Who are the top NBA head coach candidates with multiple vacancies around the Association? The Milwaukee Bucks’ decision to fire Mike Budenholzer less than two years after leading them to an NBA title created yet another opening. The Phoenix Suns (Monty Williams) and Philadelphia 76ers (Doc Rivers) also followed suit after premature playoff exits.
There isn’t a limited number of candidates to fill the openings. From former NBA head coaches to top assistants, we will see some of these openings filled by those already doing their thing in the pros.
On the other hand, some top-end collegiate coaches might want to make the jump to the NBA. The are also some under-the-radar possibilities that don’t fit into any of these categories. Without further ado, let’s check in on the top NBA head coach candidates of the current cycle.
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Former NBA head coaches
It only took Nurse five seasons as an assistant to earn an NBA head coach job with the Toronto Raptors back in 2018-19 after replacing Dwane Casey in that role. In his first season as the Raptors’ head man, Nurse led them to a win over the dynastic Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. That would represent a high-water mark in five seasons in this role.
Fired after a disappointing 41-41 season in Toronto, Nurse is now among the top NBA head coach candidates of the cycle. The 2019-20 Coach of the Year is respected big time as a defensive mind, something that could very well intrigue the aforementioned Bucks moving forward.
Dating back to his days as an assistant under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio for 17 years, Budenholzer has always been a respected figure. Despite it taking that long to earn a head coach gig, he has now had success at two different stops.
Budenholzer led the Atlanta Hawks to four playoff appearances in five seasons, including overseeing an Eastern Conference-best 60-22 team in 2014-15. Unfortunately, a lack of playoff success cost him his job in Atlanta. He was hired almost immediately by Milwaukee, posting a .693 winning percentage before being fired earlier this spring. That span included the 2021 NBA championship. It remains to be seen if Budenholzer will get another shot this cycle. But he’ll be a head coach at some point moving forward.
Related: NBA head coaches react to Mike Budenholzer’s firing
Most believe that Atkinson got a raw deal in Brooklyn. He took over a sinking ship and rebuilding program back in 2016-17, only to lead the Nets to a surprise playoff appearance two seasons later. Atkinson was then replaced on an interim basis by Jacque Vaughn after the 2019-20 season resumed in the Orlando Bubble.
Known for his ability to work with young stars, Atkinson has been a top-end NBA head coach candidates in recent cycles. He actually earned the Charlotte Hornets job last offseason before opting to return for a second season as Steve Kerr’s top assistant with the Golden State Warriors.
Rivers’ lack of postseason success was the primary reason the Philadelphia 76ers opted to move off him. Philly boasted a 3-2 series lead over the Boston Celtics in the second round of the 2023 NBA Playoffs, only to lose the final two games. It represented the third consecutive second-round exit for the 76ers under Rivers.
Since leading the Boston Celtics to the NBA title back in 2007-08, Rivers-led squads have made it out of the conference semifinals just twice. That included postseason struggles with the Los Angeles Clippers. Even then, his experience and resume will make Rivers a somewhat interest candidate as this cycle moves forward.
At 71 years old, it remains to be seen if the legendary D’Antoni wants to return to an NBA bench. He was last an assistant with the Brooklyn Nets back in 2020-21. If the longtime coach opts to return, there won’t be a limited number of teams interested in his services.
In his 14 seasons as an NBA head coach — spanning tenures with the Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets — D’Antoni has led 10 playoff teams. He revolutionized fast-paced offenses during his tenure with the Suns from 2003-08. He also led Houston to north of 50 wins in each of his first three seasons from 2016-19.
For many, the fact that Jackson has not been hired as an NBA head coach since his largely successful tenure with the Golden State Warriors is surprising. Look at it from this perspective. Jackson led the Warriors to consecutive NBA Playoff appearances before being fired in favor of Steve Kerr ahead of the 2014-15 season.
