NBA coaches who are safe, on shaky ground, or in the hot seat entering the NBA season.
Last week’s question asked: Which new NBA coaches are facing the most pressure? This week’s question is a bit blunter, and it pertains to both old and new coaches alike: Who is on the hot seat, and whose seat is starting to warm up?
Let’s run down the NBA’s 29 coaches from “not going anywhere” to “saving up for bus fare.”
* Editor’s Note: With Flip Saunders dying at the age of 60 after battling Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, we have not included T-Wolves interim coach Sam Mitchell.
Totally, totally safe
The cream of the crop.
Gregg Popovich, Spurs: The league’s best coach reportedly assured LaMarcus Aldridge this summer that he planned to stay on the job until at least 2019. Popovich’s track record of success speaks for itself, but that report neatly sums up the implications of his historic tenure. How many coaches are so well respected that A-list free agents would seek such assurances? How many coaches, in a league where seven to 10 guys get fired every year, are in position to make promises four years down the road?
Steve Kerr, Warriors: Golden State’s golden boy just won 67 games and a title in his first season. The only way Kerr isn’t back with the Warriors next year is if U.S. voters hire him to replace Barack Obama.
Brad Stevens, Celtics: More valuable to the Celtics than any single player on the roster? Stevens won 15 more games in 2014–15 than he did in 2013–14, even though his two biggest names (Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green) were shipped out in midseason trades and his highest-paid player (Gerald Wallace) couldn’t crack the playoff rotation. Stevens, 39, is right there with Kerr when it comes to answering the “Coach you would most like to build your franchise around” question.
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Totally safe (because they don’t answer to management)
One sure path to job security is a dual coach/executive role.
Stan Van Gundy, Pistons: Van Gundy flexed his considerable muscles by waiving Josh Smith last season, thereby convincing his owner to eat more than $25 million in guaranteed salary. Given that Van Gundy is his own boss and he’s entering just the second year of his own five-year, $35 million deal, he’s very well-insulated from any frustrations should the Pistons sputter through another ugly season. While he might wind up regretting the size of the contracts he gave to Reggie Jackson and Aron Baynes, Van Gundy is a coaching lifer with a comfortable setup: his team has considerable room for progress and his contract affords him plenty of time to make it.
Doc Rivers, Clippers: When Rivers makes noise about 2015–16 being a make-or-break year for the Clippers’ core, he sounds more like a president speaking honestly about his franchise’s long-term future rather than a coach looking to push buttons—even though he’s both simultaneously. Rivers’s own future is secure: he answers to himself and he’s entering year two of a five-year, $50 million contract. If the mess hits the fan again come playoff time, Rivers is positioned to publicly take the blame while privately orchestrating whatever personnel changes he deems necessary.
Mike Budenholzer, Hawks: Budenholzer is sitting pretty after a blistering 60-win season, a trip to the East finals and the 2015 Coach of the Year award. Not only did he survive an ownership transfer this summer, but he came out on top: Budenholzer was officially named team president after the Hawks reached a buyout with Danny Ferry. All things considered, Atlanta is a pretty good fiefdom: Budenholzer doesn’t face serious championship expectations, he returns most of his roster this season, and his Spurs-esque style of play has proven consistently effective in the weaker East. Even if the Hawks regress in 2014–15, it’s hard to see how any fingers would be pointed back at Budenholzer after he delivered extraordinary value on his team’s reasonable 2014–15 payroll.
Safe (because they just got here)
These first-time coaches will have room to work.
Fred Hoiberg, Bulls: Chicago’s polarizing management team stuck its neck out by dumping Tom Thibodeau to hire Hoiberg, their hand-selected candidate. “The Mayor” arrives on a five-year deal worth a reported $25 million. Simply put, it would be too embarrassing and too costly for the Bulls to immediately dump Hoiberg, even if the Bulls suffered through a “worst-case scenario” type of disaster.
Billy Donovan, Thunder: As with Hoiberg, Donovan’s arrival in Oklahoma City came a steep price: $30 million over five years, plus the various risks associated with firing Scott Brooks. Thunder GM Sam Presti seemed to target Donovan because he has the cachet to reach superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and a strong enough personality to help carry the franchise forward if Durant leaves next summer in free agency.
Scott Skiles, Magic: A proven turnaround artist meets a young roster that needs to be turned around. Short-term expectations are minimal after three sub-30 win seasons and Skiles has a really good shot at cracking 30. Plus, Jacque Vaughn just lasted more than two and a half seasons before he was canned, so Skiles knows his work won’t be subjected to undue impatience and scrutiny.
