Ranking Top Head Coaching Candidates for the Boston Celtics

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJune 2, 2021

Ranking Top Head Coaching Candidates for the Boston Celtics

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    The NBA world was hit with some surprising news Wednesday morning when ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and The Athletic and Stadium's Shams Charania began reporting on the possible departure of Danny Ainge from the Boston Celtics.

    Within hours, Ainge, who has been an executive with Boston since 2003, was officially out. And Brad Stevens, the Celtics coach since 2013, was promoted to the front office.

    "Danny Ainge announced today that he is retiring from his role as President of Basketball Operations," the organization tweeted. "Brad Stevens has been promoted to the team's President of Basketball Operations."

    With little to no forewarning of the massive shakeup, the list of potential candidates to replace Stevens will take some time to come together, but a few names have already emerged. And, according to Wojnarowski, Stevens will be involved in the search to find his successor.

    "I'm excited for Brad," Ainge said of the move. "He was born for this."

    If his track record as a coach is any indication, Ainge may be onto something there. For now, one of the most storied organizations in the history of sports is in a somewhat unfamiliar position of uncertainty.

    Again, we'll surely learn more in the coming days and weeks, but there are already some possibilities floating around who might be tasked with taking Boston back to the top.

9. Mark Jackson

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    When a former coach or player stays in the limelight by transitioning to a prominent role in the media, their names always seem to be at least loosely attached to high-profile coaching searches.

    Such has been the case for color commentators Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy for years. But of course, visibility isn't the only reason you'll hear their names come up in relation to this Celtics job.

    For Jackson, who last coached in 2013-14, there's a decent track record for success on the defensive end.

    He was only with the Golden State Warriors for three seasons, but he laid a foundation that would help the organization through it's half-decade dynasty.

    During his first campaign at the helm, Golden State was 27th in points allowed per 100 possessions. In his last year, when the Warriors won 51 games, they were third.

    Boston was solid on the defensive end during Stevens' stint as the head coach, but there's an argument for reinforcing that. With a solid offensive coordinator, Jackson could find success with the Cs.

8. Jeff Van Gundy

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    Like his ESPN colleague, Jackson, Van Gundy's profile as an analyst on national TV keeps him in the forefront of fans' and analysts' minds for coaching jobs.

    Unlike Jackson, though, Van Gundy has maintained a side gig that may be keeping his coaching instincts sharp.

    He's been a USA Basketball coach since 2017, and not leading the national team sent to the highest profile events like the Olympics means his work may be more challenging than that of Mike Krzyzewski or Gregg Popovich.

    Van Gundy has led rosters devoid of NBA superstars to a 15-2 record in various tournaments throughout the years. And that connection to the modern game, in combination with his nearly two decades in the league, make him an intriguing candidate.

7. Ime Udoka

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    Some of the best player-turned-coach track records belong to former role players. Phil Jackson and Rick Carlisle are two names that come to mind. Both had multi-year NBA careers but achieved far more success from the bench.

    Such is the background for Ime Udoka, a former three-and-D specialist who played in the D-League, France, Spain and on five NBA teams.

    After retiring as a player, Udoka quickly moved into the coaching ranks, where he spent seven years learning from Gregg Popovich, before moving to the Philadelphia 76ers, and most recently, the Brooklyn Nets.

    With all his experience as a player and coach in America and abroad, Udoka would bring a unique skillset and perspective to Boston's bench.

6. David Vanterpool

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    David Vanterpool has been an assistant coach since 2013-14. And he's made enough of an impression around the league during his career that his being passed over for the Minnesota Timberwolves job this season was a bit of a surprise.

    For a defensive specialist, the numbers of teams like Minnesota and some of the Portland Trail Blazers teams he helped lead aren't great resume boosters, but coaching (especially for an assistant) is about more than numbers.

    Karl-Anthony Towns spoke up in support of Vanterpool after Chris Finch was hired to replace Ryan Saunders, which suggests an ability to connect with younger players. And a roster in Boston that includes Tatum, Brown and Williams has higher defensive upsides than the groups he's worked with in the past.

5. Lloyd Pierce

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    Shortly after news of the coaching vacancy broke, Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes reported on two candidates who'll get a look from Boston.

    "Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Jason Kidd and former Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce are expected to be head-coaching candidates for the Boston Celtics," Haynes tweeted.

    We'll talk about the former in just a bit, but the latter may come as a surprise to fans who paid attention to the NBA this season.