Sure, the Warriors went on to become a dynasty under Kerr. But Jackson helped lay the foundation. When he led Golden State to 47 wins and a second-round appearance in the postseason back in 2012-13, the Warriors had earned one playoff appearance in the previous 18 seasons. There are some issues as it relates to Jackson’s personal beliefs and whether they fit in the modern NBA. But the dude has proven himself to be a darn good coach.
It could be said that Vogel got the wrong end of the deal in Los Angeles. He led them to the NBA title in the Orlando bubble to conclude the 2019-20 season, a situation that was difficult for everyone involved. The Lakers then went 75-79 over his final two seasons. LeBron James (53 games) and Anthony Davis (80 games) missed extensive time due to injury during that span.
Prior to joining the Lakers, Vogel earned a playoff appearance in five of his seven seasons with the Indiana Pacers. There is a history of success here. Whether that translates to Vogel being given another opportunity remains to be seen.
Fair or not, Williams acted as the fall guy after Phoenix was blown out at home in an elimination game for the second consecutive season. The Suns found themselves down by 30 points at halftime in Game 6 of their second-round series to the Denver Nuggets, only to be run off the court from that point on.
As a highly respected individual around the basketball world, these two ugly postseasons exits likely won’t impact Williams too much moving forward. Whether it’s this cycle or in 2024, Williams will continue to be bandied about as one of the top NBA head coach candidates.
First things first. Just look at how far the Blazers have fallen since firing Scotts following the 2020-21 season. He led them to eight consecutive NBA Playoff appearances, winning 50-plus games three times. Since then, Portland is a combined 44 games under .500. It lost 49 games this past season and could very well be looking at a Damian Lillard trade request during the summer.
Stotts’ success as an NBA head coach speaks for itself. Let’s also not forget that he served as an assistant under all-time greats such as George Karl and Rick Carlisle. The pedigree is there for Stotts to get another top gig.
NBA assistant coaches
Charles Lee, Milwaukee Bucks
Lee has been considered a top NBA head coach candidate for the past few cycles now. In fact, he could simply end up replacing Budenholzer with the Milwaukee Bucks. That’d make for a seamless transition as he’s served under Bud as an assistant in Milwaukee since 2018.
Lee began his professional coaching career under Budenholzer in Atlanta from 2014-18. Prior to that, he served as an assistant coach under Dave Paulsen with Bucknell. The experience is there. The reputation around the league is there.
Sam Cassell, Philadelphia 76ers
It is absolutely a crying shame that Cassell has not received a top job despite being one of the frontrunners for many openings over the past few cycles. A star during his playing days, this Florida State product has served as an assistant in the NBA since 2009.
Cassell has worked under the likes of legends Flip Saunders and Doc Rivers. He’s widely regarded around the NBA and needs to be given a shot in short order.
Adrian Griffin, Toronto Raptors
One of the up-and-coming assistants around the Association, Griffin has served in a variety of roles since transitioning from his playing days back in 2008. That included stints under Tom Thibodeau (Chicago Bulls), Bill Donovan (Oklahoma City Thunder) and Nick Nurse (Toronto Raptors), In fact, he was Nurce’s top assistant the past few years.
Griffin is seen as someone who works well with youngsters to help them up their game. We saw this first-hand in Toronto with the likes of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes.
Chris Quinn, Miami Heat
A former point guard at the University of Notre Dame and for the Miami Heat, Quinn has served as one of Erik Spoelstra’s assistants since all the way back 2014. That came after a two-year stint under longtime Northwestern head coach Chris Collins.
There certainly is pedigree when it comes to who Quinn has been employed under. He’s now just receiving his first interest in an NBA head coach gig this cycle. It’s been a long time coming for Quinn. That’s for sure.
Brian Keefe, Brooklyn Nets
A former player at UC-Irvine and UNLV in the college ranks, Keefe quickly turned his focus to coaching back in 2000 as an assistant with South Florida. Also, an assistant at the small college, Bryant, for a half decade, Keefe got his first break from legendary San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich back in 2006. That included a two-year stint as their video coordinator.
