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Columnist
Carlisle top candidate, but Bulls' coaching search far from over
By Mike McGraw | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 4/28/2008 12:03 AM

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Go ahead and try to pick a favorite in the Bulls' coaching search.

It's not easy. Think back to last year when a number of NBA teams filled vacancies with experienced head coaches -- Rick Adelman in Houston, Stan Van Gundy in Orlando, Jim O'Brien in Indiana. Reggie Theus, a first-time head coach, showed promise in Sacramento.

In comparison, there aren't any slam-dunk choices among the list of candidates, though more options could be added soon.

The clear front-runner for the Bulls' vacancy is Rick Carlisle, a reasonably successful coach in Detroit and Indiana with some perplexing questions to answer. He might visit Chicago this week for a face-to-face interview.

But general manager John Paxson appears to be in no hurry to make a hire, and there are two, maybe three, candidates who could end up beating Carlisle to the coaching seat.

One is Avery Johnson, whose impending dismissal has been widely forecast if Dallas ends up losing to New Orleans.

Should the Hornets win the series, it would be the Mavericks' second straight first-round playoff exit. There seems to be a better chance of Johnson being made a scapegoat than Dallas owner Mark Cuban blaming himself for the ill-advised Jason Kidd trade.

Johnson, nicknamed "The Little General" as a player, took over the Mavericks late in the 2004-05 season and went 66-16 in his first 82 games, the best debut performance by any coach in NBA history. He took Dallas to the 2006 Finals against Miami.

The Bulls are also intrigued by Boston assistant Tom Thibodeau. He owns no head-coaching experience but certainly has more positive momentum going for him than Carlisle.

After serving as the top assistant to Jeff Van Gundy for many years, Thibodeau stepped into a new situation this season and helped turn the Celtics into the league's top defensive team.

Sure, he had Kevin Garnett to anchor the effort, but he also had to work with notorious non-defenders Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, a foul-prone center (Kendrick Perkins) and inexperienced point guard (Rajon Rondo).

It's tough to imagine this group of Bulls being successful without ranking near the top of the league defensively. So Thibodeau is a choice who could generate some optimism.

Carlisle, on the other hand, has a mixed history. He won 50 games twice with Detroit, then was let go after just two seasons. In Indiana, he went 61-21 in 2003-04 and got worse every year until being fired in 2007.

One could argue that Carlisle learned from whatever mistakes he made with the Pistons. Then in Indiana, he was saddled with some questionable characters such as Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jamaal Tinsley.

Many times during his last two seasons, though, the Pacers showed no life whatsoever on the court, which is bound to be some reflection on the head coach.

Word is Carlisle plans to bring former NBA head coaches Terry Stotts (Atlanta and Milwaukee) and Dwane Casey (Minnesota) along as assistants if he's hired by the Bulls.

The Bulls are also expected to interview Casey for the head job. Are they really serious about hiring Casey now, or are they checking him out as a potential replacement for Carlisle two years down the road?

The New York Post reported that Paxson will meet with Mark Jackson this week in California. There are other names in the mix, such as Pistons assistants Michael Curry and Terry Porter.

One insider believes the Bulls could become interested in Larry Brown if he agreed to a short-term contract. But Charlotte now appears to be Brown's likely destination.

It's also conceivable that an early playoff exit could prompt Detroit to fire Flip Saunders and hire Curry as the replacement. In that case, the Bulls would have to strongly consider Saunders.

But it's unlikely they would hire someone like Jackson, who has no coaching experience. Scottie Pippen could fit that bill, and he's gotten no consideration from the Bulls.

mmcgraw@dailyherald.com