Doc Rivers’ departure from the LA Clippers is the latest in a series of moves across the NBA that have contributed to one of the wildest coaching carousels in memory. With so many head coaches on the market and jobs open, here are 10 NBA head coaching candidates that the Clippers could consider to replace Rivers.
There are any number of qualified candidates across the NBA, WNBA, NCAA, international, and NBA G-League ranks who could potentially emerge as a serious candidate for a head coaching vacancy, and even narrowing the list down to bigger names and serious contenders leaves us with far more than 10 potential candidates for head coaching jobs in the near future. Here’s a run-down of NBA head coaching candidates, ranked according to a combination of my preference and likelihood that they’ll land the job:
“Oh Hell no”: Former Golden State Warriors head coach Mark Jackson, Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Jason Kidd.
Honorable Mention: Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Stephen Silas, New Orleans Pelicans associate head coach Chris Finch, Michigan Wolverines head coach Juwan Howard (who has said he isn’t pursuing NBA jobs), Vanderbilt Commodores head coach Jerry Stackhouse, former Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni, former Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy.
10. Gregg Popovich: Like I said, we’re starting with the least likely. It’s hard to imagine Pop anywhere other than San Antonio, as he has been the Spurs’ head coach since 1996 and won 5 NBA titles, including the 2014 championship where Kawhi Leonard won his first NBA Finals MVP. Undoubtedly one of the greatest coaches in the history of the league, Popovich is 71 years old, still in place in San Antonio, and there’s no indication that a departure is forthcoming–but after rumors floated that the Brooklyn Nets could attempt to lure him for one final contending project before his retirement. Now that Brooklyn’s vacancy has been filled by Steve Nash, could the Clippers make a play? It’s very unlikely, but Steve Ballmer is the kind of owner who likes to make unlikely things happen when he gets his mind set on them–look no further than the team’s star pairing of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, or his purchase of the Inglewood Forum to clear the way for a new LAC arena.
9. Udonis Haslem: After winning titles with the Miami Heat and becoming a franchise legend with 16 seasons on the roster, Haslem has scarcely played in recent seasons and provided locker room leadership as a glorified assistant coach. He’s played just 7 minutes per game in 81 total games over the last 5 years, and saw over half of his 44 minutes this season in the Heat’s final bubble game as they rested players. The Heat are currently in the NBA Finals for the sixth time in Haslem’s tenure, having won the 2006, 2012, and 2013 titles. During this run, he’s been credited as being an anchor of “Heat culture,” and has frequently been seen on TV leading timeouts during the playoffs. It’s unlikely that a team–especially in the Clippers’ position–would hand the head coaching job to someone who was technically an active NBA player this year, but if LAC needs leadership and an improved locker room culture, surrounding Haslem with more experienced assistants (like Alvin Gentry and/or Nate McMillan) could make for a workable staff.
8. Becky Hammon: If you can’t get Popovich, why not poach from his staff? Hammon is one of the best WNBA players ever, and has been a pioneer for women coaching in the NBA since joining the Spurs’ staff in 2014. Her CV speaks for itself more loudly than any endorsement could, but it’s clear that she has earned the respect of players as well, as Pau Gasol wrote that “Becky Hammon can coach NBA basketball. Period.” Hammon seems likely to be a NBA head coach someday, and will probably be the first woman to ever fill the role, but she’s gained little momentum in hiring conversations in recent years. While there’s no doubt that sexism creates significant obstacles for women in sports, it can also be fairly argued that a number of other, higher-profile assistants have compiled longer tenures. The notion of a “line” existing is a bit silly–Steve Nash getting hired to coach a contender in Brooklyn is just the latest example–but it does seem based on league chatter that Hammon is still a few years from being a true finalist for an opening.
7. Jeff Van Gundy: Due to his TV appearances, Van Gundy is a perennial rumored head coaching candidate who never seriously gains traction for any openings. JVG had a successful enough tenure as a head coach–a 57.5% winning percentage in 11 years, 9 playoff appearances, 7 series wins, and an NBA Finals Appearance–to get another job in the NBA… just not a good enough job to lure him out of the broadcasting booth. And the jobs that might actually have brought him back to coaching went to stronger candidates. Remember, for all the criticism that Doc Rivers has gotten with the Clippers, that Rivers has a better regular season and playoff win percentage with over twice as many games coached as Van Gundy in each category, and where Van Gundy has one finals loss, Rivers has two finals appearances and a championship to his name. Most importantly with Van Gundy, though, is that he hasn’t coached an NBA game since 2007, before the three-point revolution. It’s possible that a relationship could land Van Gundy an actual interview for this opening, but the Clippers should find a more creative option.
6. Chauncey Billups: If the Clippers don’t look to their own bench for a replacement (spoilers), they might look to their own broadcast booth. After retiring from the NBA in 2014, Billups announced this summer that he was finally ready to start pursuing head coaching vacancies around the NBA, and he immediately became a candidate for a number of vacancies. Remember how I said the notion of a “line” was a bit silly? Yeah. But it’s understandable why teams would want Billups, a future Hall of Famer who won NBA Finals MVP in 2004 playing point guard for the Detroit Pistons. Chauncey would bring leadership, championship pedigree, and the perspective of someone who was close to the team last season but not directly involved in the debacle that was the team’s coaching staff. Still, I think Chauncey is going to have a stop as a prominent assistant before getting a head coaching job–and if the front office highly regarded him as a coaching prospect, it feels like they probably would have found a spot for him on the staff last season instead of putting him on broadcasts.
