B/R NBA Staff Roundtable: Best Fits for Every Head Coaching Vacancy
The Oklahoma City Thunder have parted ways with Billy Donovan in a somewhat surprising move first reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The head coach had defied the odds after moving on from both Russell Westbrook and Paul George, propelling the Thunder to a fifth-place finish in the Western Conference and taking the Houston Rockets to seven games in the opening round of the playoffs.
With the move, the NBA's total number of head-coaching vacancies increases to five. Three of the open jobs (the Thunder, Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers) are for teams that earned playoff berths in 2019-20, and two previously available positions have since been filled by Tom Thibodeau (New York Knicks) and Steve Nash (Brooklyn Nets).
It’s a good year to be a head-coaching candidate or new hire. Every position comes with the promise of either immediate contention (Brooklyn, Philadelphia), a winning culture (Indiana) or a young foundation that should create a breeding ground for sustainable success (Chicago Bulls, New Orleans Pelicans, Oklahoma City)
The NBA has done a terrific job supporting its young coaches and building a bullpen of promising candidates. Whose individual talent and leadership qualities best fit each respective franchise? Here are our picks.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Billy Donovan was simply superb in 2019-20, winning 44 games and nearly advancing to the second round of the playoffs despite a complete offseason roster overhaul. Still, he and the Thunder have agreed to part ways, and Chris Paul issued a puzzling message to fans that feels very much like a goodbye.
It appears the Thunder are prepared to shake up their roster yet again, possibly to focus on truly embracing a rebuild around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. If so, they’d be wise to bring in a fresh face ready to embrace the challenge and grow alongside this young core.
Enter David Vanterpool.
Few have proved their mettle in the coaching ranks over the past 10 years quite like the 47-year-old. In 2010, he came back stateside after playing and coaching abroad to serve in a scouting position under the very same Thunder and current general manager Sam Presti.
“His way of being driven through a process, having your research and pulling up every stone to get as much information as possible as you make decisions,” Vanterpool told Britt Robson of The Athletic about Presti. “Your mind. Your eyes. Your ears. The data. Everything helps drive the decision so you can trust that process, whether the decisions are popular or unpopular. He taught me that big-time.”
In a 2019 survey of NBA general managers, Vanterpool’s name was tied for first among the best assistant coaches, per Robson.
In 2012, he was hired as an assistant coach for the Portland Trail Blazers, where he truly blossomed and deserved praise for his work with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. When he became an associate head coach with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2019, Lillard posted a touching note on Instagram, saying it was the day he’d hoped would never arrive.
Vanterpool has both the track record and preexisting relationship with Presti to give him a leg up on the competition.
New Orleans Pelicans
After a disastrous bubble performance, the New Orleans Pelicans opted to part ways with Alvin Gentry. Executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin has promised a slow and steady approach to finding the team's next leader.
Ty Lue is a popular name given his championship pedigree and previous connection to Griffin in Cleveland. However, if he desires a veteran-fueled, win-now opportunity, Brooklyn, Philadelphia or even Houston may be a better fit. Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni is in the final year of his contract.
The Pelicans need a motivator who fits their timeline, such as Los Angeles Clippers assistant Sam Cassell.
Cassell has been lauded for his work with John Wall, Bradley Beal, Chris Paul, Austin Rivers and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and has been touted as a "guard whisperer." If he made similar progress with Lonzo Ball, it could transform the Pelicans into a title contender.
The Washington Post's Michael Lee reported Cassell was a viable candidate for the Rockets position in 2011. Cassell may not have been ready then, but now armed with 11 years of experience with both the Washington Wizards and Clippers, he should be ready to take the seat.
Regardless of how well the Houston Rockets do this postseason, the expectation in NBA circles is that head coach Mike D'Antoni will move on as a free agent.
After firing Nate McMillan, the Indiana Pacers could join the modern NBA offensively by hiring D'Antoni.
The Pacers play old-school basketball with two bigs in the middle (Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner). They attempted a league-low 28.0 three-pointers per game this past season, too.
D'Antoni would change that immediately, which could lead to roster changes (and Turner's exit via trade).
Kenny Atkinson has a reputation as more of a developmental coach, someone you want in charge at the start of a project but who won't necessarily get you across the finish line. However, he never received a crack at coaching the Nets' revamped roster in full.
The Philadelphia 76ers are caught somewhere between a project and a contender. They fancy themselves the latter, but the roster they've assembled around their two stars, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, doesn't reflect as much.
Atkinson isn't a cure-all for what ails them; too much of that is personnel driven. Yet his teams, built with far less talent, have usually overachieved on defense. And if there's someone who can coax three-point volume out of Simmons—and the Sixers in general—it's him.
If nothing else, Philly seems like it could use the play-hard culture of accountability he laid in Brooklyn, even though it never got the chance to translate to a roster with bigger names.
There are two ways to think about what type of coach the Chicago Bulls need. Neither is wrong.
Option 1 is an A-to-B coach—someone who can whip this team into shape and develop good tendencies. A competent tactician. Kenny Atkinson, Nate McMillan and Alvin Gentry are a few possibilities.
Option 2 would be rolling the dice on a younger assistant and hoping to strike gold. Someone who can relate to players, develop young talent and grow in a bigger role. The Bulls have historically chosen coaches without head coaching experience: Jim Boylen, Fred Hoiberg, Tom Thibodeau, Vinny Del Negro. Some possibilities include David Vanterpool, Ime Udoka and Darvin Ham.
I'll go with Wes Unseld Jr., who's more in line with Option 2 but still has good experience.
The Denver Nuggets assistant is credited with developing the likes of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. He's a defensive-minded coach who has experience with new executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas (who has already brought over Pat Connelly as vice president of player personnel.)
The fit, the connection and the upside make Unseld a top choice and leading candidate to fill the Boylen-sized hole in Chicago.