NBA coaching candidates: Big names, top prospects and wild cards

Knicks expected to be patient in coaching search (1:09)

Bobby Marks breaks down the reported list of candidates for the Knicks' head-coaching position and a timeline for a decision. (1:09)

The first round of the NBA playoffs hasn't concluded, but already head-coaching vacancies have materialized in New York, Orlando, Charlotte and Phoenix, with decisions on interim coaches to be made in Milwaukee and Memphis (sources suggest the Grizzlies are quite fond of J.B. Bickerstaff, who may stick around long term), in addition to other spots where upheaval may or may not occur (Detroit, Atlanta, LA Clippers).

The pool of coaching talent might be more impressive than ever, but so are the position's degree of difficulty and the expectations that come with it. The Bucks' job, should the team move on from interim head coach Joe Prunty, is an encapsulation of the allure and potential landmines of the present-day job of NBA head coach.

The Bucks' upside is tantalizing, with Giannis Antetokounmpo primed to become one of the most dominant players in basketball over the next decade. Yet the ownership situation in Milwaukee is a complicated one, with the governorship changing hands in 2019. The Bucks have built a strong infrastructure -- new facility, better systems, a top-flight performance program and a new arena set to open in the fall -- yet it's an organization that has been beset by palace intrigue in recent years.

So the success and failure of their head coach next season won't necessarily be determined by how much strongside pressure the Bucks exert on D, or whether Giannis is best utilized as a 5-man in a continuity offense. The responsibilities are far more holistic -- placating owners, earning a superstar's trust, maintaining good diplomatic relationships with a young front office and getting everyone on the roster to accept their roles.

Over the course of the season, we spoke to nearly three dozen executives, coaches and current and former players to get a sense of what the job is in 2018, and those who might do it well. A number of prominent themes surfaced:

Context is everything. Not every head-coaching job in the NBA carries the same job description, and before a franchise makes its selection, it has to consider where the team resides in its life cycle. A team undergoing a full rebuild might want a teacher who has the patience to adopt the long view (see Atkinson, Kenny). A team stacked with egos and on the verge of contention will need someone who can manage those personalities.

A team in flux (e.g. Charlotte, Orlando) requires flexibility and a willingness to change course on the fly. In the Bucks' case, they want to win now, but still need to be schooled on habits, schemes and the ways of winning.

That said ...

You're a CEO, not a coach. Whether you're in Milwaukee, New York or anywhere else, there have never been more constituencies to manage, egos to massage and information to synthesize.

Forget the fact that a coach has to earn the trust of 15 world-class athletes. There's also an owner who may be bleeding money and has decided the coach is in large part to blame, the folks on the business side who want him to make a public appearance while there's still five hours of film to watch, a staff of assistants who need a jolt of morale, and a highly paid sports scientist who thinks he has been mismanaging the workload of the one productive player who can get him out of his current mess.

And that's Monday.

Worry about the player, not the playbook. We observed in Memphis how a highly regarded coach can run afoul of management if he locks horns with a well-tenured franchise player. Whatever side one takes of the David Fizdale-Marc Gasol impasse, the outcome sent a strong signal to the league: Head coaches are expendable in a way top players aren't.

"Fake hustle" is retrograde. Work ethic, preparation and a willingness to perform the humdrum tasks of the job are vital, but any head coach who can't get out of the training facility by 6:30 p.m. on a non-game day may be putting on airs. Welcome to the era of work-life balance, where "not having a life outside basketball" is more a detriment than an asset, a demonstration that a coach might lack a native curiosity of the greater world that can actually help him do his job, relate to his players and colleagues and generally be a pleasant person to be around. The season is far too long and concentrated to approach the job otherwise in a league where "playing with joy" is the new imperative.

As teams with openings survey the coaching talent pool, they'll recognize a few subspecies among the candidates. We've been performing this exercise since 2013 (five of the seven names on that list were subsequently hired as head coaches). Our 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 lists included Quin Snyder, Atkinson and Tyronn Lue. Following are some names that have been cited by some -- or many -- as head-coaching material.

The list, while comprehensive, is not complete. The pool is deep, with coaches now cutting their teeth internationally or in the G League, as well as the more traditional routes such as on the assistant bench. Plenty of other names are certain to emerge.

The employed and the restless

What happens when a prestige coach who signs up to lead a team to contention finds himself staring at a rebuild? Such is the case for the Hawks' Mike Budenholzer, regarded among players and execs as one of the league's top tacticians and culture-builders. Though Budenholzer has taken himself out of the running for the Suns' opening, that won't deter other teams from inquiring about his availability and interest. If Atlanta and Budenholzer parted ways, owner Tony Ressler and general manager Travis Schlenk would lose an elite coach, but would have an opportunity to hand-pick a coach who conforms to their vision and who would most likely come at great savings.