Working his way up through the ranks, the Massachusetts native was an assistant under both P.J. Carlesimo and Scott Brooks with Oklahoma City from 2007-15. He also worked under Derick Fisher (New York Knicks), Luke Walton (Los Angeles Lakers) and both Steve Nash and Jacque Vaughn (Brooklyn Nets). This vast amount of experience in different schemes and under varying personalities makes Keefe one of the top NBA head coach candidates of the cycle.
Jerome Allen, Detroit Pistons
Allen’s experience coaching following his short-lived tenure as a player in the NBA has spanned continents. He started as a head coach for Pallalcesto Amatori Udine in Italy before quickly landing the Penn Quakers head coach job in 2009. While it didn’t necessarily turn into a successful tenure over six seasons with Pennsylvania (65-104 record), this gave Allen the experience he needed.
Allen ultimately landed a spot as an assistant under Brad Stevens with the Boston Celtics, acting as the current Celtics’ president’s go-to-guy on the bench. Currently, he is serving as an assistant for the Detroit Pistons. It’s a position Allen is being considered for after finding himself as a top NBA head coach candidate over the past couple cycles.
Kevin Young, Phoenix Suns
Young has spent the majority of his coaching career in the G-League. He started as an assistant for the Utah Flash under Brad Jones from 2007-10. Young was then the Flash head coach for one season before moving on to the Delaware 87ers.
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That’s when then-Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown gave him his first chance as an NBA assistant for five years from 2016-20. He’s currently serving as one of Monty Williams’ top assistants for the Phoenix Suns. With an expertise in molding young talent, a rebuilding team like the Detroit Pistons could make sense.
Jordi Fernandez, Sacramento Kings
This Spaniard got his first experience as a coach with the Impact Basketball Academy as its player development coach. This began a run in which Fernandez was seen as someone who communicated well with young players. In an NBA that values player development, this is no small thing.
From 2009-13, Fernandez worked under Mike Brown and Byron Scott with the Cleveland Cavaliers in their player development department. He’s considered one of the primary figures in Kyrie Irving’s ascension to stardom. Under Mike Malone with Denver from 2016-22, Fernandez also played a role in the progression we saw from Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokic in Mile High. Currently one of Brown’s top assistants in Sacramento, the same thing can be said about the growth of De’Aaron Fox, Davion Mitchell and Keegan Murray in California’s capital city.
Top NBA head coach candidates from the college ranks
Jerry Stackhouse, Vanderbilt
A two-time All-Star himself during a brilliant career, Stackhouse was a top name during several hiring cycles before he ultimately took over as the Vanderbilt head coach back in 2019. While Stackhouse has had limited success with the Commodores (61-69 record), they are coming off the program’s first 20-win season since back in 2014-15. It earned Stackhouse SEC Coach of the Year honors.
Stackhouse’s previous experience in the Association includes working under Dwane Casey with the Toronto Raptors and J.B. Bickerstaff with the Memphis Grizzlies. We fully expect Stackhouse’s name to be bandied about as one of the top NBA head coach candidates of this cycle.
Kevin Ollie, Connecticut (former)
It was never going to be easy for this former Huskies star to replace program legend Jim Calhoun on the bench. But within one year after taking the job in 2012, Ollie led UConn to the national championship. All said, he posted a 127-79 record with the program despite struggles to conclude his tenure.
Ollie is already being bandied about as a candidate for the Detroit Pistons opening. He’s currently the head coach for Overtime Elite, adding another layer to the belief that Ollie is great when it comes to player development.
Mark Few, Gonzaga
What else does Few have to prove in the college ranks? He took over as Gonzaga’s head coach back in 1999. Over the course of the program’s first 56 years prior to Fews arrival, the Bulldogs earned two NCAA Tournament appearances.
Since then, Few has built a juggernaut in the Pacific Northwest. That includes earning a spot in the Tourney each season with the exception of a COVID-shortened 2019-20 campaign in which Gonzaga was 31-2 when things were shut down. While Few has yet to lead the Zags to a national championship, he’s accomplished every other feat known to mankind. Hiring someone with this type of previous success could be a franchise-altering decision for a downtrodden NBA franchise.