Alvin Gentry, Pelicans: There’s no big rush in the Big Easy now that Anthony Davis is locked into a monster rookie extension. The hope is that Genry’s up-tempo system is a smash hit, but his lengthy track record has earned him some time to get up to speed if injuries continue to strike this year.
Michael Malone, Nuggets: The last thing Nuggets management wants to do is launch another coaching search at this point, so Malone should enjoy plenty of time to assist Emmanuel Mudiay’s acclimation to the NBA game. The well-respected coach need not worry about a one-and-done firing given his ownership group’s demonstrated commitment to frugality.
Safe (because they’ve done a good job)
These proven high-performers work for owners who are seemingly smart enough to appreciate them.
Rick Carlisle, Mavericks: Dallas faces more questions this season than it has in years. Carlisle’s acumen isn’t one of them. As long as owner Mark Cuban pursues victories by spending big in free agency, he’ll have a hard time finding a better coach than Carlisle to coach his vets.
Erik Spoelstra, Heat: Remarkably, Spoelstra won 17 fewer games in 2014–15 than in 2013–14 without facing any real questioning about his job security. That speaks to the power of LeBron James, certainly, but also to Spoelstra’s reputation as a quality coach and his close relationship with Pat Riley. There will be some pressure to produce this year, after ownership spent to keep Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic, but Spoelstra’s strong track record and two rings are proof he can get it done when his talent is healthy.
Quin Snyder, Jazz: Snyder quietly had a very strong rookie season in Utah: he claimed 38 victories (a 13-game improvement over 2013–14) and he presided over the NBA’s best defense down the stretch. If the up-and-coming Jazz unexpectedly flat-line this season, ownership should ask management why it sat on its hand all summer, rather wonder whether Snyder is the right guy for the job.
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Brett Brown, Sixers: A lesser man would have exploded or quit by now. Brown is set to play five-on-six for the third straight year, with GM Sam Hinkie taking the court in an opposing uniform ready to detonate Philadelphia’s decimated roster at a moment’s notice. Because Philadelphia is so firmly committed to its long-term rebuilding strategy, Brown is strangely hard to fire. He can’t really “lose a locker room” that was never there to begin with and he can’t fail to meet expectations when there aren’t any. Brown might be the single most sympathetic figure in the entire NBA.
Kevin McHale, Rockets: The big winner of last year’s “Hot Seat” watch was McHale, who entered the season as a lame duck coach and ended the season with a contract extension and a trip to the Western Conference finals. This year, his fifth in Houston, McHale has the most talented roster of his tenure. Only an unexpected, unlikely and dramatic fall down the standings could push him back towards thin ice.
Jason Kidd, Bucks: Kudos to Kidd: he bailed out of Brooklyn at the perfect time, he immediately turned around Milwaukee, and he managed to avoid any allegations of back-room power plays this summer. Even though 2015–16 might be a little rockier than some observers expect, given the departures of multiple veterans and the fact that Jabari Parker is coming off an ACL injury, Kidd looks like the right guy to see this group through. His core has insane upside and his ties to ownership should keep him well-compensated if other suitors come calling.
These guys have done well, but you never know.
Dave Joerger, Grizzlies: Memphis has been steady for five years now, the last two with Joerger at the helm. The Grizzlies are clinging tightly to their winning formula (awesome defense + could be better offense = 50+ wins), which annually has them just outside the “contender” conversation. Joerger signed an extension in 2014 that keeps him under contract through at least 2016–17, Marc Gasol re-signed a long extension over the summer and Mike Conley can sign long-term next summer. Theoretically, that should keep the Grizzlies continuing on smoothly.
Owner and shooting-sleeve connoisseur Robert Pera is a bit of a wild card, though, and there is some backsliding potential this year. Memphis’s core is inching past 30 and the Grizzlies may open the playoffs on the road, which could lead to a first-round exit. That need not prove fatal, as Joeger survived a similar step back in 2013–14, his first year on the job, but the Grizzlies’ ticking clock may add a new urgency that hasn’t been there in the past.
Jeff Hornacek, Suns: There have been some warranted questions coming out of Phoenix about why Hornacek, who is set to enter the final guaranteed year of his contract, hasn’t received an extension. Honestly, the Suns have been hard to read for years now and they’ve done Hornacek no favors by constantly flipping his roster. From a job evaluation standpoint, Hornacek did everything you would want from a first-time coach: he established a style of play, he didn’t bend in the face of dominant personalities on his team, he overachieved in year one and he kept his team fairly competitive despite some choppy waters in year two. He definitely passes the “Could anyone else reasonably have done much better?” test. Phoenix’s 2015–16 season could go many different ways but that uncertainty falls primarily on management. Keeping Hornacek looks like it would be a good step towards finally achieving some stability.
