The state of coaching in the NBA: Who's safe, who's on the hot seat?
The comically tumultuous nature of NBA coaching is easily summed up: 30 percent of the league's teams enter the 2014-15 season with a new coach, and that figure amounts to a dramatic improvement compared to the instability seen last year.
Indeed, only nine of the league's 30 teams hired new coaches this offseason, a sharp dip from the 14 teams that completed coaching changes prior to the 2013-14 season. Five of those nine teams were actually repeat offenders, as the Bucks, Cavaliers, Lakers, Nets and Pistons all found themselves looking for new coaches after their 2013 hires didn't work out for one reason (losing) or another (egos).
Make no mistake, nine new coaches is still an awful lot. But this summer saw at least three positive developments for the coaching profession.
1. Success was rewarded. Gregg Popovich (Spurs) received an extension after winning his fifth NBA championship, Doc Rivers (Clippers) received a mammoth extension after surviving the Donald Sterling scandal and producing a franchise-record 57 wins, and Frank Vogel (Pacers) received a "vote of confidence" extension after a somewhat shaky run to the Eastern Conference finals and a nightmare offseason that saw the departure of Lance Stephenson and a serious injury to Paul George. Randy Wittman (Wizards), Dwane Casey (Raptors) and Terry Stotts (Blazers) all received contract extensions this summer after pleasantly surprising seasons. That trio had entered the 2013-14 season on the hot seat, or close to it.
2. Logic reigned. In 2013, the NBA world was sent reeling when Denver parted with reigning Coach of the Year George Karl and Memphis moved on from Lionel Hollins shortly after a trip to the Western Conference finals. If such successful coaches were vulnerable, many wondered, is anyone safe? This summer was far less dramatic, as seven of the nine coaching changes were made by 2014 lottery teams. The only coach to be fired after guiding his team to the playoffs was Mark Jackson, whose Warriors were bounced in the first round, whose coaching staff came under scrutiny for alleged infighting down the stretch of the season, whose brash personality apparently created friction with Golden State's ownership group, and who has spent his offseason hawking his wife’s iTunes single to his Twitter followers. Although the Nets and Jason Kidd parted ways after a trip to the conference semifinals, that change was reportedly instigated by Kidd's desire for greater authority, a greater salary, or both.
3. Money flowed. Perhaps the biggest storyline involving NBA coaches this summer is how many cashed in. Even before the NBA announced its massive new $24 billion media rights deal, a number of teams made major investments in their coaches. New Clippers owner Steve Ballmer reportedly gave Rivers a $50 million-plus extension to serve as coach and president. The Pistons reportedly gave Stan Van Gundy $35 million over five years to take on a similar dual role. First-time head coaches Steve Kerr and Derek Fisher both received five-year contracts in the neighborhood of $25 million, while Lionel Hollins and David Blatt both landed four-year contracts worth up to $20 million (including options). Look for all that extra television revenue to trickle down to the coaches as well as the players in the coming years. Large guaranteed contracts will never guarantee job security for a coach, but they can provide a longer leash and/or ease the pain of getting the ax.
Here's a look at the state of the union for NBA coaches, including five "hot seat" candidates. It's worth noting that more than half of the NBA's coaches would seem to be on solid ground entering the 2014-15 season.
Totally, totally safe
Gregg Popovich, Spurs: Nearly two decades of sustained excellence, five championships, a new contract extension, a 2014-15 roster that brings back all of last year's important players, and a well-earned reputation as an all-around coaching genius make Popovich the NBA's gold standard.
Doc Rivers, Clippers: The Clippers reached new heights under Rivers despite a truly awful series of off-court distractions. Ballmer wisely invested in his coach's character and championship experience.
Stan Van Gundy, Pistons: The only Pistons player on the books for more guaranteed money than Van Gundy is Josh Smith. The former Magic boss's arrival represents a new era of competence and credibility for the franchise.
