Who wants to be the Pacers next coach for three seasons? Five tops.
In explaining why he let a popular and well-respected coach in Frank Vogel go, Pacers president Larry Bird says he doesn’t think a coach should be with a team more than five years because the voice and message gets stale. You hear that Gregg Popovich, your message is stale. As a side note, no doubt that coaches’ agents heard Bird’s words — they want a place their client can succeed and stay long term, Bird seemed to take part of that equation off the table.
So who is up next in the big chair for the Pacers? Not Kevin McHale, but besides him. The amazing Candace Buckner of the Indy Star had five names she has heard, let’s take a close look at them.
• Mike D’Antoni. Forget the year’s thing, the real reason Frank Vogel is out in Indiana (and about to make another team’s defense much better) is he wouldn’t play small and fast lineups as much as Bird wanted. That will not be an issue with Mike D’Antoni, who is currently under contract as a Sixers assistant. Before you say “his team’s stink on defense” remember that his Suns teams were middle of the pack in defensive rating (back then fans and most media members were just starting to talk about pace and per-possession stats, all they saw was the points allowed per game by the Suns). Yes, his first two seasons with the Knicks and his Lakers teams struggled defensively, and that is certainly not D’Antoni’s focus, but part of the issue with those teams’ defense was the personnel.
I believe D’Antoni can coach a contender in this league, but it comes with the caveat that you have to give him his players to fit with his system. He needs to win his way (he tried to adjust in Los Angeles, but that was a disaster all around). If Bird brings him in, he needs to put together a D’Antoni roster.
• Mark Jackson. The former Pacers star guard helped develop the talent that is winning championships and setting records in Golden State. And he certainly was willing to play fast while getting them to defend. However he comes with concerns: How involved he was in the details of running the team was questioned by Warriors management, he clashed with multiple assistants, and he created an “us against the world” locker room mentality where “the world” included management. Bird has to be sure this someone he can work with.
• Brian Shaw. His Denver teams played fast — third and fourth fastest in the NBA his two seasons there. Of course, they didn’t defend very well, didn’t execute well, and Shaw struggled to relate to younger players, but they did play fast. The Nuggets let him go to bring in someone they thought could develop a better culture (Mike Malone). His assistant coach resume is impressive (being on Phil Jackson’s staff with the Lakers), did he learn and gro from his first time in the big chair?
• Randy Wittman. This is a head scratcher. Not because the gruff Wittman can’t coach — he knows the game and got his teams to defend — but he prefers to play big and slow, and when forced to go smaller and faster this season in Washington his team struggled. If Bird wants to play fast, Wittman is an odd choice. But if he wants and old-school coach, this is his guy.
• Mike Woodson. Another bit of a head scratcher if Bird wants to play fast, but Woodson’s Hawks teams got better each season he was there. The offenses weren’t creating — remember “iso Joe?” — but his teams defended and played smart ball. He could get the job done; the Pacers would play smart under him.
If I were a betting man, I’d have my money on Pacers’ assistant Nate McMillan, a former NBA head coach and someone comfortable with the Pacers players and organization. It would be a smooth transition, and his teams would play faster.
But is he — or any of these guys — an upgrade over Vogel?