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Bulls begin coaching search; here's a list
by Sam Smith
Posted on May 4
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So now the Bulls need a new coach with the official announcement Tuesday of the firing of Vinny Del Negro.
I suppose if you are looking to get to the so-called Point C, then, literally, you might need a C for Collins. But that ship has sailed and I don’t believe the former Bulls coach Doug Collins is in the mix to be the next coach.
Other Cs? Casey, Cleamons, Cartwright, Cheeks? No, I don’t think that’s what the Bulls have meant about going to Point C, which, actually, GM Gar Forman avoided referring to in his Tuesday press conference.
The question not only is who, but what. What makes a good coach?
There are several principal elements and several particulars that apply to the Bulls.
Forman Tuesday talked generically about accountability, teaching and leadership, and I didn’t take that as a direct shot at Vinny, but more general qualifications.
Still, Vinny was not so much a so-called accountability coach, as was Scott Skiles. Those guys say play defense. You don’t, you sit until you do. But since the Bulls had one of those and fired him, the next guy tends to be a bit looser, more so-called player friendly, which Vinny was. Plenty of good coaches are–Flip Saunders, for example.
There’s also experience. Though Forman said he wouldn’t exclude anyone, I’d assume the Bulls would this time want a coach who knows the NBA, which Forman did refer to, and a coach who didn’t require on-the-job training. That would be a former head coach or, at least, a veteran assistant with longtime experience and leaguewide respect.
There’s what I’d call equanimity, something of the ability to work with management and avoid the pitfalls of competitors going at one another. That obviously became a late season issue with the dustup between Del Negro and Executive VP John Paxson. The issue is these guys are together virtually all year with training camp, the season, draft and summer league. When they can’t comfortably get along and talk basketball for fun, the job becomes a chore, which it should never be.
Then there’s presence, someone who commands respect with the team for what he knows and/or who he is as well as with the community. That also being a person who communicates being in charge, so-called leadership.
As Rick Pitino once famously said not long before he was being fired, “Bird, McHale and Parish aren’t walking through the door.” Neither are Sloan, Popovich and Jackson, though more on that later.
Most of the great ones are taken, but it’s not like you have to settle as much as perhaps your choice cannot be everything to everyone.
This is where I think the Bulls are, though I have no actual evidence: I think they have an idea of candidates, which is what all organizations have. Don’t fool yourself. Everyone organization keeps a list of prospective head coaches and assistants, as well as players. It’s what they do. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be doing their jobs.
The classic story is one of the reasons the Jerry Krause/Doug Collins dynamic split. Krause, as we recall, was something of a Mr. Malaprop, saying the wrong thing the wrong way, like when he said organizations win championships. He was trying to say a good thing and commend all the support staff, and, well, that was Jerry.
So this one time he’s talking to Doug and tells him something about, what if Doug were unable to coach perhaps from an accident or something and there being staff to step in. Jerry was trying to make a point of how good the staff was, but Doug took it as Jerry trying to line up his successor, which, I guess, eventually happened.
I suspect the Bulls want to avoid this parade of candidates they had last time, so maybe they’ll edit their list down to four or five, maybe check out a few more, cut it again and maybe interview three or four and make a recommendation to managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf, who always said he holds only veto power.
People ask me about the organization structure and I see it as sort of a bicameral legislature, theories that went back to ancient Greece and like the U.S. government. To my thinking, Forman, the guy who worked up the scouting ranks, is the House and John Paxson, the former Finals hero, is the Senate, and they try to come together in conference. Reinsdorf is the president and has veto power. I see each with sort of a line to the president, but having to come together before presenting something.
Forman left open the time frame, and, certainly, there are unique situations which could lead to an extended time period. After all, this is draft/trade/free agent time, and the coach has minimal involvement. Phil Jackson used to go home after the season and skip the draft.
I don’t believe the coach is a make or break for a free agent, but, I’d guess, you wouldn’t want to have P.J. Carlesimo if you were going after Latrell Sprewell. Just hypothetically, of course. Maybe you’d take LeBron’s uncle if LeBron would commit, but you wouldn’t know that until July.
So what would I do?
Factoring in what I believe the Bulls wouldn’t do and what seems feasible and I could be excited about, I’d go with Mo Cheeks.