Frank Vogel, Pacers: Pacers management preempted any discussion of Vogel's job status by inking him to an extension earlier this month. After losing George and Stephenson, Indiana could endure a sharper drop in the standings than any other team in the league, but Vogel is now protected against the criticism and speculation.
Rick Carlisle, Mavericks: One of the league's most respected coaches, Carlisle continues to construct elite offenses around Dirk Nowitzki year after year. Coaches of "good but not great" teams are often fired because they supposedly failed to get the most out of their talent; such a charge seems impossible to make against Carlisle given his recent track record.
Erik Spoelstra, Heat: The departure of LeBron James surely led Heat ownership to reevaluate everything about their organization as they plan for the future. As a 43-year-old coach with two titles and four Finals appearances to his name, Spoelstra certainly looks like one of Miami's best assets.
Tom Thibodeau, Bulls: On purely basketball terms, Thibodeau might be the safest coach besides Popovich thanks to his proven defensive philosophies and his ability to squeeze every last drop out of his roster. He is modestly downgraded here due to persistent reports of tension with the front office that seem to have been dried up once he finally signed a new extension in 2013.
Steve Kerr, Warriors: Golden State tapped the likable Kerr as its coach with a long-term partnership in mind. It's far easier to envision Kerr thriving out of the gate rather than getting off to a slow start, and even a perfect storm of bad events (high-profile tactical blunders, the locker room divides over playing time, the Warriors wind up as the No. 9 seed in the loaded West, etc.) probably wouldn't be enough for the Warriors to cut and run. That said there's a loose cannon element to the Warriors ownership group that can't fully be trusted.
Derek Fisher, Knicks: Fisher really cleaned up this summer. Not only did he sign an exorbitant contract, he gets to work for a like-minded mentor in Phil Jackson, live in a big market, and coach a team in transition that doesn't have major expectations of winning in the short term. The Triangle Offense will bring out the critics and New York's defense is almost guaranteed to be atrocious, but 2014-15 should amount to a soft launch for Fisher's coaching career. He shouldn't get too comfortable, as the vultures will start swarming if there aren't signs of progress next season.
Lionel Hollins, Nets: Even overly ambitious owner Mikhail Prokhorov must understand that the decline of Kevin Garnett and the departures of Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston leave the Nets well outside the contention conversation. Those depressed expectations should give Hollins, an experienced and tough-minded coach, some time to put his stamp on the franchise. The possibility of a stubborn vs. stubborn showdown with Deron Williams looms, but Hollins is revered enough and Williams’ game has slipped enough that such a scenario shouldn’t singlehandedly decide Hollins’ future. One last wild card: recent reports indicating that Prokhorov might be shopping his team.
Dwane Casey, Raptors: No one saw 48 wins coming for Toronto last season and GM Masai Ujiri made the no-brainer decision to retain Casey this summer. The best part? Ujiri also brought back all the important rotation pieces, granting Casey a level of continuity he hasn't always enjoyed.
Terry Stotts, Blazers: When he was hired in 2012, Stotts looked like he might be a stopgap solution for a Blazers organization that was recovering from the losses of Greg Oden and Brandon Roy. Instead, he accelerated Portland's turnaround by installing a three-happy spacing offense that gets the most out of both Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. That Stotts oversaw Portland's first playoff series victory since 2000 made a contract extension an easy decision for GM Neil Olshey.
Jeff Hornacek, Suns: Hornacek was the NBA's Rookie Coach of the Year in 2013-14, leading a young roster that was pegged by many as the West's worst to the No. 9 seed and 48 wins. Most impressively, he made it happen despite a knee injury to Eric Bledsoe and limited contributions from 2013 lottery pick Alex Len. It's fair to wonder whether Phoenix will regress in 2014-15, but Hornacek doesn't seem like a very likely scapegoat if that happens. His preference for relentless pressure is a perfect fit for his personnel and Suns management seems savvy enough to appreciate Hornacek's influence.