Frank Vogel, Pacers: There’s been a lot of focus about how much has been asked of Paul George during Indiana’s abrupt shift from tall ball to small ball. Although Vogel doesn’t have to defend Anthony Davis or crash the glass, he’s feeling the pain from management’s shift in philosophy, too. After building a team that went to the East finals two straight years, he’s now being asked to change his approach, chameleon style, by emphasizing speed and offense rather than discipline and defense. This is all happening on a tight timeline, too, so he’s at the mercy of his assembled talent too.
The good news is that he signed a multi-year contract extension last year, so the temptation to blame the coach if the new style doesn’t take immediately should be at least somewhat dampened. At the same time, Larry Bird clearly has a vision and he wants that vision executed, regardless of whether or not it pushes Vogel outside his comfort zone.
Terry Stotts, Blazers: To date, Blazers GM Neil Olshey has steadfastly backed Stotts, and rightfully so. The veteran coach has been asked to handle a bunch of different tasks—launch a rebuild, guide an unexpected contender, make do without a bench—and he’s handled them all quite well. He delivered the organization’s first playoff series victory in more than a decade and he’s built a strong relationship with franchise point guard Damian Lillard.
The major concern here is that Portland is likely going to be a very high-variance team this year. With so many young pieces, expectations are fairly limited, but there’s a big difference in appearances between winning 32 games and winning 20 when you’re coming off two straight 50-win seasons. Stotts signed a contract extension in 2014 but he’s entering his last guaranteed season this year. If he manages to overachieve, as he did in his first year back in 2012–13, he should be fine.
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These coaches need to beat expectations. … or else.
Randy Wittman, Wizards: A perennial “hot seat” favorite, Wittman is coming off back-to-back trips to the second round and he has John Wall, now solidified as the East’s best point guard, to carry him to a solid win total this year. His own strategic approach this summer is evidence that he’s not comfortable resting on those laurels. Wittman has pledged to pick up the pace, go with spread lineups more often, and emphasize the three-pointer over long twos. These are all developments that observers have been screaming for over the last two years, especially in light of the success he had with spreading out during the 2015 playoffs.
So he’s either finally listened to the critics, or he’s stumbled upon the logic himself. Either way, it’s time now to deliver. Wall is getting better by the year, former high lottery picks Bradley Beal and Otto Porter are progressing, and the franchise looks poised to make a serious run at Kevin Durant. Wittman probably can’t afford a “blah” campaign and he risks being exposed if his change in strategy somehow flops. Although Wittman signed a contract extension in 2014, this is his last guaranteed year, meaning his head is effectively on the block.
Dwane Casey, Raptors: It’s funny how a season’s end winds up defining the whole campaign. Casey has improved his win total in each of his four seasons in Toronto—from 23 in 2011–12 to a franchise-record 49 last season—but that consistent progress has felt muted by the Raptors’ back-to-back postseason failures. Their 2015 loss, in a sweep to the Wizards, was a flat-out embarrassment and led to speculation about Casey’s job security and some changes in his coaching staff.
Like Stotts and Wittman, Casey is entering the final guaranteed year of a three-year extension signed in 2014. Without any postseason success to point to, those terms feel an awful lot like a mandate: improve the defense and advance to the second round, or it’s sayonara. That feeling is reinforced by GM Masai Ujiri’s summer spending. By adding DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo and Luis Scola, Ujiri can now look Casey in the eye next summer and ask, “I gave you the pieces to make us better. What did you do with them?”
Steve Clifford, Hornets: Another quality coach facing an ultimatum is Clifford, who totally overachieved by winning 43 games in 2013–14, his first year on the job, before winning just 33 last year. He enters the season as a lame duck and without key small forward, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who was lost to a serious shoulder injury during the preseason.
Clifford’s signature success was guiding Charlotte to the league’s No. 6 defense and a playoff appearance in Year 1. His most obvious failures have been the Hornets’ subpar offensive numbers, which aren’t really his fault given the lack of talent on hand, and the spectacular failure that was the Lance Stephenson Experience (again, hard to blame a coach when a “shooting” guard shoots 17% on three-pointers for a season).
Chronically impatient owner Michael Jordan has never set a particularly certain course, but this year is setting up to be super wobbly, even by his standards. Without Kidd-Gilchrist, matching last year’s win total is no guarantee and Al Jefferson, Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams are all unrestricted free agents next summer. It’s easy to envision Clifford winding up as a casualty, fair or not, if Jordan and GM Rich Cho find themselves heading for another rebuild after missing the playoffs again.
This season could be it.
