With Frank Vogel out, the Pacers are looking for a new coach.
Pacers president Larry Bird has been insistent that his team push the ball, shoot threes, and score more points. Vogel didn’t get that done to Bird’s satisfaction, so the search is on for someone who will.
Few other hints were offered yesterday as to the criteria for the hire. Being a former player seems not to matter, despite Bird consistently citing his experience as a player for his thoughts on building the team. The coach doesn’t need to have been an NBA head coach before.
He ruled out former teammate Kevin McHale, who was fired in November after a disappointing start for the Houston Rockets despite leading them to the Western Conference Finals six months before.
These lists are exercises in silliness, especially with Bird as the hiring manager. Outguessing Bird is impossible (see the drafts of Paul George and Miles Plumlee as two examples with wildly divergent results), but that doesn’t keep us from trying.
Here are the top 10 entries as the candidates for the Pacers job are vetted:
10 – Mark Jackson – 100-1. Everyone I have spoken to affiliated with the Larry Bird coached teams for which Mark Jackson was the point guard says that Jackson undermined Bird’s authority at every turn. Residue from that acrimony must remain for Bird, who has a very good memory. Jackson did a great job of helping the Golden State Warriors get to the point where they could contend for a championship, but he was fired in favor of Steve Kerr a year prior to their first title.
9 – Tom Crean – 55-1. The Pacers want offense, and Crean has built the Indiana Hoosiers into an offensive dynamo. The Hoosiers consistent rank among the top offensive teams in college basketball without anything resembling the most talented roster. When Crean’s name popped into my head as a novelty, it made me snicker a little bit. But when I thought of the Pacers needs and Crean’s work in Bloomington, it became less silly. Larry Bird and Tom Crean would be the NBA’s Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, but this might be an idea worth vetting for Bird.
8 – Mike Woodson – 20-1. A hometown favorite who can flat coach. In six years as head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, Woodson led the team to more wins every season, and then was inexplicably fired in 2010. The Knicks hired Woodson, and they went 72-34 in his first season and a half. The dunderheaded James Dolan hired Phil Jackson to run the franchise after Woodson’s second full season ended with a disappointing 37-45 record, and Woodson was fired. Woodson wins, but that doesn’t seem to be enough for potential employers.
7 – Randy Wittman – 18-1. Another Indy native, there is no doubt Wittman can coach, but it he the right guy to lead the Pacers at this point in their development? In seven full seasons as an NBA coach and parts of three others, Wittman has gone to the playoffs twice, and never been to the conference finals. That had more to do with his roster than his coaching acumen, but replacing Vogel with a coach that hasn’t reached his level of success despite coaching 251 more games will be a tough sell – even in Wittman’s home town.
6 – Mike D’Antoni – 12-1. Pacers want offense. D’Antoni would bring a dynamic offense. He would also bring a defense that makes scoring a ton of points necessary. D’Antoni is a reflex choice because offense = D’Antoni, but with talented players, he wins. Without them, he loses – just like every other coach in the NBA.
5 – Kevin McHale – 7-1. Bird flat-out stated he will not consider McHale for the position during yesterday’s presser, but there are times when Larry just says things. This is not likely one of those times, but the possibility exists that he was. Despite rumors of Bird and McHale having a strong dislike for one another, if McHale is the right guy for the job, why not hire him for the good of the franchise?
4 – Ettore Messina – 13-2. This is always a name advanced by the pundits when a gig opens, and Messina is front and center here. Gregg Popovich hired the Euro hoops guru as an assistant with the Spurs, and he is likely to be a very good leader when he gets the chance. Does Messina want to leave the Spurs and their relentless annual deep runs in the playoffs to take a shot at getting Paul George & Company to the next level? That’s as big a question as whether Bird wants him to.
3 – Nate McMillan – 6-1. After spending 12 seasons as a head coach with Seattle and Portland, McMillan came to Indiana as a replacement for Brian Shaw when he was tabbed by the Denver Nuggets as their coach. McMillan has been a pro in his reduced role, and deserves consideration, but are his core offensive philosophies in line with Bird’s?
2 – Brian Shaw – 4-1. This seems to be the most popular pick despite the failure of Shaw to fulfill his promise as a head coach in Denver. Shaw was reportedly instrumental in the development of the Pacers as an assistant for Vogel. When Shaw left for Denver, it seemed like the Pacers’ mojo went with him.
1 – Someone we haven’t anticipated – 3-5. This is the easy and likely correct choice. Bird knows a lot of people we might not even consider, and it would be a surprise if this pool of many isn’t where Bird lands for his next coach.
Whomever coaches the Pacers next, he better be an improvement over Vogel, or it will define Bird’s legacy as the Pacers chief architect.
Kent Sterling hosts the fastest growing sportstalk show in Indianapolis on CBS Sports 1430 every weekday from 3p-6p, and writes about Indiana sports at kentsterling.com.