5. David Vanterpool: One of the most prominent assistants in the NBA, Vanterpool played and coached under the legendary Ettore Messina in Europe, and then became an assistant coach for the Blazers in 2012 where he worked closely with Damian Lillard to help the young star blossom before moving to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ bench last year. Known for his defensive acumen and strong player development skills, Vanterpool is widely considered one of the NBA assistant coaches highest on head coaching lists–but is he a good fit with the Clippers? LA isn’t quite in a position where they’re in need of a coach who is willing to come in and work closely with young players and focus on development. This team needs a leader who can make adjustments over the course of a playoff series to get them to a title. If Vanterpool ends up on the Clippers’ shortlist, he’ll have to use his interview to prove that he has what it takes to win in big moments in addition to his stellar day-in, day-out reputation.
4. Sam Cassell: If the Clippers are open to hiring from within their own staff and consider Rivers’ assistants as potential replacements, Cassell figures to get an interview. A high-profile NBA point guard through the 90s and 2000s, including playing a crucial role on LAC’s 2006 playoff run, Cassell has been an assistant coach since retiring in 2009 and joined the Clippers’ staff in 2014. Cassell has only received fledgling head coach interest at this point, most notably for the current Houston Rockets vacancy. Sam was drafted by the Rockets and was on the team for their 1995 title run, siphoning minutes from starter Kenny Smith as the finals went on after a 31-point performance in game 2. While Sam should be a legitimate candidate for the Clippers, it feels hard to find an argument for hiring him over fellow assistant Ty Lue, who has significant playoff experience as a head coach.
3. Dan Craig: Ok, here’s my left-field suggestion. Dan Craig, who lots of folks have probably never heard of, could be the kind of sneakily effective hire for the Clippers that Nick Nurse was for the Toronto Raptors and Erik Spoelstra was for the Miami Heat. Spoelstra, of course, started in Miami as a video coordinator and worked in the organization for 13 years before being promoted to head coach, where he’s become regarded as one of the best coaches in the league (if not the best). It only makes sense to look at the best’s right-hand man, and Craig followed a similar path to get to this point, starting with the Heat as a video intern in the 2003-04 season before working his way up through the video room staff, player development staff, and finally coaching staff. In a one-year detour, the Heat assigned Craig to coach their G-League affiliate–he broke the league record with a 40-10 finish in 50 games, won Coach of the Year, and won a championship. Craig hasn’t been mentioned a lot in rumors, but he should be the first call for any team looking for a young, innovative coach who can bring a slice of Heat culture after this awesome Miami run. The Clippers do love to surprise us.
2. Ime Udoka: While he isn’t still Popovich’s understudy in San Antonio, Udoka is seen as the most prominent Pop protege on the NBA’s coaching market. He sat on the Spurs’ bench from 2012-2019 after briefly playing for the team, and was widely thought of as the assistant most likely to inherit the head coaching position when Popovich retired until he departed to play a role on Brett Brown’s bench in Philadelphia last summer (he’s still likely to get mentioned for the Spurs job when Popovich retires). Ime has been a candidate for almost every head coaching opening this summer, and still has a strong shot of finding a HC job with so many openings remaining. He probably is going to go to a younger, middle-tier team, maybe in New Orleans, Indiana, or Oklahoma City, but he’s one of the most prominent first-time head coaching candidates on the market right now and would likely get the opportunity to impress the Clippers in an interview if they conduct a full, thorough search.
1. Tyronn Lue: The rest of this list is a combination of preference, intuition, and gossip, but Lue at #1 is hard to argue with. If you’re looking for a coach with championship pedigree, well, there’s two available, active coaches who have won an NBA title: Doc Rivers and Ty Lue. The Clippers just fired the first guy, and the second guy is already in the organization as Rivers’ top assistant. Before Rivers’ firing, Lue was almost a lock to leave the team this off-season as the top coaching candidate on the market. Now, he’s the heavy favorite to take over the new best opening in the league with the Clippers. It can be a little hard to get too excited over Lue’s great success on paper–three years in Cleveland with higher than 60% of his games won and 11 playoff series wins (1 championship and 2 finals losses)–because he had LeBron James on his team. When James left the Cavaliers, the team started the next season 0-6 and Lue was quickly let go. But while the context of James’ long track record of dominating the league is important, Lue wasn’t just some guy. He made a good name for himself as a head coach working with superstars, and was even able to confront James during games and go away from high-profile star Kevin Love when matchups required.
And while James is likely the best NBA player ever, he isn’t an automatic championship. During LeBron’s first stint with the Cavaliers, the team made just one finals appearance (a loss) in 5 years under Mike Brown. Even during his nearly-constant appearances since, James has lost the large majority of his finals series, winning three times: twice with the star-studded Miami Heat under Erik Spoelstra, and this title with Lue. We gotta give Ty at least some credit here.
If the Clippers conduct a full, honest search, Lue will have the most impressive credentials but could lose out to an impressive interview from another candidate. Remember, Lue is one of three guys who won a championship as a rookie head coach in the last several years (along with Steve Kerr and Nick Nurse). If the Clippers believe in their front office (as they do), they could try to add another name to that list with a first-time head coach. They could also choose to go away from Ty due to his prominent role in the team’s disastrous 2020 performance. But don’t take a delay as a sign that the team is seriously rejecting Lue–the Clippers very clearly went to significant lengths to make Rivers’ departure look amicable and mutual, and promoting his assistant immediately would be poor decorum in NBA coaching circles. It’s even possible that in lieu of a formal search, Lue’s hiring is a foregone conclusion, and he’ll be promoted in a couple of weeks (perhaps with a short list and some other interviews as a formality–or to find candidates to take on Lue’s former position as associate head coach, where former Clippers assistant and recently-fired Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry would be a stellar addition). We’ll just have to wait and see.
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