In Los Angeles, Clippers coach Doc Rivers will be entering the final year of his deal, a moment when a franchise and coach generally conduct substantive discussion about the future, though it has been quiet between the Clippers and Rivers. Like Budenholzer, Rivers was both relieved of his duties last year as the organization's chief basketball operations exec and is looking at a team in rapid flux. Rivers acquitted himself well in this capacity this past season, but a high level of transition might not appeal to him long term.

The big names

A franchise seeking to make a splash with fans and players will often turn to a prestige name, though such candidates are few and far between in the league at this moment in time.

Over the past several years, teams looking to fill a vacancy have frequently reached out to ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy -- who coached the United States national team in the AmeriCup last year and previously coached the Rockets and Knicks -- to gauge his interest in returning to the sideline.

Jerry Stackhouse, featured in this space last year, has coached the Toronto Raptors' G League team to consecutive finals appearances, winning the title last season. A fierce competitor, Stackhouse puts a premium on game prep and has become quite the film maven. Many insiders regard Stackhouse as the most likely candidate in the field this year to get a first-time job.

Both ESPN analyst Mark Jackson and Turner analyst Kevin McHale are eager to get back into the coaching ranks. Jackson has reportedly been contacted by the Knicks for their opening, and McHale is on the Suns' list of potential candidates.

When we've asked executives over the past five years to identify a name from the NCAA ranks most likely to succeed in the NBA, Villanova's Jay Wright is a distant first choice -- and that's before the Wildcats cut down the net a few weeks ago. Wright is a consummate communicator who has gotten more out of less and is sure to wow an owner.

The retreads

"Retread" carries a negative connotation, but there's something to be said for learning from experience. Witness Terry Stotts of the Portland Trail Blazers, who didn't win in his previous two spots but has evolved into one of the steadier head coaches in the NBA. Dwane Casey was run out of town prematurely by the Minnesota Timberwolves a decade ago, but has flourished in Toronto. Nate McMillan was thought to be a practitioner of snail's-pace, old-school basketball, but no coach overachieved with his roster this season more than the 13-year NBA coaching veteran did in Indiana.

Accordingly, Fizdale took his lumps with the Grizzlies and learned how hard it is to institute a culture. But popular opinion around the league -- particularly among current and former players -- says he's still a coach who can develop, relate and inspire, and one who has learned from his mistakes.

Likewise, Monty Williams, Steve Clifford and Frank Vogel are similarly regarded as capable NBA head coaches with the requisite experience to succeed if they landed in situations more favorable than their previous ones.

Mike Brown, who is second chair to Steve Kerr with the Golden State Warriors, is looking to get back in the game. Has the light-hearted vibe in Oakland loosened up a self-identified obsessive-compulsive and made him more conducive to present-day conditions in the NBA?

There's a consensus around the league that Jason Kidd will get consideration for the Phoenix opening.

The assistant class (the young guns)

Toronto assistant Nick Nurse (whom we featured in 2016) came in as the leading vote-getter in our informal survey as most likely to succeed as a first-timer. Any team looking to install a coach who will patiently teach a young core to play the right way and systematize an offense will likely find Nurse to be a compelling prospect.

Hornets assistant Stephen Silas earns similar praise for his temperament, development approach and interpersonal skills with players. His interview for the Houston opening in 2016 made the race with Mike D'Antoni a strong two-way contest, and Silas now has two months under his belt as the Hornets' interim head coach this season.

Utah assistant Igor Kokoskov's name was mentioned in multiple conversations as a bright coach. He led Slovenia to a EuroBasket gold medal in 2017 and has a gift for connecting with players regardless of background, skill set and demeanor.

Philadelphia assistant Lloyd Pierce is a name to watch in the coming years. He was named by the most diverse set of sources, from technocratic execs to veteran players. They admire his gravitas and cerebral strategic approach, but also value his ability to establish trust with players from LeBron James to Dario Saric.

David Vanterpool and Nate Tibbetts have been a nice tandem in Portland and are fixtures on front-office lists of coaching prospects for their ability to establish trust with players and colleagues and their natural positivity.

Warriors assistant Jarron Collins checks a ton of boxes. He's both a former player who was the consummate locker room guy, but also a full-on geek who grinded as a scout before landing on the bench. He is at heart a basketball intellectual who loves creative problem-solving.

Jimmy Butler has stated that Adrian Griffin was essential to his development as a star. Over the past four seasons, Griffin, 43, has gotten interviews with the Cavaliers and Magic for their head jobs.

