- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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The New Orleans Hornets quickly reached an agreement Friday night with Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach Monty Williams to be their next head coach after Boston Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau withdrew from consideration earlier in the day, according to sources close to the situation.
Sources told ESPN.com that Williams' deal will be made official no later than Saturday after Thibodeau, who was offered New Orleans' job last week, informed the Hornets that he plans to pursue opportunities with the Chicago Bulls and New Jersey Nets.
One source close to Thibodeau, however, said Friday that the Bulls' opening is the job Thibodeau truly covets after he met with Chicago officials in Los Angeles on Wednesday night. The Boston Herald reported on its website Friday night that Thibodeau is indeed the Bulls' choice to replace Vinny Del Negro, while the Chicago Tribune reported in Saturday's editions that a formal offer to Thibodeau "is expected shortly."
In New Orleans, Williams takes over after a 73-game interim stint by Hornets general manager Jeff Bower, during which New Orleans finished 34-39 after losing star guard Chris Paul to ankle and knee injuries.
At 38, Williams supplants Miami's Erik Spoelstra (39) as the league's youngest head coach.
The Hornets initially expected to have their coaching vacancy filled before the start of the NBA Finals after telling Thibodeau that he had to accept or decline their offer before Thursday's Game 1. But New Orleans responded to Thibodeau's sit-down with the Bulls on the eve of the Finals by deciding it could wait another day.
Yet once it became apparent Friday that Thibodeau was no longer interested in the Hornets' job, New Orleans closed on Williams, just as sources with knowledge of the Hornets' thinking had insisted they would when the original offer was extended to Thibodeau early last week.
Thibodeau also interviewed with the Nets earlier this week before the Celtics left Boston to begin their Finals preparations, but he has quickly emerged as the front-runner in Chicago after the Bulls -- granted permission to speak with Thibodeau more than two weeks ago -- finally jumped into the fray at the 11th hour.
Williams' coaching stock has risen quickly after he got his start in San Antonio under Gregg Popovich during the Spurs' 2004-05 championship season. He joined the Blazers in August 2005 as an assistant to Nate McMillan and took on added responsibility this season when an Achilles injury restricted McMillan's mobility on the bench during games.
ESPN.com reported Thursday that the Hornets, even had Thibodeau accepted their offer, were hoping to hire Williams as an associate head coach to Thibodeau.
The Hornets' search began with ESPN analyst and New Orleans native Avery Johnson -- widely regarded as the favorite in a process that included interviews with eight candidates.
But Johnson has instead emerged as a finalist for the Atlanta Hawks' vacancy along with Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Dwane Casey. Johnson is also a strong contender in New Jersey, with two of the Nets' other top targets -- Thibodeau and ESPN/ABC's Jeff Van Gundy -- possibly out of the running.
Nets president Rod Thorn has publicly acknowledged that Van Gundy wants to stay in television for at least one more season. There was likewise strong sentiment in NBA coaching circles Friday night that Thibodeau -- who has longed for his first head-coaching opportunity after missing out on a few jobs previously -- would not have bypassed the opportunity to take the Hornets' job if he didn't have strong assurances from the Bulls that they were ready to hire him.
"It's an opportunity he's been looking forward to for a long time and we hope he gets the job of his choice," Celtics general manager Danny Ainge told WEEI Radio. "I think Tom is being selective. He's a candidate in the three cities that he's interviewed -- New Jersey, Chicago and New Orleans -- and I think he feels like he has the luxury to explore all three of those."
Ainge also said in the interview that he thinks Celtics coach Doc Rivers will return next season, even though Rivers has acknowledged the possibility of walking away from the job at season's end to spend more time with his family.
Marc Stein is senior writer for ESPN.com.
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