Steve Clifford, Hornets: Transforming a defense from "worst in the league" to "excellent" is a process that requires years of patience and the arrival of an elite rim-protector. Somewhat miraculously, Clifford improved Charlotte's defense from No. 30 in 2012-13 to No. 6 in 2013-14 even though Al Jefferson, a notoriously limited defender, started at center. Although expectations will continue to rise after owner Michael Jordan invested in Lance Stephenson this summer, Clifford's big impact last season should be plenty to protect him even if the Hornets surprisingly fall out of the 2015 playoff picture.
Brad Stevens, Celtics: Boston forecasts its willingness to slow-play its rebuilding effort by signing Stevens to a six-year deal, a rarity among NBA coaches, especially first-timers. After a 25-win season, the Celtics are bracing for another year well outside the playoff picture. Stevens should remain outside the crosshairs for at least two more seasons as president Danny Ainge works to acquire some real talent.
Quin Snyder, Jazz: Among this year’s first-time head coaches, Snyder probably has the best chance of becoming the “Next Jeff Hornacek,” even though his young Jazz would gladly settle for a run at .500 rather than the postseason. Snyder’s intensity and pace-based philosophy seem like good fits for his personnel. More importantly, he’s able to coach with a sole focus on the future, whereas Tyrone Corbin was stuck following a legend in Jerry Sloan and spent the 2013-14 season looking over his shoulder during a lame duck season.
Brett Brown, Sixers: Honestly, how many coaches would go along with Philadelphia’s charade as enthusiastically as Brown? Not many. Even as he enters the season with four or five NBA-caliber players on his roster, Brown does an admirable job of sticking to GM Sam Hinkie’s script. In theory, that loyalty and energy should pay off down the road once the franchise assembles enough young talent to compete. For now, Brown can focus his worrying on how to avoid 20+ game losing streaks rather than on his job security.
Brian Shaw, Nuggets: NBA teams can get away with throwing away a season following a regime change, especially if injuries play a major role. Throwing away two consecutive seasons is far trickier, and generally requires that the roster has some real high-end potential down the road or that the principle decision-makers possess serious cache. Shaw’s first season in Denver was a prototypical throwaway job: injuries ravaged the Nuggets and they fell hard out of the playoff picture, to no one’s great surprise. The immediate problem for the Nuggets: the roster lacks players with superstar potential, and Shaw, in his first head coaching job, lacks the credibility and experience to use his own name to sell fans on the future. Simply put, Shaw needs to use this season to reverse Denver’s negative momentum or he will find himself in the pressure cooker come October 2015.
Michael Malone, Kings: Malone enters his second season in Sacramento just as he entered his first year: with one of the conference’s weakest rosters and few certainties outside DeMarcus Cousins. Unfortunately, the Kings’ various moves haven’t created a convincing reason to believe that the franchise’s outlook this season will be significantly better than its 28-win campaign last season. Any longer-term optimism requires the short-term sacrifice of handing over big minutes to developing players, something that is a tough sell for a competitive coach looking to instill a winning culture after years of depressing losses. Under the most reasonable circumstances, Malone shouldn’t have anything to worry about this season. Twelve months from now, he could find himself needing to turn the corner, or else.
Jacque Vaughn, Magic: Orlando could easily win less than 25 games for the third straight season in 2014-15. That type of putrid output over multiple seasons can often lead to a coach’s dismissal. Vaughn’s defense, should he come under fire, is straightforward: “What did you honestly expect from this talent?” Back in May, the Magic did extend Vaughn’s contract through the 2015-16 season, thereby keeping the “lame duck” label off of him for now. Fan impatience will grow if the Magic’s 2014 lottery picks—Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton—are unable to produce flashes of big-time upside.