He has head coaching experience, and won 49 and 50 games in consecutive seasons in Portland. He’s a Chicago native from DuSable High School. He’s one of the great point guards ever, ranking in the top 10 alltime in steals and assists, a perfect guy to tutor Derrick Rose with his biggest weakness. He started for a championship team, the great ’83 Philadelphia 76ers, and is one of the alltime good guys ever in the NBA. Any doubt, check out the YouTube video of Cheeks with the girl stumbling over the national anthem.
He’s not regarded as great in so-called accountability, as he’s more the good guy, but I can see Cheeks with tough assistants, like Larry Bird had at Indiana, particularly close friend Ron Adams, who transformed the Thunder defense.
But I’m not sure Cheeks, who is now on the Thunder staff, is even on the Bulls’ list. So here’s a rundown of all the possibilities I can think of. And I’m sure the Bulls have a secret one or two. The hope is the Bulls don’t have to interview them all.
— Doug Collins: The former Bulls coach is a great turnaround specialist whom I think will get the 76ers job, assuming he wants it. I’ve heard he had a knock-your-socks-off interview. The Bulls passed on him two years ago and usually one veto is all you get.
— Larry Brown: The other great turnaround specialist, though the Bulls don’t exactly need turning around. Brown’s play-the-right-way defensive philosophy, though, would make a difference, at least in the short term. But Larry also wants a front office role and no one is giving theirs up. Plus, it’s one thing for Michael Jordan to let him go to Philadelphia, but back to Chicago? I see Brown getting the Clippers job as he also owns a home in Malibu and is close with Clippers owner Donald Sterling and with a high draft pick and Blake Griffin presumably healthy that could be a great job.
— Kevin McHale: The former Wolves executive did interim stints twice and actually did well. He’s good working with players; they respect and like him. But Kevin’s never liked the grind of coaching with travel and all the film work. Perhaps he’s ready. I’ve heard he’s very interested.
— Lawrence Frank: Same with him. Actually same with a lot of guys as far as interest. There was all this media talk about front office issues, but I’ve heard coaches and agents inquiring for months about the job. With Rose and Joakim Noah, the cap room and a major market, the Bulls job is considered perhaps the best open one. Frank is regarded as hard working and well prepared and excellent with X’s and O’s and strategy. But he had a losing record with the Nets, played a slow game heavy on coaching control and never was regarded as very demanding of the players, especially the stars. You always worry about those control oriented coaches like Frank who don’t allow assistants to speak to anyone.
— Byron Scott: He’s had two jobs and also a losing career record, though not by much. He’s expressed open interest in the Bulls, but there’s some talk he’s also waiting to see what happens with the Lakers, as he’s close with Kobe Bryant. He’s had a rap as not a very hard worker with players and preparation with Eddie Jordan getting behind the scenes credit when he took the Nets to two Finals. Though that seemed unfair.
— Avery Johnson: The “Little General” was not necessarily always a term of endearment as he’s been regarded by some teammates as somewhat overbearing. He’s supposedly pushing hard for the New Orleans job and may be trying to leverage himself in by pushing for Philadelphia.
— Jeff Van Gundy: He seems satisfied to stay in TV for awhile, but it would be hard to see the Bulls going for him the way he went on ABC and ripped the organization for two hours during one playoff game with the Cavs. At least you have to credit him for not pandering for the job. Little known fact: His brother, Stan, played against Forman when they were growing up in California with Jeff at the games.
— Tom Thibodeau: The perennial runnerup. The Celtics’ defensive guy should get a look, but he’s probably at a disadvantage without having had a head job. There always are vague questions about relating to players, but I know him and find him good to get along with and have asked players and they seem to like him.
— Ron Adams: Another longtime assistant and regarded with Thibodeau as one of the best defensive minds in the league. He was on Scott Skiles’ staff as the defensive guy when Skiles was Bulls coach. There are a lot of latest hot assistant names you hear in these searches like Monty Williams, John Shumate, Mike Budenholzer, Elston Turner, Mike Malone, Tyrone Corbin and Brian Shaw. I’d go with Adams before any of them, but it’s uncertain if the Bulls will go the assistant route.
— Phil Johnson: The one-time, long time ago Bulls interim has basically been Jerry Sloan’s co-coach for years. He was coach of the year in 1975 for the old Kansas City/Omaha Kings and who knows if he wants his own team anymore. But he’s a good one.