David Blatt, Cavaliers: His owner handed him a roster that costs roughly $170 million this season in payroll and luxury taxes and his star is the most influential player in the league who has played for the title every year since 2011. This would be a “Finals or bust” situation for any coach, but especially one who isn’t exactly buddy-buddy with LeBron James and who nearly blew a playoff game by requesting a timeout he didn’t have. Although Blatt scrambled nicely in the face of numerous injuries during the 2015 playoffs, he surely senses his expendability on a daily basis.
George Karl, Kings: With most owners, Karl would find himself in the “Safe (because he’s new here)” category with guys like Skiles, Malone and Gentry. Sacramento hasn’t won a thing in ages, his roster isn’t overloaded with talent, there are fit and lineup questions all over the place, and he is picking up the pieces after not one but two coaches were dumped last season. That all—usually—adds up to a loose leash.
Vivek Ranadive isn’t most owners, though, and he seems intent upon reminding the world of that fact at least three or five times every year. For no particularly good reason, other than his long track record and the enormous backlash that would result from another ownership overstep, I think Karl will beat the odds and hang on this season. His key tasks: 1) find a relatively comfortable and somewhat successful partnership with DeMarcus Cousins, and 2) make sure that Rajon Rondo doesn’t totally define his team’s success or failure. If he can do those things and make a push towards .500, huge “ifs,” then he should survive the guillotine.
Lionel Hollins, Nets: Life came at Hollins fast. Back in July 2014, when he signed a four-year deal (with a team option) to coach the Nets, Hollins was pitching his team’s “nice nucleus” and offering to help retain key free agency. Since then, Paul Pierce decided to move on and both Deron Williams and Kevin Garnett exited stage left. That nucleus is dead, replaced by Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young Joe Johnson’s expiring contract, and a whole bunch of uninspiring parts. Oh, yeah, I’m sure this Andrea Bargnani experiment will work out great.
Is the hard-driving, no-nonsense Hollins really the right coach to guide what could be a rocky rebuilding cycle? Probably not. Ironically, the one thing that might prolong Hollins’ stay: Brooklyn has traded away so many draft picks that it will be difficult to launch a full-build immediately. So, then, maybe he’s the right guy to oversee a few years of boring misery? Or, at least until it’s cheaper to move on and find the next guy? What a pitch.
Byron Scott, Lakers: The best thing Scott had going for him, when he was hired in 2014, was his relationship with Kobe Bryant and his ties to the Lakers’ glory days. Those were clear assets when Bryant was just beginning a monster two-year, $48.5 million extension and the reality of how bad the Lakers were going to be without both Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol hadn’t totally sunk in yet.
Now? Those look like tenuous strengths at best. What happens if Bryant rides off into the sunset after this season, his 20th, and L.A. posts another 20-ish win season? Scott, all of a sudden, is a coach without a popular advocate and a legend whose reputation is getting tarnished with every ugly loss.
Unfortunately for Scott, who might lead the league in miserable post-game press conferences, it looks like he’s being set up for another rough season. Sure, recent lottery picks D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle will provide some pop, but his roster’s defensive ceiling is incredibly low and his squad of shoot-first, ask-questions-late types is bound to create internal friction. The Bryant question still looms too, with the future Hall of Famer already banged up during the preseason.
The temptation for an embattled front office to bring in a big name to guide the franchise, if Bryant does retire, will surely be strong. “New era, new coach” is a really, really easy sell, and Scott would be an awfully convenient scapegoat if L.A. struggles this year as expected. His reluctance to embrace three-pointers, his notoriously hard practices, and his team’s pitiful performance on defense could all function as reasons for the franchise to move forward.
With that in mind, Scott’s surest path to keeping his job is to forge a strong connection with Russell and Randle, overseeing rapid development and giving ownership something to sell. Can he set aside his old-school tendencies and keep Bryant’s role at least somewhat limited while learning to fully embrace the ups and downs of the youngsters? We’ll see.
Derek Fisher, Knicks: New rule: If you’re a completely unproven coach in a major media market. … and fans started putting paper bags on their heads within months of your debut. … and you oversaw the worst season in your franchise’s history in your rookie campaign. … and you unexpectedly miss a training camp practice to start your second season. … and you missed the practice because you couldn’t get a flight home after a cross-country trip that generated tabloid headlines because you were apparently one of the victims in an alleged domestic altercation with a former teammate and current Grizzlies player. … and your brazen owner cares so little about anything that he referred to his own WNBA team in an HBO interview as a “never-ending pit of money that just keeps going out the door”. … and your roster is one injury away from another utter disaster. … then you’re permanently on the hot seat. No Zen Master vibes and no amount of minor incremental improvement can save you from the perpetual threat of the axe.