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NBA PM: Who Will Be Pacers’ Next Coach?

The Indiana Pacers need a new head coach, so we examine six possibilities for the job.



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Who Will Be Indiana’s Next Coach?

This afternoon, Indiana Pacers team president Larry Bird announced that the team would not be renewing head coach Frank Vogel’s contract, and while that means great things for the coaching searches in Houston and New York, it also means that the Pacers are now back to square one in finding a new coach.

Vogel had been the fourth-longest tenured head coach in the NBA before his release, but Bird made it clear that he wants his team to play smaller and faster in hopes of keeping up with some of the league’s other elite teams that are having so much success doing the same. Vogel wasn’t that guy, but perhaps somebody else could be.

Bird wants a “new voice,” and there are a number of strong candidates who could provide that. Here’s a look at six of the most likely candidates for that newly-opened position:

Mark Jackson

The minute it became clear that Vogel wouldn’t be back in Indiana, the first place a lot of Pacers fans’ minds wandered was toward former Indiana point guard Mark Jackson, and it’s a step in logic that actually makes quite a bit of sense. For starters, Jackson has obvious ties to the organization and to Bird, as he ran the point in Indiana under Bird when he coached the team from 1997-2000, a three-season stretch that saw the Pacers make the NBA Finals once and the Eastern Conference Finals all three years. Despite Joe Lacob’s having said that Jackson clashed with Golden State ownership, Jackson easily could have a better working relationship with Bird and the Pacers, which is a great start considering how Vogel resisted Bird’s dream for small ball and more three-pointers.

Beyond that, though, Jackson really didn’t have too bad a stint as the head coach of the Warriors. He not only was instrumental in laying the groundwork for Stephen Curry’s already-legendary career, he also got the Warriors to the postseason in the final two of his three seasons there. He’d almost certainly improve the Indy offense, and for the better part of two years he’s been a name that comes up as one of the best free agent coaches available. There’s no reason the Pacers shouldn’t at least have a conversation with him about the new opening.

Nate McMillan

There was a time a little over a decade ago when McMillan, who worked as one of Vogel’s assistant coaches this past season, was seen as one of the brightest coaching prospects in the league – doing good work as a coach in Seattle early on and even winning a Northwest Division title with the Sonics in 2005. He never got out of the first round as the main man in Portland, however, and he hasn’t had any head coaching opportunities since.

Still, Marc Stein of ESPN is reporting that McMillan could get a look for the Pacers’ head coaching job, which makes at least some sense considering his familiarity with the team and the organization:

Unfortunately, McMillan doesn’t represent much of a change in style or tempo for the Pacers, as Sean Deveney of The Sporting News points out:

It’s logical to interview the most qualified assistant when a head coach is fired, but he doesn’t look like the most obvious guy to get the job mostly because he wouldn’t be that big a shift from Vogel.

Brian Shaw

Of course, Stein also is hearing that former Denver Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw could get a look for the job, too. McMillan actually took Shaw’s job as lead assistant in Indiana back in 2014, a time during which Shaw was viewed as the next talented assistant coach to make the leap into the head coaching ranks.

He did, of course, but his results were not great. What should be of particular concern to the Pacers and Larry Bird is the way Shaw came about those results, totally revamping a 57-win Nuggets team that won by playing small without a traditional center into an “inside-out” team that slowed things down considerably and paid favor to hard-nosed veterans over talented young athletes.

Even the hard-nosed vets had issues sometimes, though, proven by Shaw’s feud with Andre Miller. It also was kind of amazing how quickly Ty Lawson fell apart once Shaw took over, and it’s no mystery how often Kenneth Faried went underutilized.

With the right roster, Shaw still could be a good coach, but like McMillan, his favored style doesn’t seem as though it will mesh with Bird’s vision for small ball. The guy definitely deserves a second chance, it just doesn’t look as though this is the place where he should get it.

Jeff Hornacek

It was just about two years ago that Hornacek finished second in voting for Coach of the Year, which means he’s not all that far removed from a being a fairly respected NBA head coach, despite his relative lack of experience and firing in Phoenix earlier this season.

That firing, though, came following a huge talent/salary purge that didn’t leave him much to work with, so considering how well he used his good young talent when he had it, nobody should be all that surprised that his name keeps popping up for head coaching jobs, including Indiana’s:

In terms of style, Hornacek is a whole lot closer to what Bird is seeking than McMillan or Shaw, as his Suns team back in 2013-2014 scored 105.2 points per game (seventh in the NBA) and finished eighth that season in offensive rating. He’s a coach who wants to play fast, and that run-and-gun style should suit Bird’s dream of smaller lineups much more closely.

He is a very logical potential candidate, so add Indiana to the list of teams looking to get an audience with Hornacek.

Jim Boylen

Not to be confused with former Chicago Bulls assistant coach Jim Boylan, current Bulls assistant coach Jim Boylen is a member of the famed Greg Popovich coaching tree that continues to see so much success across the NBA. Boylen was bumped up to the head assistant in San Antonio once Mike Budenholzer bolted for Atlanta in 2014, but when famed European coach Ettore Messina became available the following summer, Boylen took a step backward. Now he’s the associate head coach of the Chicago Bulls and reportedly on the list of candidates for the Pacers job:

Boylen is a defensive guy, the yin to Fred Hoiberg’s offensive yang, but while the results of that relationship didn’t reach anything approaching widespread success this past season, Boylen’s got plenty of experience (and success) working with head coaches that push the tempo and play small. Teams can’t get enough of that Popovich essence, and Boylen always was a guy who looked primed to get a shot at a head coaching gig at some point. Perhaps this is his time.

Ettore Messina

Or perhaps it’s Messina’s time. It would be cruel irony for Boylen to have the guy who inadvertently forced his demotion in San Antonio steal away a head coaching position he may have gotten, but so far there have been no reports that Messina is even on Indiana’s radar.

He’s listed here, though, because he should be. Messina actually was interviewed for the Lakers job but lost out on it because Luke Walton was their guy all along. Indiana, however, could give him a much more authentic look in the coming weeks.

Messina has four Euroleague titles to his name and has been named the Euroleague Coach of the Year two separate times. He also has the benefit of being Popovich’s lead assistant, which always is a check mark in the “pro” column when NBA teams are examining resumes for potential coaching candidates.

Stylistically he’s not a “small ball” guy by reputation, but his philosophy revolves entirely around spacing, which works well for Bird’s desire to shoot more threes. He does tend to work inside-out (and how could he not with that personnel in San Antonio), but that’s because he’s had so much success getting shooters open by being efficient inside. He preaches ball movement because that’s the style that works best in Europe, but there’s no reason he couldn’t improve the Pacers’ offense. He also happens to be one of the most experienced candidates out there.

More names are sure to be thrown around in the coming days as potential Vogel replacements, but for now these seem like the guys with the best shot at getting Bird’s ear. Firing Vogel has brought out either disappointment or relief in people so far, and their coaching selection should only serve to deepen those emotions.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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