Examining Head Coaching Vacancies Around the NBA

The NBA's annual coaching carousel is heating up. Jeremy Woo breaks down what's next for the Sixers, Nets, Pacers, Pelicans and Bulls.
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Although this is one of the more uncertain offseasons in NBA history, and no transactions will take place for some time, the coaching cycle has opened up in earnest over the past couple weeks. After the Pacers’ surprising dismissal of Nate McMillan on Wednesday, there are five teams in search of new coaches. Here’s a cursory rundown on where things stand, and what to keep in mind with the Sixers, Nets, Pacers, Pelicans and Bulls vacancies.

Note: this story has been updated to include Indiana’s firing of Nate McMillan on Wednesday.

Indiana Pacers

After extending Nate McMillan’s contract just two weeks ago following a 5–0 start in bubble seeding games, the Pacers moved on in unceremonious fashion Wednesday morning. The team released a statement that included McMillan’s successful 186-136 record in four seasons, but also included his 3-16 record in the playoffs. His extension was presumably to quiet speculation that the team would move in a different direction; after a series sweep at the hands of the Heat, Indiana fired McMillan anyway. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski immediately reported that the Pacers are eyeing Mike D’Antoni, should he move on from his job in Houston (more on that below).

The Pacers’ spin on McMillan’s postseason failures was perhaps a bit unfair—Indiana was without Domantas Sabonis in the bubble and sans Victor Oladipo in the 2019 playoffs, and lost narrowly to the LeBron James-led Cavaliers in consecutive years before that. But apparently a change was in order, and the Pacers have a playoff-caliber roster with all key players returning, which figures to be an appealing situation for an experienced coach. That said, the circumstances surrounding McMillan’s firing could conceivably complicate that.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers’ intent to move on from Brett Brown had been one of the worst-kept secrets in the league for quite a while, and in hindsight probably should have happened a couple years ago, before the apparent organizational malaise fully set in. The roster clearly needs to be reworked, but the franchise is essentially capped out after handing bad contracts to Tobias Harris and Al Horford. That said, this is still an attractive job that might allow for a quick turnaround—it would be foolhardy for Philly to trade Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons before giving the next coach a chance to reimagine things around them. The opportunity to coach two All-Star caliber players in their mid-20s should be attractive, but the balancing of personalities and meshing of their playstyles adds layers to the challenge.

Clippers assistant Tyronn Lue is considered the top candidate on the market and is thought to be in the mix here; Villanova coach Jay Wright, current 76ers assistant Ime Udoka, and former Grizzlies and Kings coach Dave Joeger have also been linked to the job. It sounds like Lue will essentially have his pick of jobs at this point, with Udoka being the primary internal candidate and Wright more of a long shot given his stability level in college. It appears Philadelphia will need to engender as fresh a start as possible here, with change potentially coming on multiple levels.

Brooklyn Nets

Brooklyn played hard for interim coach Jacque Vaughn, who will get consideration as a candidate, but it appears the Nets will hold a true coaching search, with heavily rumored interest in luring Gregg Popovich away from San Antonio. The likelihood of that actually happening is another story, but the prospect of coaching Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, living and working in the New York market and shaping the Nets into a contender makes this an attractive job, if not one for the faint of heart.

Lue is a name to watch here, with Jason Kidd and Jeff Van Gundy also rumored. As with Philly, this is a high-stakes situation with immediate expectations, and a roster that’s probably a move or two away from true contention in the Eastern Conference. The Nets need someone who will keep a strong pulse on the locker room, and there’s some thought that Durant and Irving will voice their preference here—Lue coached Irving in Cleveland, and Popovich has strong ties to the Nets’ front office and GM Sean Marks.

New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans let go of Alvin Gentry after an inconsistent season rather than have him finish out the final year of his deal, which made some sense given the value of creating stability for one of the league’s more promising young teams. New Orleans is on the cusp of being a playoff team, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram are 20 and 22 years old, respectively, the team is armed with a wealth of draft picks moving forward, and there’s some obvious growth potential up and down the roster. Although this isn’t an instant-contention situation, and the defense in particular could use an overhaul, there’s real potential for the next coach to help build this into a winning team.

Right now, it’s a bit less clear where this search goes from here—Lue and Kidd were initially mentioned as candidates, but very little has trickled out since. Both would appear to be better fits for veteran teams. Finding a coach that will connect with the young talent and bring a level of energy to the locker room will be important. The fact that this is a relatively stable situation, with David Griffin having been in place for just over a year, suggests the next coach should have an opportunity to stick around for the long haul (Gentry, after all, got five seasons, as did Monty Williams before him). All things considered, the Pelicans should have options here.

Chicago Bulls

With Jim Boylen’s long nightmare tenure coming to a merciful end, Chicago can move on in earnest, with a roster that’s far from barren and a team in need of a far more player-friendly voice. The Bulls are an attractive job in one of the league’s best markets, but ownership has often been hesitant to spend big on internal infrastructure, and with Arturas Karnisovas taking over as GM, this hire presents an opportunity to shifting that perception. That said, there’s some thought around the league that Chicago will opt for a first-time head coach, which makes sense given the state of the team, but also may better fit the budget.

Sixers assistant Ime Udoka and Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr. are thought to be among top options here. This is viewed as another long-haul job, but there’s growth potential with a number of former lottery picks players who have been injured and perhaps underutilized over the past few seasons. Getting into the mix for the eighth seed in the East may not be that far off, and the Bulls will also pick fourth in this year’s draft.

Houston Rockets*

I’m including Houston here, despite the Rockets being very much alive in the bubble, with an asterisk based on the fact Mike D’Antoni’s contract is expiring. As is to be expected given the circumstances, there’s been speculation that the Rockets will move on after the season—although if Houston makes a deep playoff run, that could change. But this may be the final job to open up, and it might be the most appealing on the market, thanks to the presence of James Harden and Russell Westbrook and the established, sustained success the Rockets have enjoyed the past few years. It’s possible that top coaching candidates could wait and see what happens here. And it’s also possible D’Antoni hits the market, which would obviously present another intriguing prospective option for other teams. This is a situation to monitor, particularly if the Rockets bow out early.