John Calipari, Kentucky
To say that Calipari’s previous tenure as an NBA head coach was a disaster would be an understatement. He posted a 72-112 record with the then-New Jersey Nets from 1996 to early in the 1998-99 season. Despite this, the legendary college coach has flirted with a return to the Association.
If the 64-year-old Calipari shows interest again, there wouldn’t be a limited number of teams interested in him. In his 31 seasons as a college head coach, Calipari has earned 25 NCAA Tournament appearances, six trips to the Final 4 and a national championship.
Eric Musselman, Arkansas
Much like Calipari, Musselman struggled as an NBA head coach. He lasted two seasons with the Golden State Warriors (2002-04) and one season with the Sacramento Kings (2006-07). This span saw the current Arkansas head coach boast a combined 108-138 record.
Some might look at Musselman as a retread. But he’s turned things around big time since those two tenures. That included leading the Nevada Wolfpack to three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances from 2017-19 before taking over a struggling Arkansas program.
Over the past three seasons, the Razorbacks have earned three consecutive Sweet 16 appearances and a spot in the Elite 8. Prior to his arrival, Arkansas had not made it that far in the Tourney since the legendary Nolan Richardson was leading things back in 1995-96. Let that sink in for a season.
Juwan Howard, Michigan
An all-time great at Michigan and former NBA All-Star, Howard was seen as one of the legitimate NBA head coach candidates for a few years before returning to the Wolverines as their head coach. This included being one of Erik Spoelstra’s top assistants with the Miami Heat from 2013-19.
Despite some struggles this past season, Howard has returned the Wolverines to national prominence since taking over for John Beilein in 2019. That included two consecutive Sweet 16 appearances. It’s not yet known whether Howard wants to return to the Association, but there would be a ton of interest in his services.
Other NBA head coach candidates
Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
Steve Kerr’s success with the Golden State Warriors has not started a trend around the Association. That is to say, teams are still pushing back against hiring head coaches without any previous bench experience. Though, there’s a lot of different layers to look at when it comes to Iguodala immediately becoming an NBA head coach after his playing days.
Iggy has pretty much been an assistant with the Warriors over the past couple seasons. He’s taking on a player development role and continues to strategize with players during games. He’s also one of the most intelligent players in the game. If any inexperienced former player could have success in a leading role out of the gate, it’s Iguodala.
Dawn Staley, South Carolina
A six-time WNBA All-Star, Staley has led the Gamecocks to two national titles since taking over back in 2008. South Carolina is also coming off one of the greatest seasons in women’s college basketball history despite falling in the Final 4. Over the course of the past four seasons, this program has posted a 129-9 record. That’s patently absurd.
In an NBA that has been more inclusive than any of the other four major North American sports leagues, it’s just a matter of time before a woman becomes a head coach. If so, Staley is a prime candidate. She has the resume. She has the previous success. She has the respect of others around the hardwood. It’s that simple.
Udonis Haslem, Miami Heat
Much like Iguodala, Haslem has acted the part of an assistant in South Beach. Set to retire after this season at the age of 42, Haslem has played all of 201 regular season minutes over the past four years. He might as well be on Miami’s payroll as an assistant.
It would not be too surprising to see Spoelstra hire him as an assistant for next season with an eye on an NBA head coach gig not too far down the road.
Becky Hammon, Las Vegas Aces
Where to start with Hammon? She took the Las Vegas Aces job ahead of last season. This came amid frustration regarding the interview process around the Association after she was considered a top-end option over the past several cycles.
The Portland Trail Blazers, Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers had all interviewed Hammon before this spring. Right now, she’s considered one of the top candidates for the Toronto Raptors’ opening. Given Hammon’s success as a top assistant under Popovich in San Antonio and after leading the Aces to the WNBA title last season, there’s no reason why she is not an NBA head coach right now. Whether that changes in short order remains to be seen.
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