Thursday, May 6, 2010
By Aggrey Sam
Now that the dust has settled on the ever-eventful end to the Bulls season with Mondays firing of head coach Vinny Del Negroas well as Tuesdays official announcement, complete with a subsequent press conference from Chicago executive vice president John Paxson and a statement delivered by the deposed Del Negro outside the Berto Center, the teams practice facilitythe focus of the organization now squarely rests on the dual goals of hiring a new head coach and positioning to sign a marquee player in advance of the official beginning of free agency on July 1st.
The two goals go hand in hand, as it is assumed that without a head coach in place before the start of free agency, a top-tier player like LeBron James or Dwyane Wadelet alone players such as Chris Bosh or Joe Johnsonwouldnt give the Bulls serious consideration without knowing who would coach them, regardless of the talent surrounding them.
Speculation has been rampant about potential candidates, despite Bulls general manager Gar Formans insistence on Tuesday that no initial vetting of possible replacements was done before Del Negros dismissal. Forman, who will be running the searchalthough both Paxson and team owner Jerry Reinsdorf will surely play crucial roles in the processalso refused to give a timetable for hiring a coach, something that immediately harkens to the summer 2008 process that eventually netted Del Negro.
The candidates who may be on Chicagos radar is a large initial group that includes former New Jersey head coach Lawrence Frank, current Oklahoma City assistant Maurice Cheeks, former Minnesota head coach Kevin McHale, current Dallas assistant Dwane Casey, TNT television analyst Doug Collins, former New Orleans head coach Byron Scott, ESPN television analyst Jeff Van Gundy, current Boston assistant Tom Thibodeau, ESPN television analyst Mark Jackson and University of Kentucky head coach John Calipari.
Media reports indicate the Bulls have done background work on Frank, McHale and Cheeks and will eventually interview them. After being fired by the Nets early in the season, Frank was rumored to be considered by the Bulls as a potential in-season replacement for Del Negro. McHale, who currently works as a television analyst, was not successful during his stint coach the Timberwolves after moving down from his longtime general manager post, but is viewed as someone who has good rapport with players.
Cheeks, a Chicago native, was a head coach in both Portland and Philadelphia (leading both teams to the playoffs), but experienced problems with discipline in both stops. However, the locker-room turmoil and cast of miscreants with those teams would be unlike the solidly-regarded character guys in Chicago. In addition, the former standout point guard ostensibly would be placed in a mentoring role to All-Star point guard Derrick Rose and his hand in developing the Thunders young talent would also be a boon.
Casey, who was briefly a head coach in Minnesotawhere he replaced McHale, who was serving as the teams interim coach at the timeis a perennial top candidate for head-coaching vacancies and was a finalist for the Chicago job back in 2008. Scott, who experienced success with both the Hornets and the Netswho he led to the NBA Finals before being replaced by Frank, his assistant at the timerecently expressed interest in the Bulls job during a radio interview. Van Gundy, the former Knicks and Rockets head coach, also was asked about his interest in the position in a radio interview, but demurred to comment, which is in line with sources thinking that he cherishes his time with his family and is reluctant to leave his present job.
Collins is obviously familiar with the Bulls having coached them just prior to the teams championship run (he also coached in Detroit and Washington) in the 1990s, as well as interviewing for the job the last time around. Sources close to Collins tell CSNChicago.com that in addition to location, his comfort level and a teams championship aspirations will be important factors in his decision-making process (he is also under consideration for other positions, like many of the aforementioned candidates), as he, like Van Gundy, is comfortable in his current role and would only return to the sidelines for the right job.
Of the candidates with no NBA head-coaching experience, Thibodeau is viewed as a defensive gurua quality Chicago covetsbut while it may finally time for the Celtics assistant to no longer be a bridesmaid, the length of Bostons playoff run may affect him, although some observers speculate that he could opt to wait out head coach Doc Rivers, as some believe he may take a hiatus from the sidelines after this season.
Jackson, another former standout NBA point guard, has let his intentions to be a pro head coach be known over the last few years and while hes viewed as an extremely bright basketball mind, his actual coaching acumen remains an unknown until hes thrown into the fire.
