The 76ers, according to a source familiar with the situation, are biding their time with former coach Larry Brown, trying to determine whether - or when - to contact him about the possibility of returning to Philadelphia.

But that doesn't mean that the Sixers are standing still in their pursuit of a coaching replacement for the fired Eddie Jordan.

The Sixers have contacted former Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson and have had a discussion with John Langel, the agent and attorney for former Sixers All-Star guard Doug Collins, the Daily News has learned.

Johnson, Collins and Langel declined to comment. Johnson was not interested when the job was open last year. Collins, who has not coached since 2003, was very interested last year, but was not granted an interview; he has been working as an NBA analyst for TNT.

With president/general manager Ed Stefanski directing the search, they have - again, according to a source - identified Mavericks assistant Dwane Casey, Boston Celtics associate coach Tom Thibodeau and San Antonio Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer as potential candidates. All three are still involved in the NBA playoffs. Casey was the runner-up for the job last year. Thibodeau was interviewed last year, but was not granted a second meeting.

The Sixers could request permission from the respective teams to speak with any of them or wait until their postseason is done.

The Sixers also have talked internally about former coaches Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Fratello, both working as TV analysts, and are considering contacting former Toronto Raptors coach Sam Mitchell.

While speculation has been rampant that the Sixers have targeted Brown, they clearly are looking far and wide for candidates with credentials. Brown has 2 years remaining on his contract coaching the Charlotte Bobcats and has often said he won't coach elsewhere.

Just Monday night, after Charlotte was ousted by Orlando, he said, "I'm not coaching anywhere but for [owner] Michael Jordan . . . if he wants me, and if I can work it out with my family."

Brown's wife, Shelly, and their two teenaged children, have remained in the Philadelphia suburbs while Brown has worked in Charlotte. Michael Jordan has said he would not stand in Brown's way if there were extenuating circumstances at home.

Yesterday, Jordan told the Charlotte Observer: "We've talked. Larry's been honest. Everything he's said publicly is what we've talked about. I'm not going to let him go too easily. There are a lot of rumors out there, and right now, that's all they are - rumors. So, until he says something to me otherwise, it's business as usual."

Asked whether there was a timetable for Brown to decide, Jordan said, "Not from me."

Yesterday, Brown heard encouragement from fans as he watched Jordan play a pro-am event at Quail Hollow golf course, which hosts the PGA this weekend.

The Bobcats are expected to make Brown available to the media tomorrow, after which he is expected to rejoin his family.

Sixers chairman Ed Snider was bothered by a report that Brown was "angling for" the Sixers job and that he had already targeted Washington Wizards front-office executive Milt Newton to be the general manager and possibly current Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Woodson as the coach, if Brown did not coach himself.

Snider termed the report "pure unadulterated bull."

Snider also said that, if he had interest in Brown, and he wasn't sure he did, it would be strictly as a coach.

When the Bobcats were ousted from the playoffs, Brown said: "I've said I'm not coaching anywhere but Charlotte. Now, am I going to go home and talk to my wife and kids? I'll be 70 years old [with] two young kids. Am I going to go talk to them? And find out what I need to do? And am I going to talk to Michael? Yeah, absolutely." *

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