Sources: Bulls, Nets gauge Jackson

The Chicago Bulls have reached out to Phil Jackson through back channels to gauge his interest in returning to the franchise he won six NBA titles with, two sources with knowledge of the situation told ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard.

There has been no direct contact between Bulls officials and Jackson, Broussard reports, but sources close to both parties have spoken and come away with the belief that Jackson would be open to a potential reunion in Chicago next season.

Bulls general manager Gar Forman refused to comment on the club's coaching search when reached Monday night by telephone.

And Chicago is not the only team that has registered interest in a coaching reunion with Jackson in conjunction with a planned free-agent pursuit of LeBron James. NBA coaching sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein on Tuesday that the New Jersey Nets have made similar back-channel inquiries about their chances of luring Jackson away from the Los Angeles Lakers.

After 11 seasons and two championships as a player with the New York Knicks, Jackson's first coaching experience came with the Nets during the final two seasons of his active career in 1978-79 and 1979-80, when he served as a player-assistant under Kevin Loughery.

Nets president Rod Thorn denied any form of contact with Jackson in an interview Tuesday afternoon with AOL Fanhouse, while Lakers spokesman John Black told the Los Angeles Times that the team is not aware of Jackson being contacted for any coaching vacancy.

"Not to my understanding," Black told the newspaper. "Obviously, if they were to contact him, it would be tampering."

Said Thorn to Fanhouse: "It's not true. We've never approached him. We haven't made any backdoor dealings or whatever it was called.''

Asked if the Nets would pursue Jackson should he leave Los Angeles at season's end to become a coaching free agent, Thorn said: "I anticipate he's going to stay with the Lakers. He's got a great situation there."

Earlier Tuesday, ESPN.com reported that the Nets privately acknowledge the long-shot nature of tempting Jackson away from L.A., given the 64-year-old's recent insistence that he's "90 percent" certain he'll coach the Lakers if he coaches anywhere next season. Yet sources with knowledge of New Jersey's thinking have maintained for weeks that new owner Mikhail Prokhorov is determined to make the splashiest hire he can to enhance the Nets as part of the quest to sign marquee free agents such as James.

Chicago, meanwhile, is on the verge of its most pivotal offseason since the Michael Jordan Era, when Jordan and Jackson led the club to separate three-peats from the 1990-1991 to 1992-93 seasons and the 1995-96 to 1997-1998 seasons.

With roughly $23 million to spend in free agency, the Bulls are widely regarded as the biggest threat to Cleveland's hopes of re-signing James. The Ohio native is intrigued by the possibility of playing with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, according to sources, and the return of Jackson would only make the Bulls that much more attractive to the Cavaliers' two-time MVP.

Jackson, in the final year of his contract with the Lakers, likely would be interested in coaching Chicago again only if James signed there. If Jackson and James joined the Bulls, Jackson would have the unparalleled opportunity to have coached Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and James.

The Bulls and Nets are two of six teams in the league with a coaching vacancy, along with New Orleans, Atlanta, Cleveland and the Los Angeles Clippers.

Jackson publicly acknowledged last week before the Lakers' Game 2 victory over Phoenix in the Western Conference finals that owner Jerry Buss wants him to take a pay cut from the $12 million salary he's receiving this season. That could open the door for the Bulls, as well as the Nets or even the Cavaliers, to make a run at Jackson.

Jackson, though, announced in early May after Vinny Del Negro's firing that he would not be interested in the Bulls' job, saying: "No, I'm not. I think it's a wonderful job for whoever takes it. It's a team on the rise and there's some young talent that showed their ability to come back after probably a devastating first two months. Then from January on they played pretty well."

The focus on Jackson's uncertain future has steadily increased over the past two months, especially since his two best players -- Bryant and Pau Gasol – signed contract extensions during the season.

On March 26 in Oklahoma City, after a report surfaced earlier that day that he had already decided to return next season, Jackson said: "No decision and no leaning at all. I'm leaning against the wall and that's about it."

Jackson modified that line earlier this month when asked about a recent radio interview with Fox Sports Radio's "The Petros and Money Show" during which he suggested that he might choose to retire from coaching after this season. Before Game 1 of the Phoenix series, Jackson said: "I'm leaning on a podium, that's about it."

Jackson is scheduled to meet with reporters again before Tuesday night's Game 4 and is sure to field more questions about his future.

During his Fox Sports Radio interview, when asked to assess the chances that he retires at season's end, Jackson said: "Well I think it's pretty good. It's really about how I feel about getting into another 82-game season. It's a commitment."

Jackson is NBA's all-time leader with 10 championships as a coach and coached the Bulls from 1989 to 1998. Since leaving Chicago, Jackson has maintained a friendship with Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.

The Nets' association with Jackson certainly doesn't compare to what he achieved with the Bulls, but Prokhorov's presence and presumed willingness to pay top dollar would seemingly give New Jersey -- along with Cleveland's free-spending owner Dan Gilbert -- more hope of meeting Jackson's salary demands than the Bulls, who are regarded leaguewide as reluctant spenders.

With the help of part owner Jay-Z, one of James' closest friends, New Jersey intends to pursue James as hard as Chicago in free agency despite last week's disappointment in the draft lottery. The Nets, after going 12-70, only landed the No. 3 overall pick and lost the opportunity to draft Kentucky's John Wall, another James pal. But New Jersey realizes, like the Bulls and Cavaliers, that prying Jackson away from L.A. could be as valuable in the recruitment process as signing another marquee free agent to play alongside James.

Thorn, though, told the Newark Star-Ledger in Tuesday's editions that he has yet to schedule an interview for New Jersey's coaching opening. When the Nets finally complete the fact-finding phase of their coaching search, Thorn told the newspaper he intends to interview "four to six" candidates, with sources saying that ESPN analyst Avery Johnson and Boston Celtics assistant coach Tom Thibodeau are already on that list. The Star-Ledger reported that the Nets are also likely to reach out to Mike Brown, who was fired Monday as coach of the Cavaliers.

In his Fanhouse interview, Thorn dismissed the link to Jackson by saying: "There's been a lot of publicity about our new owner and that we want to have a good team and we want to be in the hunt [and] that we're willing to do a lot of things monetarily."

The Bulls also have strong interest in Thibodeau, known as the architect of Boston's stout defense, but The Associated Press reported Monday night that the New Orleans Hornets have begun working on a contract for Thibodeau. Other Bulls candidates besides Thibodeau, according to the Chicago Tribune, are Houston Rockets assistant coach Elston Turner, Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach Maurice Cheeks and former Nets coach Lawrence Frank.

Information from ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard, ESPN.com's Marc Stein and ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin was used in this report.