— Mike Dunleavy: He was fired from the Clippers this season, but has more than 600 career wins for four teams and a Finals loss to the Bulls in 1991. He’s been close with Reinsdorf as a fellow Brooklynite.
— Eric Musselman: His name popped up in rumors several months back when there was talk about Del Negro’s job. He’s a hard driving guy like his late dad and had a rough go in one lamentable season coaching the Kings. Who knows if he’s mellowed with time away.
— Reggie Theus: The one-time popular Bull is on the bench with the Timberwolves after doing a decent job with the Kings for a few seasons. He’s popular in Chicago and a great ambassador, though he got rejected for the DePaul job. He’s got some connections with Forman as both worked at New Mexico State, where Theus had a nice NCAA run. The question at times has been his work ethic.
— Dwane Casey: He was close two years ago when Del Negro got the job. He had a good start at Minnesota, where he was replaced midway into the season and the team collapsed. He’s been on the bench at Dallas and has been a respected, if low key guy.
— Mark Jackson: The ABC broadcaster and former top point guard has been fishing around for an NBA job the last few years, though he’s had difficulties after having developed, fairly or not, something of a clubhouse lawyer reputation during his playing days.
— Mike Woodson: If the Hawks go out as expected and quickly after barely getting by the Bucks and having coached into his final season without an extension, he seems like the next to be available. But he’s way too much one-on-one coach and for all the criticism Del Negro got for his offense, Woodson’s and Mike Brown’s in Cleveland were way less complex or interesting. For some reason, the national media had it in for Vinny.
— Isiah Thomas: Just kidding, though he never had a losing season coaching the Pacers.
— Tony Barone: The Chicago native and former Creighton coach had an interim stint with Memphis, where he now is personnel director. He ran an uptempo, open game the Bulls need to play, though the defensive identity was questionable.
— Mark Price: The great Cavs point guard of the late 1980s was a head coach in Australia and has been a top shooting coach for several teams and working with a number of players. He’s also involved with a basketball teaching academy and specializes innwork with point guards. He’s also been a prep coach and coached Atlanta’s Josh Smith.
— Mike Fratello: The famed “Czar” from Marv Albert’s broadcasts would like to get another shot. He got something of a bad rap as a slowdown coach in Cleveland after having an uptempo Atlanta team with Dominique. He’s been away for a while and has been regarded as a bit too controlling of point guards and the offense, like Van Gundy and Avery Johnson.
— Sam Mitchell: He’s a name I like. Definitely a hold accountable, demanding tough guy. He was to be replaced when Bryan Colangelo came to Toronto, but then won coach of the year. Oops. Colangelo finally dumped him and the team has tanked since. He’s got some rough edges which seem to worry teams.
— Dick Versace: He’s also been out awhile but trying to break back in. He had a head stint with the Pacers and did front office work for the Grizzlies before Jerry West took over. He’s been popular and well known in Chicago, but away from the game and even tried a congressional run a few years back.
— Rudy Tomjanovich: He’s one of the great guys, but the game finally became too much when he was the guy between the two Phil Jackson runs in L.A. He quietly reverted to scouting and personnel work and has seemed much happier.
— Jim Cleamons: The longtime Jackson assistant had one run with the Mavs before Don Nelson added him to his list of guys he undercut. He’s a triangle guy, and I don’t see that offense very good for this Bulls personnel.
— Brian Hill: He had a couple of runs with the Magic and got to a Finals, though he’s mostly settled into assistant work, lately with the Pistons.
— Darrell Walker: Also an assistant with the Pistons after working under Scott with the Hornets. If Brown leaves the Bobcats, I can see Michael Jordan making a run at Walker, a Chicago guy who’s an old school type demanding coach who once had a run with the Raptors as Jordan likes guys he knows.
— Patrick Ewing: Also a Jordan guy. He’s the assistant most passed over of late, sort of like the best golfer never to win a major. He’s a bit on the quiet side, which has hurt his chances, though he’d be a good tutor for Joakim Noah given the way he developed from a defender into an offensive player. He’s been working under a terrific coach in Orlando in Stan Van Gundy.
