The Top Candidate to Fill Every NBA Head Coaching Vacancy

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    Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

    The NBA’s coaching carousel got a few more open seats during a chaotic news day on Wednesday. The New Orleans Pelicans parted ways with Stan Van Gundy after just one season, and the Washington Wizards opted not to renew Scott Brooks’ contract.

    These two openings join four already available jobs: the Portland Trail Blazers, Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic. There could be more coming, too. If the Milwaukee Bucks lose to the Brooklyn Nets in the second round, there is widespread speculation that Mike Budenholzer will be fired. And given the uncertainty in the Dallas Mavericks’ organization (the team parted ways with longtime president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson on Wednesday), there’s reason to wonder if Rick Carlisle could be next out despite recent reassurance from Mark Cuban.

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    As it stands right now, here are the top candidates for each of the currently open head coaching jobs.

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    The Celtics appear to be going the route of hiring a first-time head coach from the NBA’s deep pool of talented assistants, and hiring a Black coach is also said to be a priority. There are plenty of qualified candidates who fit that mold, but one name that immediately jumps to mind is Sam Cassell. He has interviewed for head coaching jobs before and has another year of playoff experience under his belt having followed Doc Rivers from the Clippers to Philadelphia.

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    Cassell also has a connection to the franchise. He spent the final season of his playing career in Boston and played a key bench role on the Celtics’ 2008 championship team. 

    The Celtics seem to be casting a wide net with their search, but if they want someone with a strong reputation as an assistant coach who will also go over well with the fan base and has been in line for a head coaching opportunity for a while, Cassell checks all the boxes.

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Stotts has been widely connected to the Pacers opening, including by B/R’s Jake Fischer, since Indiana fired Nate Bjorkgren after one disastrous season at the helm. Following the failed Bjorkgren experiment, it seems likely Pacers president Kevin Pritchard will go for an experienced coach. Stotts just left Portland following a nine-year run that included eight straight playoff appearances and a 402-318 record, making him the second-winningest coach in franchise history.

    Stotts also has local ties. He played high-school basketball in Bloomington in the 1970s and was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019. 

    The Pacers are a franchise that has always been reluctant to rebuild and seem focused on chasing playoff contention every year. This just feels like a natural fit for both sides.

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    Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

    The Pelicans parted ways with Stan Van Gundy after just one season on Wednesday, and there have been two internal names already strongly linked to the job: Theresa Weatherspoon and Fred Vinson.

    Weatherspoon, a highly decorated former WNBA player, joined Van Gundy’s staff last offseason and has previous experience as a collegiate head coach at her alma mater, Louisiana Tech.

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    Vinson, meanwhile, has been with the New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans organization since 2010 and has worked under their past three head coaches—Monty Williams, Alvin Gentry and Van Gundy. ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday afternoon that he’s expected to get strong consideration for the job given his reputation and seniority within the organization.

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Darvin Ham is another longtime assistant whose name routinely shows up on lists of the next NBA head coaching candidates. Teams in the beginning stages of a rebuild are typically more open to hiring a first-time coach than contending teams are, and Ham is a logical choice for Orlando.

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    Ham has been with Mike Budenholzer since 2013, first in Atlanta and now in Milwaukee, and he has a reputation as a sharp defensive mind with a background in player development.

    That’s exactly the profile the Magic should be looking for following their complete teardown at the trade deadline.

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Other names have come up in Portland’s coaching search—Mike D’Antoni, Becky Hammon and Dawn Staley are known to have interviewed or are planning to interview. But if it’s Neil Olshey calling the shots, it would be a surprise if the choice ends up being anyone other than Billups. 

    The two go way back. Olshey was the general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers when Billups signed there in 2011, and Olshey has often compared Damian Lillard favorably to Billups as a leader and locker-room presence.

    As a bonus, Lillard himself publicly endorsed Billups’ candidacy after the team parted ways with Stotts (Lillard’s first choice, Jason Kidd, pulled himself out of the running). With more rumors swirling than ever about Lillard’s happiness in Portland, hiring a coach that the superstar point guard appears to be on board with is a priority, and Lillard is on record saying he likes Billups.

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    Blazers ownership ultimately has to sign off on any hire, and it’s always possible they have something else in mind. But if the choices are Chauncey Billups or the field, bet on Billups.

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    The Wizards are going in a different direction after Scott Brooks’ contract ended. While no firm candidates have emerged, one name that would make a lot of sense would be Denver Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr.

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    Unseld interviewed for a few jobs during last offseason’s cycle, including the Chicago Bulls’ opening (Billy Donovan was ultimately hired), and his reputation is as a great defensive mind. He also has an obvious connection to the Wizards—his late father is the greatest player in franchise history dating back to the Baltimore Bullets days and also coached the team in the early 1990s.

    It would be a great story, as well as a deserved opportunity, for an up-and-coming coach who has put in his time as an assistant.

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