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Posted: Thursday May 15, 2008 12:25PM; Updated: Thursday May 15, 2008 1:11PM
Marty Burns Marty Burns >
INSIDE THE NBA

Memo to Bulls: Give this guy a look

Story Highlights
  • Phil Johnson would be a good coaching candidate for the Bulls
  • Johnson, a Jazz assistant, is a former Coach of the Year
  • Bulls GM John Paxson is taking his time with the coaching search
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In Jerry Sloan's shadow for 20 years, Phil Johnson could be just what the Bulls need.
In Jerry Sloan's shadow for 20 years, Phil Johnson could be just what the Bulls need.
AP
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Now that Mike D'Antoni has signed on to coach the Knicks, the Bulls have moved to Plan B.

Will it be Avery Johnson? Tom Thibodeau? Michael Curry?

Or none of the above?

Bulls general manager John Paxson isn't talking publicly, but the word is that he is conducting a far-ranging search and is not afraid to think outside the (head coaching) box.

In that spirit, I am offering Paxson a name to consider (even if he hasn't asked my opinion). This guy is an experienced assistant coach for a team that's always in the playoffs. He'd probably be willing to work for less than D'Antoni money -- always a plus with Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. And he has a Chicago connection.

In fact, he has coached the Bulls before (for one game). Moreover, he's a former NBA Coach of the Year.

Utah's Phil Johnson has been Jerry Sloan's right-hand man for the past 20 years. Widely considered one of the best assistants in the game, he served two stints as head coach of the Kings' franchise (1974-78 and 1985-87). In his first full season, at the age of 33, he won Coach of the Year honors.

Johnson has ties to Chicago. His first NBA coaching gig was as a Bulls assistant to Dick Motta in the early 1970s. He later returned to the Windy City as an assistant under Sloan for the 1979-80 season. After Sloan got fired midway through the 1981-82 season, he took over as interim coach for one game before following his longtime friend out the door and, eventually, to Utah.

Johnson is considered a great X's-and-O's guy, especially on the offensive end, with no ego and an old-school approach like Sloan. The only reason he hasn't been mentioned for more jobs over the years is because he's not a self-promoter. While Johnson might be past the point of wanting to become a head coach again, he has said in recent years that he would consider the move if it was the "right situation." He came close to being hired for the Nuggets' job that went to George Karl a few years ago.

Yes, I know what you're thinking. Johnson is 66, practically old enough to remember the days of peach baskets. How would he relate to players? Would they give him any credence?

But didn't skeptics say the same thing a few years ago when then-Grizzlies president Jerry West brought in the 69-year-old Hubie Brown? Memphis went on to win 50 games the next season and make the playoffs. (Sloan, incidentally, is the same age as Johnson.) Most NBA players, even Gen Xers, will listen if the coach can make them winners.

Without a true superstar, the Bulls are a team that needs to play together, share the ball and work hard on defense in order to succeed. In other words, they need a system like the one the Jazz have been running for years.

Jazz assistant Tyrone Corbin might be able to do the job. Indeed, the Bulls have asked Utah for permission to interview the 45-year-old former NBA and DePaul player, according to a league source. But Corbin doesn't have Johnson's experience.

So make it a package deal. Bring in Johnson as head coach, with Corbin as his top assistant. Then Corbin could be groomed to move into the top spot in a couple of years.

Twenty years ago, the Bulls surprised everybody when they named a relatively unknown assistant coach to replace the fired Doug Collins. The assistant (with a little help from Michael Jordan) went on to guide the team to six NBA titles in nine seasons.

His name, of course, was Phil Jackson.

Pretty close to Phil Johnson, isn't it?

Coincidence? Or a sign from the gods?

 
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