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Top coaching candidates this summer

Alongside the jaw-dropping free-agent class that will hit the streets come July 1, there could be a significant change in head coaches next season. As it stands, the New Jersey Nets, the Chicago Bulls, the Atlanta Hawks, the Los Angeles Clippers, the New Orleans Hornets, and, after today, the Cleveland Cavaliers are all looking for new leaders next season.

We have already seen, too, TNT analyst Doug Collins come to a coaching agreement with the Philadelphia 76ers. Based on all that, here’s a list of the top-five coaches available this summer. The list will be limited to those who have coaching experience. ESPN analyst Mark Jackson is a compelling candidate, but I’ll leave him out of this rankings. Without further ado …

(5) Tom Thibodeau (current Celtics assistant coach)

Despite many years as a renowned assistant coach and defensive guru at the NBA level, Tom Thibodeau has yet to find an NBA head-coaching gig. There was speculation that he might find a spot a couple years ago, but he is still standing alongside Doc Rivers on the Boston Celtics’ bench. Because of his defensive knowledge, Thibodeau might be a candidate for any number of the teams looking for a new coach. He seems a good fit for the Nets, but the team brass seems set on “making a splash” and hiring a big name like some of the ones to follow.

(4) Avery Johnson (last coached the Dallas Mavericks in 2007-2008)

Avery Johnson is currently an analyst for ESPN, and many were baffled and upset by his dismissal from Dallas in favor of the more seasoned Rick Carlisle. Despite his firing, Johnson led that Mavericks team to some of their best seasons in a long time. Saving a catastrophic breakdown against the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the 2007 playoffs, he might have come away with a championship that year, after garnering a No. 1 seed with a 67-15 regular-season record. He is a very animated and emotional coach, so he should have no problem motivating players on his next team. He has reportedly had two interviews with the Hawks already, so he might very well be Mike Woodson’s replacement in Atlanta.

(3) Jeff Van Gundy (last coached the Houston Rockets in 2006-2007)

Also an ESPN employee, Jeff Van Gundy has repeatedly made public that he is content with his broadcasting job and doesn’t want to get back in to coaching. Nevertheless, his name continues to make the rounds in the rumor mill. He had moderate success during his terms with the Rockets and, earlier, the New York Knicks, going as far as the NBA Finals in 1999 before falling to the juggernaut San Antonio Spurs. Furthermore, his insight on broadcasts has gotten many executives’ attention, and he seems like he has taken a step forward since initially retiring from the league.

(2) Mike Krzyzewski (current coach of the Duke Blue Devils)

Mike Krzyzewski’s name is also one that is being floated around the NBA, but he continually asserts his satisfaction in his current position. He nearly left Durham, N.C., for the Lakers job earlier this decade after a mammoth offer, but he decided to stay put at the time. Now, many suspect some NBA team will make him a more convincing offer and that he’ll finally make the leap to the professional level. After his most recent championship with Duke, it seems like he has accomplished all he can at the NCAA level, and it might be time for him to make the next step. After Mike Brown’s ouster from Cleveland, it has been rumored owner Dan Gilbert will make the type of offer to draw Coach K from Duke and keep LeBron on the team, too, as they have forged a close relationship through their work with the U.S. national team.

(1) Phil Jackson (current coach of the Los Angeles Lakers)

Phil Jackson isn’t out of a job yet, and he continues to coach the Lakers through this year’s playoffs. Even still, there have been reports that he’ll have to take a major pay cut to arrange another deal with Los Angeles, so when other teams are willing to pay the premium, he may see fit to leave Laker Nation. There have been discussions during the past offseasons of Jackson’s coaching only home games or limiting his attendance to some degree, so he may elect, instead, just to retire rather than take another job. All that said, Jackson is the clear No. 1 on this list. He has done everything in the NBA, and any team would be thrilled to have his tremendous knowledge grace its presence. Some think that new Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov might make Jackson an irresistibly astronomical offer to make the aforementioned splash this summer.

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