Ranking The Coaching Vacancies

 —  April 4, 2005

It’s going to be a buyer’s market. Or a coach’s market. When the Lakers go searching for a coach this off-season there are going to be more good vacancies open than experienced, winning coaches available. Phil Jackson and Flip Saunders — as well as Larry Brown if he leaves Detroit (creating another tempting vacancy) — will have multiple teams that need them.

To help those coaches out, here is a purely subjective ranking of the top six coaching vacancies available this off-season as of right now.

6. Portland. The upsides here are plenty — an owner who can spend money and a team with only $38 million committed for next year (that’s $40 million off the books from this season). Some good young talent on the roster in Zach Randolph, Sebastian Telfair and Darius Miles, although you’ll need more. As coach, you have a team option on Nick Van Exel (but at $12 million is he worth it) plus you can try to resign Damon Stoudamire or Shareef Abdur-Rahim if you want to (although I think you don’t). Fans are frustrated now but with the right coach/team philosophy, plus some key free agency pickups, the Blazers can be good again pretty soon. This is a chance for a coach to mold young players and get free agents in. Phil Jackson is supposed to meet with Paul Allen in late April.

5. Orlando. It starts with Dwight Howard, this is a team with a future star in place for a coach to mold and mold a team around. You’ve got Grant Hill (pray he stays healthy) and Steve Francis for a few more years. You’re also paying Doug Christie and Kelvin Cato more than $8 million next year, but they are expiring contracts that may be able to be moved. This is a team that is going to need to be reshaped in the coming few years, but its core is in place. Plus, it has never been hard to get free agents to come to Florida to play.

4. New York. This could be the job to have staring in the 2007-08 season when the weight of a $100 million payroll holding down the franchise starts to come off the books. However, for the next couple of years it is going to be challenging. You do have Stephon Marbury, Knickerblogger favorite Michael Sweetney, and Kurt Thomas — this team is not chopped liver, you can make the playoffs in the East with these guys, but not contend. The big upside is there is no bigger stage than Madison Square Garden and your owner will spend as only New York team owners can. However, any coach is going to have to work closely with Isaiah Thomas — that may be hard for Phil Jackson, who wants a lot of player control.

2 (tie). Minnesota. For a coach that wants to win a title now, this may be the best choice. It starts with getting to coach Kevin Garnett — plus there is some good talent around him. Latrell Sprewell is gone, Cassell is still on the payroll (even if he is unhappy), Fred Hoiberg gives you a great shooter plus there are solid players like Eddie Griffin. The coach needs to get this team to play defense, or get players who will defend. There is $48 million on the payroll next season but only $35 million the year after that (goodbye, Michael Olowokandi), so you can go get good players (and they will come to play with Garnett). While they have had a bad year, this is a team that knows how to win and can do so again now.

2 (tie). Lakers. Like Minnesota, you get to coach one of the best players in the NBA in his prime, Kobe. There is other talent on this roster — Lamar Odom, Caron Bulter — and some solid guys who can come off the bench. The challenge is getting together a roster that can play defense and can mesh on offense. There is $68 million committed in salary next year and $50 million the year after that, so there will be no big moves unless you can move a key piece, such as Odom or Butler. The upside is this is a storied franchise with an owner who demands winning, he will give you what you need to get back to the mountaintop. But it is going to be a couple of years before it all comes together.

1). Cleveland. There are two big attractions here. First is LeBron James. The second is new owner Dan Gilbert — he is energetic and rich like a Mark Cuban, but in a much better place with this team. You have until LeBron’s deal is up (two more seasons) to convince him to stay, but there is plenty at your disposal. The Cavs only have $28 million in salary committed next season — although you need to resign Zydrunas Ilgauskas. You can go out and get free agents and shape this team around King James. Within two years this is a team that should be competing to come out of the East each year for a decade to come, and your owner will spend what it takes to get you there. Handle this properly and it is the perfect NBA job.