New Orleans Pelicans assistant Darren Erman still has plenty of fans around the league who are willing to look past his messy departure from Golden State in 2014 and focus on his preparation, affability and tactical know-how.

The assistants (Spurs U)

Wearing the San Antonio Spurs' seal of approval during an interview process provides a head-coaching prospect with credibility, as does a call from Gregg Popovich testifying to the candidate's character and acumen -- typically in that order. A long list of current and recently former assistants in San Antonio will see the inside of a conference room this offseason.

Ettore Messina, 58, is one of basketball's true luminaries, a coach who has won four EuroLeague titles and served on the staff in San Antonio since 2014.

James Borrego spent the latter half of the 2014-15 season as the interim coach in Orlando (with only a single assistant coach after the purging of Jacque Vaughn's staff). He was a strong runner-up in Memphis in 2016 and is commended for his vision and character.

Becky Hammon has continued to acquire all the necessary résumé items -- from player development as a gym rat to stints as a head coach in summer league -- and brings a diversity of life experience that general managers value.

The Spurs regard Ime Udoka as an exceptional teacher with an even temperament. He commands respect as a journeyman who defied the odds to build a successful NBA career.

Lastly, though he's several years from serious contention as a head-coaching candidate, young assistant Will Hardy was mentioned by several executives as a coach on the rise.

The assistant class (the lifers)

Don't sleep on the graybeard in his 50s or 60s who has forgotten more about NBA basketball than many an up-and-comer knows. No assistant has helped his cause more this season than the Rockets' Jeff Bzdelik, who spent 192 games as the head coach with the Denver Nuggets during the aughts. Bzdelik helped transform a potentially porous defense in Houston into the No. 6 squad with a tight, switch-happy scheme poised for a matchup with the Warriors.

Every year, a handful of brainy head coaches name longtime Pacers assistant Dan Burke, who has spent 21 seasons with the club. They see a coach's coach who has earned an interview for his acumen and deeply understands that the NBA is all about the players -- an essential ingredient in 2018.

A considerable number of league executives cite former Spurs assistant Jim Boylen, now with Chicago, as a basketball lifer with the smarts, temperament and experience to excel in the first chair.

The wild cards

Few potential candidates have received more feelers in recent years than Turner analyst Brent Barry, who is respected for his self-awareness, communications skills and knowledge of the game. With his kids almost out of the house, he's poised to enter the basketball operations world -- but possibly first as an exec, a la Steve Kerr.

The Knicks have reported interest in David Blatt, who endured a tumultuous tenure in Cleveland, where he compiled an 83-40 record, as well as Kenny Smith, a fixture on Turner's "Inside the NBA" for years.

The old college try

For years, when NBA franchises went fishing in college waters, they went after larger-than-life personalities accustomed to being the star of their respective programs. Two decades later, the league has learned its lesson: Instead of the tyrant, hire the teacher (see Stevens, Brad), someone who will recognize that, in the NBA, a coach must sublimate his ego.

Outside of Wright, University of Virginia coach Tony Bennett is oft-cited as the college coach most likely to be tabbed for the NBA. He spent a little more than two seasons in the NBA as a point guard and has honed his craft as a coach impeccably. Fans of Bennett say any concerns that he plays a more deliberate style of ball are overwrought; coaches adapt, particularly one as pragmatic as Bennett.

University of Texas coach Shaka Smart has suffered through a couple of underwhelming seasons and elicits a mixed reaction among league insiders, but some say he'll present exceptionally well in an interview.

The next wave

Budenholzer has sprouted a branch of the San Antonio coaching tree, having watched Snyder and Atkinson move on in recent seasons for top jobs. Current assistant Taylor Jenkins has the potential to be a successful NBA head coach, according to those who have worked with him in the San Antonio and Atlanta organizations.

Speaking of Snyder, Jazz assistant Johnnie Bryant landed on the radar when Gordon Hayward referred to him as "the best there is" in his "Thank You, Utah" letter last summer. It's one thing to earn hosannas from a star, but Bryant cut his teeth as the Jazz's summer league coach and has established a rep among the younger set as a coach who loves getting on the floor with 1 through 15.

Miami Heat assistant Juwan Howard is a valued member of the team's family, who rave about his work with players and his upside.

Denver assistant and Barcelona native Jordi Fernandez has risen quickly -- from solid workout guy to D League assistant to D League head coach, and now to Michael Malone's staff. Fellow assistant David Adelman has plenty of admirers around the league, as well.

From his start with the Shamrock Rovers in the Irish league to Brett Brown's staff, 76ers assistant Kevin Young has fans in what's becoming one of the more admired staffs in the NBA.