David Blatt, Cavaliers: Blatt was a walking, talking daydream at Las Vegas Summer League, as he realized LeBron James had fallen into his lap. A first-time NBA coach who has logged years coaching overseas, Blatt is known as a creative and open-minded manager who should be ideally suited to crafting schemes around a roster whose core formed this summer and whose returning players all need to adjust to one degree or another. The uncertainty facing Blatt is entirely driven by enormous expectations; despite James’ best efforts in his letter with Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, the Cavaliers are viewed as the favorites to win the East, right now, and anything short of a trip to the East finals would be viewed as a catastrophe. The same do-or-die talk faced Heat coach Erik Spoelstra in 2010-11, and he survived well enough to win two titles and make four straight Finals appearances. How Blatt handles the pressure will be a defining question for the Cavaliers this season.
Scott Brooks, Thunder: Kevin Durant’s foot injury will reveal all of Oklahoma City’s warts. Great players cover up for the shortcomings of their teammates, coaches, management and ownership in more ways than are easily seen by the naked eye, and now the Thunder will be laid bare for at least six weeks. The good news: Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka should be talented enough to keep the ship afloat, and Durant could be back as soon as late-November. The bad news: Brooks has faced criticism about his schemes for years and his team will no longer have the ultimate bail-out option to turn to when things bog down. Oklahoma City management has steadfastly backed Brooks over the years, and that is unlikely to change because of an injury to a superstar. Nevertheless, Brooks better bring his “A-game” on opening night. His detractors will be waiting to pounce.
Randy Wittman, Wizards: Washington’s coach is certainly enjoying steadier footing than he did one year ago, when he was a lame duck coach with an owner who was anxious to make the playoffs. The Wizards’ unexpected trip to the conference semifinals and a full season of John Wall and Bradley Beal playing together helped Wittman land a new contract this summer, and it’s significantly raised expectations for the 2015 playoffs and beyond. Wittman isn’t out of the fire yet: Washington was only a 44-win team last year despite career years from multiple starters and Beal will miss the start of the season due to a wrist injury. It would take some extended losing for Wittman to find himself back in the crosshairs, but most teams that are built to “win now” and fail to do so wind up considering a coaching change at some point.
Mike Budenholzer, Hawks: Coaches operate at the whims of owners and front office executives. Any instability at those higher ranks represents bad news. Budenholzer did a commendable job sneaking Atlanta into the playoffs only to watch the franchise turned upside down by ugly ownership infighting and the decision to place GM Danny Ferry on an indefinite leave of absence. The Hawks are for sale, prospective bidders are sure to feel strongly about cleaning house after this toxic public relations fiasco, and Ferry’s immediate future remains uncertain. Atlanta wisely placed Budenholzer in charge of player personnel decisions, but that was clearly a temporary solution. Winning should be enough for a coach to keep his job, but it often isn’t. Here, Budenholzer is unfortunately being held captive by forces that are totally out of his control.
Dave Joerger, Grizzlies: This summer, Memphis owner Robert Pera opted to extend Joerger’s contract rather than let his coach leave for the Timberwolves. The back-and-forth negotiations, coupled with Pera’s unpredictable and unorthodox approach, don’t exactly inspire a total comfort factor for Joerger, who spent years working his way up to an NBA head coaching job. On the bright side, Joerger does have a talented, veteran roster capable that has posed match up problems for the West’s elite over the last few postseasons.
Kevin McHale, Rockets: No coach enters the 2014-15 season on a hotter seat than McHale, who faces trouble on multiple fronts. First: McHale carries the dreaded (albeit somewhat overblown) “lame duck” tag, as Houston picked up his option for 2014-15 but left it at that. Second: McHale is the only coach that failed to advance in the 2014 playoffs despite having two of SI.com’s “Top 20 Players of 2015” in Dwight Howard and James Harden. Third: consensus is rightfully held that McHale was badly outcoached by Terry Stotts as Houston was upset by Portland in the first round of the playoffs. Fourth: the Rockets face plenty of rotation turnover this year, as Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik all found new homes this season.
