After publicly sending the message that good isn't good enough with the dismissal of Mark Jackson, the Golden State Warriors need to find greatness in their coaching search.
Jackson was a master motivator, but it's hard to say how many other areas are addressed under the "skills" category of his resume.
As far as the defense performed under his watch (third in efficiency) is concerned, a large portion of the credit belongs to both former assistant Darren Erman and general manager Bob Myers (acquiring Andre Iguodala last summer, drafting Draymond Green the year before that). Defense was all Jackson could hang his hat on, too, since the offense looked so much better on paper than it did on the hardwood (12th in efficiency).
The Warriors are better now (98 wins over the last two seasons) than they have been in decades. The front office has gambled on that success coming in spite—not because—of Jackson's presence, a bet that would carry a nearly fully guaranteed payoff if Golden State can lure Van Gundy back to the Bay Area.
The mustachioed play-caller is the best available coaching name, and it's not even close.
During his seven full NBA seasons, his teams averaged a 10.1 offensive efficiency ranking and a 5.7 rank at the opposite side. Three of his teams finished with a top-seven efficiency mark, while five had a top-six standing or better at the other end.
The numbers impressed on their own, but it's the way his teams compiled those stats that's truly remarkable.
NBA coaches mold talents, but Van Gundy went against the grain during that process. Rather than force his system onto the pieces at hand, he built a strategy around what he had.
He went the conventional route with the Miami Heat, keeping two bigs near the basket and relying on Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal to find their offense. After taking over the Orlando Magic, he worked to maximize Dwight Howard's impact by involving him in pick-and-rolls or spreading the floor with four shooters for his post isolations.
Van Gundy has never had the type of weapons Golden State can offer, but his mind is sharp enough to maximize their effectiveness:
There’s one clear choice for the #Warriors: Stan Van Gundy. Known as the best Xs and Os guy, can improve offense and maintain defense.— Jimmy Spencer (@JimmySpencerNBA) May 9, 2014
That's not a claim any other available coach can make.
George Karl and Mike D'Antoni could guide powerful offenses, but the Dubs' defense might face a major regression. Lionel Hollins could maintain the defensive dominance, but his lack of offensive creativity and his front-office clashes might have a certain Jackson-esque feel.
There's even risks with Phil Jackson's favorite, Steve Kerr. The former executive and current TNT analyst clearly understands the game, but knowing it and coaching it are two different things. He's never done the latter, and it sounds far more likely he'll take his first gig with Jackson's New York Knicks as opposed to Joe Lacob and Co.'s Warriors:
Warriors haven't had serious talks w/ Kerr in days, w/ owner Joe Lacob rapidly joining management in believing Stan Van Gundy's best choice.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) May 12, 2014
The Warriors worry that Kerr is "too deep" in negotiations with the Knicks to back out now, sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Ian Begley. The two sides are said to be "getting closer" on an agreement.
Assuming Kerr is out of the equation, Van Gundy now finds himself atop the team's coaching list. Long rumored to be one of the Warriors top two candidates, he now appears to be running unopposed:
Talks intensifying between Warriors and Stan Van Gundy, per sources. Van Gundy now Golden State's clear top choice. Moving towards a deal.— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) May 13, 2014
Van Gundy, of course, is more than simply an obtainable candidate. His body of work speaks for itself, putting him in a separate category from all other available names—Kerr included.
"Stan would be an ideal fit. He's a great developmental coach, he'd be great for Steph Curry and Klay Thompson," Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix said during an appearance on 560 WQAM's Joe Rose Show. "If he gets that job, which I think it's barreling toward at this moment, I think it's going to make them much better."
The problem here, though, is that Van Gundy is good and knows it.
NBA source: Stan Van Gundy told the Warriors he wanted total control of basketball decisions. They declined. He could get that in DET.— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) May 13, 2014
As Kawakami alluded to, the Warriors are not the only team chasing Van Gundy.
The Pistons, of course, can't offer the same caliber of personnel as the Warriors. Golden State, though, can't promise Van Gundy that same level of influence, which may prove to be the deciding factor:
Golden State officials met with Van Gundy in Florida on Monday and left convinced he was leaning toward Detroit deal, sources tell Yahoo.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) May 13, 2014
This doesn't mean Van Gundy is out of the running for Golden State, but rather that getting him to sign on the dotted line seems like more than a formality:
Stan Van Gundy could and may yet end up as the Warriors' choice. But it sounds like there are steps to go on this.— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) May 13, 2014
Whatever work needs to get done to get that ink on the paper should get done. This is a tremendous fit for both parties.
Short of luring Tom Thibodeau away from the Chicago Bulls—with three years left on his contract and no draft picks to provide real compensation—Van Gundy is as good as the Warriors can do in this search. He's not above having some cringeworthy moments with the media, and there may be an adjustment period with the players not used to the direct challenges he'll issue, but the success will make it all worthwhile.
With the bar set above this season's results (51 wins, sixth seed in the West), the Warriors need a coach capable of hitting the ground running. Van Gundy, who's never missed the playoffs during his seven full seasons, could be that coach.
For the coach, he'd have a hard time getting a team to scratch as many itches as the Warriors can.
During an appearance on Orlando's 740 AM Open Mike show, Van Gundy said he grew up in the Bay Area and was a "huge fan" of the team during his childhood (h/t Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel). He'd inherit a roster ready-made for 50-plus wins and be able to keep that core largely locked in place for the next two seasons, per ShamSports.com.
The Pistons might offer control, but where would he find hope in Detroit? With more than $21 tied up in each of the next two seasons between Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith, Van Gundy would already be starting behind the eight ball. Andre Drummond's future looks brilliant put his present is still raw, and Greg Monroe may either walk for nothing or chew up a big chunk of the available cap space.
Plus, Detroit has never been a premier destination for NBA free agents. The Pistons might have a mid-level lottery pick, but if they fall back from the No. 8 spot it will belong to the Charlotte Bobcats.
How desirable is the captain's chair on a sinking (sunken?) ship? Would roster control really trump the potential for contention?
The Warriors need Van Gundy, and he needs them. It's important that message gets delivered before either side makes a critical mistake.