- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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The New Orleans Hornets' coaching search will last at least one day longer than expected after the Hornets chose not to enforce a deadline issued earlier this week to Boston Celtics assistant coach Tom Thibodeau.
The Hornets offered their coaching job to Thibodeau last week, but sources close to the situation said they wanted an answer before Thursday night's Game 1 of the NBA Finals and were poised to give the job to Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach Monty Williams if Thibodeau declined.
A resolution is forthcoming Friday, sources said, because the Hornets don't want their search to drag on beyond this week. But after vowing to do so, New Orleans curiously elected not to move on Thursday when Thibodeau -- after meeting with Chicago Bulls officials Wednesday night in Los Angeles -- refused to either commit to the Hornets or withdraw from consideration.
Despite the undeniable tension created by Thibodeau's 11th-hour meeting with the Bulls, sources said the possibility remains New Orleans and Thibodeau could reach an agreement Friday. The Hornets -- while dismayed by the delay and widely reported claim Thibodeau prefers the Chicago job -- have not rescinded Thibodeau's offer and denied reports in the New York Post and Chicago Sun-Times that Thibodeau has turned them down.
But the Chicago Tribune reported on its website Thursday night that the Bulls are "strongly considering" offering their job to Thibodeau after Bulls executives John Paxson and Gar Forman flew to Los Angeles to interview Thibodeau on Wednesday night. Earlier Wednesday, ESPN.com reported Thibodeau had his first interview with the New Jersey Nets earlier this week before the Celtics left Tuesday for Los Angeles.
New Orleans has insisted for weeks that it regards Thibodeau and Williams as 1A and 1B candidates and, according to one source, has sufficient confidence in Williams to give him the job and stop this saga before it bleeds into the weekend. Another source told ESPN.com the Hornets are so high on Williams they have discussed trying to hire him as an associate head coach to Thibodeau.
Why the Bulls waited so long to enter the fray and interview Thibodeau is unclear. Celtics vice president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told ESPN.com on Thursday that New Orleans, Chicago, New Jersey and the Los Angeles Clippers had requested and received permission to interview Thibodeau on any off day during the playoffs more than two weeks ago.
Sources say that Thibodeau's reluctance to accept the Hornets' offer -- his first head coaching opportunity in the NBA -- stems more from Thibodeau's desire to secure an offer from the Bulls or Nets than Boston's ongoing playoff obligations.
The Celtics' willingness to let Thibodeau interview with several teams, at a time his stock has never been higher, would in turn suggest that he is not likely to be a candidate to replace Doc Rivers should Rivers decide to walk away at season's end to spend more time with his family.
In an interview with ESPN.com's J.A. Adande before the Finals, Rivers acknowledged the possibility that both he and Lakers coach Phil Jackson could be leaving their respective benches at the end of the series, saying: "It's interesting both ways. Both of us have our own reasons, but I don't think either one of us think about it. I don't think about it at all."
Numerous NBA coaching sources believe that Ainge's former teammate Kevin McHale will receive strong consideration for Rivers' post if the Celtics wind up needing a new coach next season. McHale has been working for NBA TV and TNT this season after a long stint with the Minnesota Timberwolves, which ended for McHale as a coach stripped of his front-office duties less than two years after trading Kevin Garnett to Boston in July 2007.
McHale is also among the candidates for the Bulls' job, according to the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper has also identified Houston Rockets assistant Elston Turner and Oklahoma City Thunder assistant Maurice Cheeks as Bulls candidates, while ESPN.com reported last week that the Bulls had interviewed former New Jersey Nets coach Lawrence Frank.
During Boston's Eastern Conference finals series against Orlando, Thibodeau emerged as the top choice of Hornets general manager Jeff Bower, who is close with ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, perhaps Thibodeau's biggest fan in the coaching business. But the Hornets were understandably peeved by the lack of an answer Thursday from Thibodeau, while rumblings persist that Hornets star Chris Paul would prefer Williams, who got his coaching start under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio before joining the Blazers.
The Celtics, meanwhile, have been dealing with the uncertainty surrounding Thibodeau's future for several days, but Rivers continues to insist that the interest from other teams in his top assist as well as the mounting media coverage about Thibodeau's next move have not created a distraction for his team.
"I'm not worried about it," Rivers said last week. "Listen, nobody works harder than Tom Thibodeau, ever. He'd never be distracted from this job."
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.