Which Open NBA Head Coaching Gig Will Be the Most Challenging?

Ben Leibowitz@BenLeboCorrespondent IIIJune 10, 2014

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 13: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers share a laugh during their game at Staples Center on January 13, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Now that the Utah Jazz have decided to bring in former Atlanta Hawks assistant Quin Snyder—and Minnesota Timberwolves part-owner and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders has appointed himself to patrol the sideline—there are just three two vacant NBA coaching positions remaining.

The Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers are still searching for ideal fits after the two Mikes—Brown and D’Antoni, respectively—were relieved of their duties. The New York Knicks were among the stragglers waiting to hire a new coach, but Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck reports via Twitter that Derek Fisher has accepted the position under president of basketball operations Phil Jackson:

As the lone teams left hunting for a coach, the Cavs and Lakers are facing significant challenges. Neither made the 2014 playoffs as they combined for 60 wins—fewer than the San Antonio Spurs.

Despite their woes, both had an All-Star representative: Kyrie Irving and Kobe Bryant.

Of course, “The Black Mamba” was voted in despite appearing in just six games. The 35-year-old future Hall of Famer still has to prove he can return to an All-Star-caliber level following two severe injuries—an Achilles tear and a fractured lateral tibial plateau.

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Irving, meanwhile, is trying to reach the postseason for the first time in his young career. Cleveland is expected to offer him a max contract this summer, per The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto, but “Uncle Drew” may choose not to accept it. That murky stance casts some shadows on the Cleveland job’s overall appeal.

Both of these organizations is in a state of turmoil, but some outlooks are bleaker than others. These gigs have their inherent pros and cons, but which holds claim to being more challenging?

Cleveland Cavaliers

Mar 30, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown (center) stands with assistants Bernie Bickerstaff (left) and Jim Boylan during a game against the Indiana Pacers at Quicken Loans Arena. Cleveland won 90-76. Mandatory Credit: Da

The Cavaliers’ coaching vacancy wasn’t one of the more favorable jobs at the start of the offseason, which is a major reason why it’s still up for grabs.

University of Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari was reportedly offered a gargantuan contract to fill the position, according to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski and Brett Dawson. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert wanted him to become the team’s coach and president of basketball operations, joining a select few around the league who hold both titles.

ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 07:  Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats motions to his players during the NCAA Men's Final Four Championship against the Connecticut Huskies at AT&T Stadium on April 7, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Per the report from Wojnarowski and Dawson, the 55-year-old turned down a seven-year deal worth more than $60 million in favor of staying with the Wildcats on a seven-year, $52 million contract. ESPN.com later reported that it was actually a 10-year offer worth nearly $80 million.

There are two ways to interpret those reports.

The "glass half full" outlook for Cavs fans is that Gilbert is clearly committed to building the franchise back to LeBron James-era prominence. He has no qualms about spending money to turn the franchise around, which is exactly what fans want out of a sports owner.

On the opposite end of that coin is the cynical outlook. Regardless of which report is more accurate, Calipari turned down additional millions to stay at Kentucky. Even that unfathomable amount of money wasn’t enough to woo him away from the collegiate atmosphere in favor of Cleveland.

Perhaps Coach Cal was apprehensive after watching Brown get canned just one year into the five-year, $20 million deal he signed during the 2013 offseason.

Regardless of your viewpoint, Cleveland’s current state of affairs actually points toward a promising future.

A core of Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson, along with the potential of 2013 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett—who had some solid performances in February after a dreadful start—certainly isn’t a bad starting point. At the very least, those players contribute youth and scoring.

Also, as a positive note, the rumored rift between Irving and Waiters appears to be nothing but hot air. Veteran forward Luol Deng said in April, “They love each other,” per the Cleveland News-Herald’s Bob Finnan.

October 23, 2012; Cleveland, OH USA: Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving (2) and guard Dion Waiters shake hands during a preseason game against the Indiana Pacers at Quicken Loans Arena.  Mandatory Credit: Eric P. Mull-USPRESSWIRE

Of course, that fails to mention that the Cavs hold the No. 1 overall pick in 2014—their third top selection over a four-year span. They could easily move forward with a rock-solid prospect like Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker.

Getting a plethora of young guys to buy into a completely different system could prove difficult, but there’s an opportunity to win over the locker room after a roller coaster season under Brown.

Los Angeles Lakers

Apr 16, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni gives direction to his team during the first half against the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Taking over a youthful roster with a dueling-banjo scoring tandem—Irving and Waiters—has its fair share of challenges. Heading into a situation where you have to earn the respect of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash is a completely different animal.

Nash is a pretty easy-going guy—and honestly, he may not be able to contribute much next season if his back problems continue to flare up, as they did throughout 2013-14.

Bryant, however, demands excellence and a winning culture.

PHOENIX, AZ - JANUARY 15:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers watches from the bench during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center on January 15, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees th
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The star shooting guard ripped management and called the team out for a vastly disappointing season back in March.

“Oh, yeah, let’s just play next year and let’s just suck again. No. Absolutely not,” he said, per the Los Angeles Times’ Mike Bresnahan. “It’s my job to go out there on the court and perform, no excuses for it, right? You’ve got to get things done.”

Whether it was fair of Bryant to add the latter insight is up for debate, considering he was able to suit up for only six games due to injury.

Even though D’Antoni was working with a core of Nick Young, Pau Gasol and Jodie Meeks for much of the year, he became the scapegoat for L.A.’s injury-stricken disaster of a campaign.

He resigned after general manager Mitch Kupchak refused to ensure the additional year on his contract, which prompted Bryant to say in an interview on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live, “Honestly, I didn’t care,” via ESPN's Dave McMenamin.

Lakers legend Magic Johnson took Bryant’s frustrations to another level by tweeting the following:

Let’s just say that expectations in Lakerland are always going to be at a ridiculously high level, regardless of the roster in place.

Speaking of which: What exactly do the Lakers have to work with?

There’s Bryant, Nash, Robert Sacre and the non-guaranteed contract of Kendall Marshall—far from a playoff-caliber core.

The Lakers have cap space and the No. 7 overall pick in the 2014 draft, but that isn’t much of a silver lining.

When asked if he’d consider coaching the Lakers, ever-candid TNT analyst and NBA legend Charles Barkley said, “I’m not jumping on a bad job,” per the Reno Gazette-Journal’s Dan Hinxman.

Additionally, Sporting News’ Troy Machir wrote, “The next coach must be able to blend a cast of players with Bryant, which has never been easy for coaches not named Phil Jackson.”

If Bryant isn’t able to play at a high level throughout next season—when he’ll be 36 years old—the coach who succeeds D’Antoni will be in for an ongoing test of wills.

Excluding Cleveland's winter climate, the Cavs’ job is actually more favorable at this juncture. There’s less uncertainty in terms of filling out the roster, and Cleveland could potentially bring in a franchise-altering star with the No. 1 pick later this month. It also plays in a much weaker Eastern Conference.

The Lakers are a storied franchise with plenty of history, but that past success continues to bring on unjust expectations from Bryant and fans.