Head-to-Head: Best Coach Available

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With five head coaching openings around the NBA, we asked Eric Pincus, Moke Hamilton and Jessica Camerato to debate over who the top candidate on the market is:

Jeff Van Gundy

Since his latest foray into the coaching profession ended back in 2007, Jeff Van Gundy has been linked to almost any and every job opening that has materialized.

And the main reason why is because Van Gundy is renowned both amongst some of his former players and front office executives as a coach who is authentic, intelligent and both a great communicator and motivator. Those are assets that any successful NBA head coach must possess.

With a 430-318 regular season win record, Van Gundy boasts a very respectable .575 win percentage. He is 44-44 in the playoffs, including an improbable run to the 1999 NBA Finals after his eighth-seed New York Knicks shocked the top-seeded Miami HEAT in the first round of that year’s playoffs.

Although Van Gundy couldn’t lead his Knicks all the way to being NBA Champions, the way he led the team in the aftermath of Don Nelson’s abrupt firing in 1996, his building a successful offense around Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston and the way he unified his locker room after disharmony engulfed it in the wake of the trade that saw franchise mainstay Charles Oakley dealt for a neophyte by the name of Marcus Camby, it all left quite an impression on those who observed the way that Van Gundy kept his troops together.

Although he failed to have the same sort of success as head coach of the Houston Rockets, Van Gundy maximized the pieces that he was given and helped most of his players elevate their games, including both Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady.

In a brief conversation with one of his former players, he lit up at the mere mention of Van Gundy. Eyes wide and nodding his head, Shane Battier did not hold his tongue when asked to share a few words on his former coach.

“I loved playing for him,” Battier said. “There was no situation that I have faced in a game that I wasn’t prepared for.

“Our teams were always prepared, always played hard and if you wanted a winning culture, he was your guy.”

That’s a sentiment that all of Van Gundy’s former players would agree with, even those who he had a tough time motivating, including, at times, the aforementioned McGrady. The same can be said about Steve Francis. Francis and Van Gundy had a major falling out in Houston immediately prior to Francis’ trade to the Orlando Magic back in June 2004, but Francis is on record as saying that he never doubted that the changes that Van Gundy requested of him were all done in the name of winning.

Hard-nosed defense, offensive synergy and counter-attacking: Van Gundy’s core beliefs. He utilized them over his 11-year head coaching career, and to much success.

Now, even seven years after he left the profession, the impression that Van Gundy left on the league and on his former players is experienced by basketball watching Americans on a daily basis: honesty, rationality and fairness.

Van Gundy, though he did not interview, was widely believed to be high on the wish list of Mikhail Prokhorov last summer when the Brooklyn Nets had a coaching vacancy. Van Gundy exchanged text messages with New York-based TV Network SportsNet New York, intimating that he did not have serious interest in the job.

Still, that has not stopped he and his agent from being asked questions about job openings.

Even as the league has become a culture that has fallen in love with the idea of hiring young and fresh first-time head coaches, Van Gundy’s name always ends up being thrown around when a coach is on the brink of losing his job.

After leaving the coaching ranks seven years ago, that has been a constant—much like his being the object of affection across many front offices.

- Moke Hamilton

Alvin Gentry

There are several former head coaches who are out of work, itching to get back on the sidelines. Losing a head coaching job, though, doesn't necessarily mean leaving the bench. There are former head coaches who are still on a staff and are qualified to return to that lead role.

Alvin Gentry's head coaching experience began nearly 20 years ago. Since then, he has assumed that role during more than 10 seasons. Most recently he was head coach of the Phoenix Suns before parting ways with the team in January of 2013.

Gentry wasn't out of work for long. Last summer Doc Rivers remodeled the Los Angeles Clippers coaching staff when he was hired as head coach. He brought Gentry, who had previously been head coach of the team, on board as the associate head coach.

While some former head coaches were away from the league this season, Gentry was in the thick of it. Not only was he on the staff of an NBA team, he helped coached a contender. The Clippers earned a 57-25 regular season record and reached the Western Conference Semifinals, where they fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6.

As the coaching carousel continues to turn, Gentry's name has been in the mix to fill vacancies for teams including the Cleveland Cavaliers and Utah Jazz. Given his time spent around the game, he has ties with several organizations and players who know his work firsthand.

Gentry already had enough previous coaching experience of his own to make him a candidate for a head coaching position. Compile that now with a season working alongside a championship-winning coach in Rivers (as well as assistant coaches from the 2008 Boston Celtics title team) and he is primed to return to the helm with added knowledge and experience to lead a new team.

- Jessica Camerato

Mark Jackson

“Mama there goes that man,” is one of Mark Jackson’s many catch phrases.  He’s back on the sidelines, working for ESPN after three seasons as head coach of the Golden State Warriors.

Jackson was let go by the Warriors, despite compiling a 121-109 regular-season record, including 51 wins this past season.

Before his arrival, Golden State had averaged just over 30 wins a season for three years.  Jackson’s rookie campaign wasn’t much to look at (23 wins) but the Warriors quickly made the jump to 47 (followed by a first-round win over the Denver Nuggets and a six-game loss in the second round to the San Antonio Spurs).

The Los Angeles Clippers knocked the Warriors out in the first round in a hard-fought seven-game battle.  Jackson helped is team challenge the Clippers despite losing center Andrew Bogut to a rib injury.  Power forward David Lee was out a year ago for almost the entire postseason with a hip issue.

So why was Jackson let go exactly?

Behind the scenes, Jackson didn’t have the same philosophy as the Warriors’ ownership/management team.  What exactly transpired may not ever be 100% certain, but Jackson is currently the best NBA coach without a job.

He took a defense-less Warriors squad and got them to prioritize both sides of the ball.  He found a combination of players that worked against the Clippers, with undersized forward Draymond Green giving All-Star forward Blake Griffin a difficult time.

The Warriors finished the 2012-13 postseason with high expectations after their second-round appearance, but roster changes (Andre Iguodala in with Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry out) and a difficult Western Conference gave the impression the Warriors under-performed.

They didn’t – 51 wins in the West with the personnel and in-season injuries was an accomplishment.

Jackson was loved by his players.  They struggled to understand why their coach was embattled by the front office.

If Jackson needs to improve, perhaps he needs to learn how to be a better politician to the executives above him – but he’s a great leader who understands how to communicate to the young players in today’s game.

NBA analyst is a much easier job than head coach.  The hours are better and your night’s sleep isn’t based on the scoreboard.

Jackson can afford to wait until the next, right opportunity presents itself.  His competitiveness will land him on an NBA bench soon enough.

- Eric Pincus

Who do you think is the top coach on the market and where would they fit in the best? Leave your thoughts below!