    Pierce has a good reputation as a developmental coach, but he was fired after going 14-20 in the Atlanta Hawks' first 34 games this season. His strained relationship with guard Trae Young was the subject of plenty of reporting, too. And an inability to align personally with young stars is a red flag in the player empowerment era.

    What's often ignored in retellings of this Hawks campaign, though, is that Pierce's dismissal happened the day before free-agency prize Bogdan Bogdanovic returned from a knee injury that sidelined him for nearly two months. Atlanta went 27-11 after Nate McMillan took over, but Bogdanovic only played in nine games under Pierce.

    On the season, the Hawks were plus-4.2 points per 100 possessions with Bogdanovic on the floor and plus-1.1 with him off. If he'd had access to a healthy roster, Pierce may have had more success.

    He didn't, though. And that puts him in the job market, where Boston suddenly finds itself, too.

    There's plenty of playoff experience among the Celtics' current group, but that doesn't mean it couldn't benefit from Pierce's developmental perspective. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams are all under 25.

4. Jason Kidd

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    Jason Kidd, the other candidate Haynes mentioned, has a head coaching record that screams mediocrity, but his path to that role was different than most.

    Kidd was a player in the 2012-13 campaign. The very next season, he was the head coach of a Brooklyn Nets team that featured veterans Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (after the now-infamous trade in which the Nets completely mortgaged their future).

    He went 44-38 that season and immediately turned around and pushed his way out and over to the Milwaukee Bucks. There, he went 139-152 over three-plus seasons, bringing his career winning percentage as a coach to 49.1.

    His defensive schemes in Milwaukee were the target of much ire, and the Bucks quickly found a higher level after he left, but Kidd now has a couple of years of seasoning as an assistant under his belt. And last year, he won a title along with Frank Vogel and the Los Angeles Lakers.

    In Boston, he'd have another shot with a young and moldable roster, but he'd likely need to be more flexible, too.

3. Chauncey Billups

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    Chauncey Billups is another name that hit the internet Wednesday morning, thanks in part to betting odds shared by NBC Sports Boston's Marc Bertrand.

    At +400, the outlet cited by Bertrand (SportsLine) sees Billups as the second-likeliest candidate to land the gig.

    Billups, of course, was drafted by Boston with the third overall pick of the 1997 draft, but it traded him midway through his rookie season.

    After that, he bounced around for several years before landing with the Detroit Pistons, where he became Mr. Big Shot and won a title in 2003-04.

    Coming full circle back to the team with which he started his career would make for a nice story, but that's not why he's a good candidate.

    Billups' leadership was one of his most important traits as a player. And he's already had mentor-like roles with the Pistons, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers (both as a player and as an assistant coach).

    He's also picked up valuable experience in 2020-21 working with a duo of star wings in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Tatum and Brown aren't on that level yet, but they may not be far off.

2. Jay Larranaga

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    There always seems to be at least one good in-house candidate in the running when jobs like this open up, and Boston assistant Jay Larranaga should certainly get a look.

    His name has come up in various coaching searches over the years, but he's returned each time to the Celtics, where he's been an assistant since 2012.

    In his nine seasons with the organization, Boston has made eight trips to the postseason, three of which ended in the Eastern Conference Finals.

    And as a longtime member of Stevens' staff, there is familiarity between him and the new president of basketball operations. He also has relationships in place with all of the current players.

    With their youth, the Celtics likely would've been on an upward trajectory had they maintained the status quo with Ainge and Stevens. Hiring Larranaga could keep that foundation in place while providing a new voice at the head of the coaching staff.

1. Sam Cassell

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    Sam Cassell is another candidate with Boston ties (though certainly not as strong as some others on this list), and he's the leading candidate for the job, according to the odds Bertrand posted.

    He finished his career as a player with the Celtics in 2007-08, and he landed his first job as an assistant with the Washington Wizards in 2009-10.

    He's been an NBA assistant ever since, with stints with the Los Angeles Clippers and currently the Philadelphia 76ers.

    He may not have the head coaching experience of Pierce or Kidd, but that's an extensive history of NBA coaching on the heels of a 15-year playing career.

    Cassell also won three titles as a player, including one with Boston, where he was a backup guard on the team led by Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.

    As someone who's been exposed to decades of NBA basketball, under the influence of various head coaches, Cassell would bring a wealth of experience to a young Celtics roster.

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