To boil that down, McHale enters the season: 1) without any job security, 2) facing possible charges that he is squandering superstar talent, 3) facing questions about his tactical abilities, and 4) without three key contributors from last season. Throw in an environment of high expectations—anything short of a playoff series victory will be viewed as a failure—and McHale is staring down a perfect storm.. The time is now for Williams—under contract through next season—to oversee a winner or face the consequences.
Flip Saunders, Timberwolves: This isn’t a true “hot seat” situation, as Saunders is Minnesota’s president and hired himself as coach this summer after an extended search failed to land a candidate. Nevertheless, there are multiple reasons to be skeptical that Saunders lasts past this season as coach. 1) He seemed to hire himself as a last resort during a summer that also saw the franchise-altering loss of Kevin Love. 2) His mish-mashed roster needs some heavy sifting so that its younger members can have the opportunity to develop. 3) It’s difficult for an executive to truly dig into a full-fledged rebuild when he is also responsible for coaching on a game-to-game basis. 4) The team’s prospects (Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennet, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng) are largely unknown at the moment and should be more appealing to potential coaching candidates once they’ve had a year to craft their identities, both individual and collective. 5) Saunders’ trade for Thaddeus Young and his retention of several high-priced veterans suggests that he is still clinging to some hope of winning this season. Those hopes should fade over the course of an 82-game schedule.
Taken together, you’re looking at a roster that should have a better identity with a year’s work under its belt, a coaching job that should be more appealing to up-and-coming candidates once the offseason rolls around, and an executive who should be more willing to cede coaching duties after dealing with the slog for a season.
Jason Kidd, Bucks: Kidd deservedly took a lot of heat this summer for his abrupt exit from Brooklyn. That bridge-burning and backroom politicking, taken in the context of a lengthy career that saw numerous changes of scenery and multiple off-court incidents, comes off as slimy even when framed in the most charitable light. At the same time, there was an evil genius to Kidd’s move to Milwaukee, as he received a sharp pay increase, he traded a decaying roster for a frisky group of prospects, and he swapped oversized expectations for an under-the-radar market where progress seems inevitable after a hideous 15-win season.
The conventional approach following such a controversial move would be for Kidd to slow things down, prove his loyalty to his new bosses and fan base, and turn the Bucks into a playoff team before thinking about a new contract or pursuing a different job. Kidd doesn’t seem to have much use for conventional. Is it that crazy to envision Kidd leaving the Bucks hanging if—purely as a hypothetical—the Lakers implode again and decide to dump Byron Scott? That might not be the likeliest scenario, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. This is less a case of a coach being subjected to a hot seat, and more a case of a man who seems to prefer that his pants are permanently on fire.
Byron Scott, Lakers: “Never make too much out of the preseason” is absolutely a good rule of thumb. That said, the Lakers’ 1-3 start to the exhibition season—including three straight losses by double figures—is leading to some serious flashbacks to Mike Brown’s quick exit in 2012. There’s no doubt that Scott was dealt a losing hand by Lakers management: L.A.’s roster is lacking in talent, totally lacking in defensive talent, strangely imbalanced positionally, and completely beholden to a 36-year-old Kobe Bryant.
The obvious approach to the situation for a coach would have been to reduce expectations, hype up the younger players, and try to avoid making headlines as much as possible. Instead, Scott has tried to exert his authority as a disciplinarian, singled out lottery pick Julius Randle on multiple occasions, and given plenty of fodder to critics by stressing a desire to avoid three-pointers. Newsflash: it is virtually impossible to remain competitive in the NBA, let alone win, if your team can’t play defense or make threes. The Lakers certainly can’t do the former and Scott prefers that they avoid doing the latter, despite some capable personnel on hand. This has the potential to get ugly—even by the Lakers’ recent standards—and Scott seems perfectly willing to die on his old-school sword. Although yet another quick coaching change would be a very tough sell following short stints for both Brown and Mike D’Antoni, history has taught us that the Lakers’ current ownership regime isn’t afraid to toss around money to make perceived problems go away.