As for Calipari, the wild card of the bunch, sources close to him insist to CSNChicago.com that he has no interest in the Bulls or any other NBA head-coaching job (such as the Nets, who were rumored to be interested) in the near future. Kentucky is arguably the most high-profile program in college basketball, his stint in the pros (with the Nets, ironically) was forgettable, he is in talks to sign a contract extension (which were slated to occur even before recent reports tying him to Chicago), several top high school recruits will arrive on campus over the next few years and even though he obviously has a pre-existing relationship with Rose because of the point guards one-year career at Memphis (Caliparis previous stop), his connection with NBA players (including potential free agents) is perhaps overblown.
After the dismissal of Del Negro, previous NBA head-coaching experience is viewed as coveted aspect for candidates for the Bulls job, although Forman stated Tuesday that he would possibly be open to applicants who have not been head coaches at the pro level. Other factors in play could be a coach with a strong defensive philosophy, an up-tempo offensive scheme and a vision thats in line with that of Chicagos management.
A potential monkey wrench in finding the ideal replacement could be timing. Of the aforementioned candidates, Casey, Collins and Jackson have already been on interviews with other teams and as the pool of available coaches dwindlesif and when they potentially accept positions with other teamsChicagos options may become more limited.
Three coaches whose names have surfacedfor different reasonsif they dont return to their current positions are Dallas Rick Carlisle, Atlantas Mike Woodson and Lakers head coach Phil Jackson, a vaguely familiar name in the Windy City. Carlisle guided the Mavericks to the second-best regular-season record in the Western Conference, but with antsy team owner Mark Cuban liable to make drastic changes at any time, some observers feel theres a possibility the defensive-oriented coach may not be back in Dallas next season. Jackson is in the final year of his contract in Los Angeles and even though he admitted there was a slim chance he wouldnt return, he recently denied interest in coming back to Chicago. Woodson, also in the final year of his deal, led the Hawks turnaround in recent years, but has been alternately on and off the hot seat throughout his tenure and was seen as a likely firing victim if Atlanta didnt stave off underdog Milwaukee in their first-round playoff series.
The man Carlisle replaced in Dallas, Avery Johnson, is one top candidate for vacancies around the league, but probably wont be under consideration by the Bulls after criticizing management following the now-infamous physical confrontation between Del Negro and Paxson in a late-season interview.
In regard to free agency, players main motivations for signing with a team are usually money, winning and location (not always in that order), but with all things even, the cache of a premier head coach could be a deciding factor. While less high-profile candidates like Casey and Thibodeau may have great relationships with players (and maybe importantly, their agents), the name recognition of a Calipari (his friendship with LeBron James is another reason his name has been thrown into the mix) and Van Gundy (not to mention Woodson, a favorite of Hawks superstar Johnson, long regarded as a realistic option behind James and Wade, a good fit and a potential target of Chicago) could help the Bulls cause in trying to acquire a top-tier free agent. At the same time, Forman also professed Tuesday that the organization wouldnt be putting the cart before the horse, or hiring a coach simply to attract a particular player.
After covering the team for the majority of the season, this writer, like anybody who observes the Bulls on a regular basis, has some ideas on what are some desired qualities in a successful candidate. An energetic coach, who connects with young players is of extreme importance, as the Bullsat least the six players under contract for next season; Rose, center Joakim Noah, veteran guard Kirk Hinrich and forwards Luol Deng, Taj Gibson and James Johnsonare a cohesive, hard-working bunch with good chemistry on and off the floor. Certainly a fast-paced offensive approach and a strong defensive background would be valued aspects, but some of that can be addressed within the entire future coaching staff. While a former NBA point guard seems like an obvious benefit to guide Rose, the teams franchise player, more important is a coach that easily connects to him and can continue to further his development. Stability, as in a coach who will be around for more than a year or two to lead the young squad, will be important.
So, who would be the best choice? As things stand, Collins has some local support, Cheeks background would appear to be a good fit and Scott has experience coaching elite floor generals, while Van Gundy would seem to be a home-run hire. But as far as who is likely to get the jobonly time will tell.
Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.