- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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Tom Thibodeau went on a job interview Monday night without even knowing it. As the Belichickian defensive coordinator of the Boston Celtics, Thibodeau moved himself a little closer to the New Jersey Nets bench by slapping the Game 2 brakes on a runaway MVP, LeBron James.
Thibodeau isn't the sexiest of candidates, nor does he match up with the assumption incoming Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov will chase a big American name with his bigger Russian checkbook.
But an external audit of a Nets coaching search that hasn't started in earnest turned up evidence Thibodeau could be the last man standing when Rod Thorn is ready to tell Prokhorov who should lead the team from Newark to Brooklyn and beyond.
Start with the two most iconic figures tied (however loosely) to the vacancy -- Mike Krzyzewski and Phil Jackson.
Coach K? Back in the day, Nets owners authorized an intermediary to approach the Duke coach in a Manhattan hotel and offer him $5 million a pop to save their team. Coach K politely declined the bid, later declined a chance to coach Kobe Bryant's Lakers for $40 million, and surely will decline any outlandish offer Prokhorov might make this time around.
Phil Jackson? Despite his girlfriend's cryptic comments on his immediate future, Jackson didn't pass Red Auerbach with his 10th NBA title just to take over the 12-win Nets and prove Auerbach's theory that he can only win with ready-made rosters.
So move on to the most appealing (realistic) candidates with head coaching experience -- Avery Johnson and Jeff Van Gundy.
As a championship-winning point guard for the Spurs, and as a coach who led the Mavericks to the NBA Finals and a 67-win season, Johnson would be a very serious contender for the job if he could convince Thorn he truly wants it. Johnson was born and raised in New Orleans, and a league source says his heart is with the hometown Hornets.
Van Gundy? He led the Knicks to the NBA Finals (losing to Johnson's Spurs), understands the ethos of the marketplace, and plans to return to coaching at some point. He'd be the best choice for the job, but right now remains ultra-comfortable calling games for ESPN and ABC. Like Johnson, Van Gundy reserves the right to express to Thorn a greater interest in the position a week or two from now.
Now, on to the longshots with head coaching experience. Eddie Jordan? Thorn liked him as a Nets assistant, but won't be hiring someone already fired three times.
Larry Brown? Thorn would rather be waterboarded. Doug Collins? Not happening.
Mike Fratello? His no-frills style won't sell a single ticket, and Thorn's good friend and idol, Jerry West, has no use for Fratello, whom he fired in Memphis.
On the college front, Jay Wright has the right temperament but no NBA service time. Thorn has a good relationship with Rick Pitino, but not good enough to get him to the NBA altar.
John Calipari? The Nets have been there, done that. If Tom Izzo represents a possibility that intrigues Thorn, the Michigan State coach has Big Ten lifer written all over him.
Among the NBA assistants without head coaching experience, Thorn is said to have his eye on the Mavericks' Dwane Casey and the Lakers' Brian Shaw. Thibodeau, however, appears to be the leader in the assistant clubhouse.
He's been in the NBA forever, improving defenses wherever he's landed. Thibodeau helped Van Gundy's Knicks hold 33 consecutive opponents under 100 points. With Van Gundy's Rockets, Thibodeau's role in Yao Ming's development validates the notion he's the right guy for Brook Lopez.
Doc Rivers deserved the credit for Boston's championship triumph over Kobe and the Lakers two years back, but Thibodeau did nothing in that title run to hurt his reputation as the sport's leading defensive stopper.
The knocks against him read like this: 1.) Thibodeau's never been an NBA head coach; and 2.) Some executives actually wonder if he's too committed to his work -- that's right, too committed -- to make for a balanced leader.
In other words, the married-to-the-job likes of Thibodeau, a bachelor, could end up running himself and his team into the ground.
"Which is ridiculous," said one NBA source close to Thibodeau. "You'd think teams would want to hire someone who works hard, and yet that's a perception Tom's had to deal with.
"Listen, Tom would hop on one leg from Boston to New Jersey if it meant getting the Nets job. He'd find a justice of the peace and get married on the way if he had to. I can't imagine the Nets would find a better candidate than him."
Thorn declined to comment on any of the above contenders, real or imagined. He did say he believes a lucky man will end up coaching the 12-70 Nets.
"It's a good job because we have some talent in place and some free-agent money to spend," Thorn said, "and because of the possibility of getting the first pick in the draft lottery.
"It's a good job because we're moving into a good building in Newark before we get to Brooklyn, and because the new owner has proven in other places he wants to win and is willing to spend money if it moves the team in the right direction."
No, Prokhorov hasn't told his chief decision maker he must hire a big-name coach.
"He just wants a good coach," Thorn said.
Soon enough, Tom Thibodeau might be the last one standing.
3dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann