 12 after Scott Skiles resigned as the Magic's head coach.
New York Knicks
Best-case scenario: Kevin McHale. First, let’s suspend reality for a minute and imagine that Knicks president Phil Jackson was conducting an honest-to-God, wide-reaching coaching search. Wouldn’t Jackson be interested in a straight-shooting Hall of Famer and NBA champion who successfully managed big-time egos and incorporated analytically-minded, forward-thinking strategies to build a 2011 lottery team into a 2015 conference finalist?
McHale’s experience handling James Harden and Dwight Howard looks like perfect preparation for massaging Carmelo Anthony’s purgatory-like state, his own playing experience would surely aid the development of top prospect Kristaps Porzingis, his understanding of the importance of pace and three-point shooting would be major additions for a team trapped in Triangle gridlock, and his blunt, seen-it-all communication style would play well in the New York media, at least for a few years.
Unfortunately, it's hard to believe that Jackson will look past the withering branches of his coaching tree to eye qualified candidates like McHale. – Ben Golliver
Worst-case scenario: Kurt Rambis. Everything about the notion of moving forward with Kurt Rambis, Jackson’s pick as interim replacement for the fired Derek Fisher, should be frustrating to Knicks fans. New York’s winning percentage dropped under Rambis, Kristaps Porzingis’s play took a step back under Rambis, and multiple Knicks players grumbled at his decisions down the stretch of a lost regular season. His head coaching track record is so abysmal (two incredibly depressing sub-18 win seasons in Minnesota) that he wouldn’t be a coveted candidate by any franchise other than the one run by his longtime friend.
If he’s to act as Jackson’s surrogate, then New York is looking at another long season of trying to force the Triangle work with ill-fitting pieces. If Rambis, 58, is to be his own man, then Jackson should be taking a broader, more serious look at other candidates with better head coaching track records and/or hungry, well-regarded assistants with more energy and more to prove.
Hiring Rambis would be a mistake for the same reasons it was a mistake for the Lakers to hire Byron Scott: familiarity is a nice added bonus, but it shouldn’t be the major deciding factor when filling such an important position. Given that Jackson’s first coaching hire proved to be a short-lived, buddy-buddy experiment that blew up in his face, he owes it to his organization and its fan base to push a little harder this time around. – B.G.
Best-case scenario: Jeff Van Gundy. This is a team that should be looking to contend, and that's the one situation that might bring Van Gundy back from broadcasting. It makes sense. The Harden challenge is a real issue for whoever takes over in Houston—probably the most important issue—and Van Gundy is established enough to exert authority over a superstar like Harden, while also being smart enough to understand how important it is to foster a healthy relationship with him. Mike D'Antoni is another coach who could make sense, but he's a bigger gamble given some of his past weaknesses.
There's still a decent amount of talent in Houston, especially if they can upgrade from Trevor Ariza on the wing. What will be crucial is understanding how this worked two years ago. This team won with Harden on offense and some of the best defense in the league on the other side. Reclaiming that second part will be key, and Van Gundy's as qualified as anyone. If he and Daryl Morey can get on the same page, they should make this happen. – Andrew Sharp
Worst-case scenario: David Blatt. Hold on, I just need a minute to imagine David Blatt trying to sell James Harden on the virtues of flex cuts and the Princeton offense. – A.S.
Best-case scenario: David Blatt. Pairing LeBron James with an outspoken head coach wasn't a good fit, but David Blatt could do wonders in Indiana. Unlike Cleveland where Blatt's coaching philosophy was often questioned, he'd be able to operate uninhibited in Indiana. Larry Bird is a lot of things, but a backseat driver is not one of them. And Paul George isn't LeBron, but he's still a a talented enough star to guide a team to the Finals in the East. Blatt possesses the offensive creativity that Frank Vogel lacks, and if Bird really is set on innovating on that side of the ball, someone in the mold of Blatt makes a lot of sense.
And while Bird will always be known as "The Hick From French Lick," he does have an appreciation for what Blatt has accomplished overseas. This is the same Pacers president that swooned over and signed Sarunas Jasikevicius, who played for Blatt in Israel.
Blatt could be coveted by all four teams searching for a head coach, but if he's looking for a logical landing place where he can succeed (and not be picked apart by the media), Indy might be his best bet. – Matt Dollinger
Worst-case scenario: Brian Shaw. There's a host of candidates with Pacers ties that Bird should steer clear from. Brian Shaw, Mark Jackson and Nate McMillan have all been connected to the Indiana opening, but none have the offensive background that Bird apparently covets. In Jackson's final season with the Warriors two years ago, Golden State ranked No. 12 in offensive efficiency despite having largely the same roster they have now. Neither Shaw nor McMillan is regarded as an offensive wizard, either. – M.D.
Best-case scenario: Frank Vogel. This seems like such a natural fit for the post-Joerger Grizzlies, who could use the kind of investment and infectious confidence Vogel brought previously to Indiana. The Pacers genuinely seemed to enjoy playing for Vogel. If he can engender a similar trust in Memphis, it would go a long way toward building the healthier team culture the franchise needs. Plus: Who better to reinvigorate the Grizzlies’ slipping defense than the man who culled a top-three defensive finish from an overhauled roster lacking at several positions? – Rob Mahoney
Worst-case scenario: Mark Jackson. Considering this franchise’s recent history, the idea of hiring a coach who was last fired for his defensiveness, suspicions of management/ownership, and generally prickly demeanor seems an awful one. Jackson, for however much he may have learned or changed since his time with the Warriors, would be a risky addition without the clear upside that might otherwise justify the choice. – R.M.
Best-case scenario: Frank Vogel. There has been a lot of debate about whether Vogel deserved to be let go after pushing an average Indy team to the playoffs. That Larry Bird has a three-year theory about good head coaches only complicated the matter.
Vogel’s ability to get a rebuilding Pacers team to the playoffs says a lot about him as a coach. When Indiana was at its best, Vogel coached a defensive team with multiple options in the post. The Magic can go down low to Nikola Vucevic and can throw Victor Oladipo on the other team’s best player. Most of all, Vogel is a steadying presence and could serve as a fine leader for a young team. – DeAntae Prince
Worst-case scenario: Randy Wittman. The Magic are a young team that could be on the verge of a playoff berth, equipped with strong defenders and developing offensive options. While Wittman coached a team with a similar composition in the Wizards, he was never able to get them over the hump. Players like Bradley Beal and Otto Porter were expected to become core players, but Beal was perpetually injured and Porter has yet to figure out his place in the NBA. Wittman has proven he can be a decent NBA coach, but not one that will help young players fully reach their potential. – D.P.