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NBA: Free Agent Head Coaches

Cody Taylor looks at the top free agent head coaches. Keep an eye on these individuals as jobs open up.

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As the NBA season reaches its halfway point, teams out of the playoff race will begin to think about next season. With the trade deadline just over a month away, teams will begin trading off players for long-term assets and financial flexibility. In that same light, front offices will begin evaluating their coaching staff to determine if there is a better candidate out there that could lead them in the right direction. The process of bringing in a new head coach often takes place during the offseason when the coach can bring in his own staff and start looking for players that best suits his system. While head coaching positions could open up during the season, teams rarely bring in their long-term head coach mid-season and instead opt to promote an assistant until the end of the season.

This list looks at some of the best candidates currently not coaching. While we’re just focused on coaches who are unemployed, it’s worth noting that assistant coaches like Alvin Gentry, Nate McMillan and Lawrence Frank could be mentioned as possible candidates down the road too.

Mark Jackson – 121-109 (.526): It’s clear that taking on Mark Jackson as a head coach comes with added baggage. Jackson’s issues with Warriors ownership are well-documented, but lost in all of that chaos is the fact that he did help transform the team into playoff contenders in the Western Conference. Since his split from Golden State, Jackson has earned praise from Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle and even the man who took over his job, Steve Kerr. Jackson has demonstrated a strong trait any successful team needs from their head coach: the ability to earn the trust of his players. Many players spoke up upon Jackson’s departure from Golden State to voice their praise for him, including Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Jackson never lost that locker room, or the respect of his players. Jackson previously met with the Sacramento Kings earlier in the season, but no job was offered and the meeting was downplayed by all involved. Jackson transformed a team from a lottery squad to a playoff squad and there’s no reason to think he can’t do it again.

George Karl – 1131-756 (.599): If there is one thing to know about George Karl, it’s that he wants to coach again. It’ll likely take the right situation and right contract for Karl to get back into the game, but he’s ready. The right situation for Karl will likely be a team that he views as just one piece away to take that next step in competing for a title. Karl said on his radio show on SiriusXM that he feels that he has one more stint left in him, lasting between three and five years. Karl likely would not waste his five years left on a rebuilding team or a team that will not be contending during his window. The team most linked to Karl is the Kings. There have been reports that have surfaced since the Kings’ meeting with Jackson that say that get together occurred only to try to leverage their way into getting Karl and that they had no real interest in Jackson. The Kings seem like a good destination for Karl as they have shown the ability to win games with strong coaching — they were on pace for roughly 40 wins when Mike Malone was fired.

Mike Malone – 44-75 (.370): While there have been some surprises thus far this season, perhaps no move was more shocking than the Kings firing Mike Malone. The team was 9-5 at one point this season and showed signs of life under Malone. Instead, Malone was let go and the Kings have gone 5-8 since he left and look to be in a real funk. It often takes a really bad team in order for a head coach to get fired mid-season, which just adds to the shock of his firing. Malone earned the trust of his players and it’s said Malone played a factor in the franchise re-signing Rudy Gay. Malone likely is a prime example of a coach that would be brought in over an offseason to allow time to assemble his staff and start over. As the season progresses and the possibility of more coaching jobs open up, Malone should be a prime candidate for general managers to call.

Jeff Van Gundy – 430-318 (.575): No coaching search is complete without mention of Jeff Van Gundy. The current ESPN/ABC analyst always seems to be in the conversation when a head coaching job opens up but he has yet to find the deal that suits him. He’s had a strong stance in recent years not to comment on any open position, but it seems like it’d take the right situation for Van Gundy to leave broadcasting. He said in a recent interview on the Dan Patrick Show that he’s grown accustomed to broadcasting, but it still doesn’t compare to coaching. It was reported over last summer that the Memphis Grizzlies were interested in offering Van Gundy a position similar to the one his brother, Stan, has with the Detroit Pistons as head coach and team president, but nothing ever came of it. Van Gundy hasn’t held the title of head coach since the 2006-07 season when he guided the Houston Rockets to a playoff appearance.

Mike D’Antoni – 455-426 (.516): D’Antoni resigned from one of the most prestigious head coaching jobs in the league last year and is said to still have his eye on coaching again. Like all of the other candidates on this list, it’d likely take the right situation to bring D’Antoni out of free agency, but he should be looking to reinvent himself after his days with the L.A. Lakers. D’Antoni made the best out of a bad situation in Los Angeles, dealing with the feud between Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant and injuries to Steve Nash and Pau Gasol (among others). D’Antoni has been regarded as a coach with no defensive principles, but what he’s done on offense just can’t be ignored – his Suns teams had some of the best offenses in league history. It’s hard to believe that D’Antoni’s last impressions on the league will be his days from the Lakers. He’ll likely get another shot elsewhere at some point.

Avery Johnson – 254-186 (.577): The former Coach of the Year could be a candidate for a playoff team looking to go in a different direction. Johnson led the Dallas Mavericks to a Finals appearance in 2006 and was let go two seasons following that run. Johnson wasn’t able to put it together with the Brooklyn Nets and was let go after going just 14-14 in what was his last season in Brooklyn. Since then, Johnson has re-joined ESPN as an analyst and appears set in his current position, but has left the door open to return to a good situation. Johnson has said publicly that his ideal situation would be one with great ownership and a star player, similar to what he had with Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas. The New Orleans Pelicans could be a situation to keep an eye on as Ric Bucher reported that Johnson could be a candidate to join the Pelicans should they fire Monty Williams.

For most of these candidates, it’ll likely take the right situation to pry them away from their current jobs. However, as openings surface, keep an eye on these individuals.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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