— Tom Izzo: I don’t see the Bulls going the college way with the likes of ego maniacs like Pitino, who apparently pursued the New Jersey job earlier this season, or John Calipari. They’d be insufferable to work with and having been in college so long know little of the NBA even though both previously coached in the NBA. Izzo is the one guy I can see making the transition given his defensive style and the way he’s trained coaches like Skiles.
— Mike Kyzyzewski: No, he’s not going to the NBA. He’s got the Olympic team and he’s fine with that, plus his health wouldn’t permit an NBA lifestyle after the time he took off a few years back. He’s already turned down the Lakers and Kobe a few years back and I’ve heard the financial overtures from the Nets would make Phil Jackson’s $12 million annually not even close to being the highest paid coach.
— Bill Cartwright: I’d hope the longtime Bull and former Bulls coach would get another shot, as he’s done great things with the Suns defense as an assistant, but his voice issues might preclude that.
— P.J. Carlesimo: A bit more the college guy even though he had several jobs and a nice run on the bench with the Spurs. He was with the Sonics when they moved and fired after a 1-12 start in Oklahoma City. He’d mellowed some over the years, but just a bit too terse with this era’s players and never with enough results to justify.
— Paul Silas: A guy who fell off the radar and probably has left the game a bit behind. He was LeBron’s first coach and had a few celebrated runins and seems to have settled quietly in North Carolina.
— Dan Issel: The Batavia native had a great run with the Nuggets, was popular and effective until one of those politically correct days got him. He’s been in the horse business in Kentucky and pretty much stayed away from the NBA in recent years.
— Bill Laimbeer: He’s on the bench in Minnesota, and you ask why. Perhaps the most disliked, detested player in the history of pro sports, an arrogant, condescending, cheap shot artist. Yeah, he should be high on a lot of lists.
— Bob Hill: He was a 60-game winner when he was replaced by Popovich in San Antonio, and the rest is history. Though lucking into David Robinson and Tim Duncan helped. He also had a good run as Pacers coach, but I always was suspicious as he wore loafers and no socks in winter, was always tanned and highlighted Pat Riley’s books.
— Dave Cowens: He finished up as a Pistons assistant after the WNBA in Chicago. He had a good run with the Hornets and Warriors as an old school, hustle guy, though wasn’t great with the subtleties of dealing with today’s youth. He once left the Celts in the middle of his career to clear his head and took a job as a cab driver. You don’t find guys like that anymore.
— John Lucas: There was talk the Houston rehab guy to the stars now on the Clippers bench would replace Dunleavy as interim. Lucas had head coaching runs with the Spurs, 76ers and Cavs and players train with him often in the summer, but probably has passed his coaching prime.
— Doc Rivers: He’s under contract another year with the Celts and I cannot see the Celts letting him go to join another team, especially without major compensation. I wouldn’t be surprised if he did take a year away and I think he’d love to get in with the young Bulls back in his hometown and he certainly is a guy with that coaching presence.
— Erik Spoelstra: Pat Riley left a big enchilada out there with that tease the other day about coaching again if some free agent demanded it. Spoelstra has gained a lot of credence for his work as a defensive leader for the Heat the last two years, but as many coaches find out, the jobs aren’t guaranteed and life isn’t always fair.
— Brendan Malone: He’s Stan Van Gundy’s top guy with the Magic and was the Raptors first coach and had an interim stint with the Cavs. He’s a solid pro while his son is a rising star assistant with the Cavs now.
— Chris Ford: He’s an old school hold accountable guy who had jobs with the Celts, Bucks and Clippers before running afoul trying to actually get Allen Iverson to practice in Philadelphia. He knows the game and is credited with the first three pointer ever in the NBA. So he started it.
— Phil Jackson: This is the fantasy choice and would be a bit too complicated. If the Lakers win, Phil says he’s coming back. The Lakers want him back, but not at so much money. I’ve long thought life was too good in L.A. living on the beach, wearing his sandals to work every day and dating the Playboy posing daughter of the owner who has a crazy crush on him. If he were to leave, I could see him taking that huge payday with the Nets new owner as they could get the No. 1 pick and Phil started his coaching career there. But if LeBron would come to Chicago….The problem is that couldn’t be until July and if the Bulls wait and Phil stays or goes elsewhere there may be no one left. Is it worth playing for the jackpot? And only the jackpot?
So whom do you like?