- It's been more than a year since the NBA saw its last coaching change, a streak that is unlikely to last. Which NBA head coach is on the hottest seat entering 2017-18? We rank the top five.
The 2016-17 NBA season saw history of all sorts: Golden State enjoyed the most dominant postseason run of the modern era, LeBron James became first player ever to average a triple-double in the Finals, and Houston set new records for three-pointers made and attempted. But 2016-17 produced another less-discussed historical oddity by marking the first time the league had zero coaching turnover for an entire season since the NBA/ABC merger. Even more remarkably, there wasn’t a single coach fired or replaced during the offseason either.
In other words, all 30 teams will start 2017-18 with the same coach they had 12 months ago. That’s crazy, once one considers that 14 teams executed coaching changes prior to the 2013-14 season, nine teams flipped the switch prior to 2014-15 and 12 teams hired new coaches or promoted interims prior to 2016-17. One of the sport’s most tumultuous professions has suddenly, and unexpectedly, enjoyed total stability.
There’s no single, convincing explanation for this phenomenon. In a July interview with NBA.com, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle cited the longer-term, big-dollar contracts given to coaches as a factor. That piece also included suggestions that communication between front offices and coaches might have improved and that shortening the length of player contracts gives coaches more leverage. The rise of the executive/coach—like Detroit’s Stan Van Gundy and Minnesota’s Tom Thibodeau—is certainly worth mentioning. There’s also a possible Warriors effect at play: It’s theoretically more difficult for owners and front offices to conclude that their coaches are underperforming if they don’t believe their rosters are talented enough to match up with the talent on Golden State’s superteam.
The obvious question heading into 2017-18, then, is whether this proves to be a continuing trend or an anomaly. Cynics would argue that a busy offseason of front-office turnover spells choppier waters ahead for coaches. Indeed, the Cavaliers, Knicks, Pacers, Bucks, Hawks, Magic and Clippers all made significant front-office changes during the offseason. Will all of those new decision-makers keep staying the course? One would think not.
Which coaches should be looking over their shoulder? Let’s count down this season’s top five Hot Seat candidates.
5. Michael Malone, Nuggets
The good news for Malone: Denver picked up his contract option in June so his contract runs through 2018-19. The bad news: Someone in the West will have to miss the playoffs and Malone looks especially vulnerable to sacking if the Nuggets wind up as the odd team out for the second straight season.
Tom Thibodeau isn’t going to fire himself in Minnesota. Terry Stotts is entrenched in Portland with multiple playoff series wins on his record. Quin Snyder is coming off of a second-round appearance and has established a clear style and culture in Utah. David Fizdale is popular and just getting started in Memphis.
Relatively speaking, then, Malone is on shaky ground. He’s never taken a team to the playoffs. He has plenty of questions but no answers at the point guard spot. His roster’s positional balance is badly out of whack, sporting frontcourt logjams and nonexistent wing depth. His lack of communication played a central role in Jusuf Nurkic’s unhappiness and eventual departure. His team’s excellent offense is largely dependent on Nikola Jokic remaining healthy and will no longer enjoy the element of surprise this season. His team’s atrocious defense caused him to publicly lose his cool last season and could wind up being an issue again. And, perhaps worst of all, expectations have been ramped up after Denver barely missed out on the West’s No. 8 seed and then invested $90 million in Paul Millsap, its biggest free-agent signing in years.
While the Nuggets absolutely deserve to be viewed as a potential playoff team, the preceding paragraph highlights a number of ways for Malone to feel the heat as this season unfolds.
4. Mike Budenholzer, Hawks
The 2015 Coach of the Year finds himself on this list because of shifting circumstances rather than any questions over his competence. During Budenholzer’s four-year tenure, the Hawks made the conference finals for the first time during the three-point era and won more cumulative games than every East team besides Toronto and Cleveland. Budenholzer, 48, made that happen without the benefit of a top-10 superstar and despite all sorts of off-court organizational drama.
Unfortunately, the five starters from Budenholzer’s prized 60-win squad from 2015 have departed one by one, causing Atlanta to backslide in each of the past two seasons. To make matters worse for the well-respected ex-Spurs assistant, Atlanta stripped him of his front office role and hired Travis Schlenk from Golden State. The rookie GM pursued a slash-and-burn strategy this summer, leaving Budenholzer with a roster that’s best suited to tanking. That’s a radical shift for a coach who has guided four consecutive playoff teams.
While Chicago’s Fred Hoiberg and Indiana’s Nate McMillan are in similar situations following rebuild-oriented off-seasons, Budenholzer is in a stickier spot. Hoiberg operates with the knowledge that his bosses chose keeping him over trying to make it work with All-Star Jimmy Butler. McMillan, meanwhile, has a longstanding relationship with Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard that dates back to their time together with the Blazers.
Will Budenholzer and Schlenk see eye-to-eye on personnel and strategic decisions? Will Budenholzer be satisfied with his reduced role and a new life trying to milk development out of a roster that lacks any real ceiling? Will he have better opportunities than overseeing a long-term rebuilding effort in a city that struggles to attract A-list free agents? Will Schlenk simply want a fresh start and/or the opportunity to hire his own guy? All of those questions make the Hawks worth monitoring, although the natural timeline to execute a coaching change would be early next summer.
3. Doc Rivers, Clippers
Much like Budenholzer, Rivers finds himself stripped of front-office authority and left to coach a team that can no longer be considered an aspiring contender. As if that wasn’t enough, Rivers has yet to enjoy a postseason breakthrough with the Clippers, lost perennial All-NBA point guard Chris Paul this summer, and faces pressure to win in 2017-18 because ultra-competitive owner Steve Ballmer invested $173 million in Blake Griffin this summer.
The list of possible pressure points goes on from there. Ballmer hired Jerry West as a consultant over the summer, and the longtime executive isn’t one to tiptoe around decisions. LA’s roster is full of injury-prone players at key positions, including Griffin, Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Beverley. The Clippers’ locker-room chemistry has been questioned repeatedly after a series of postseason flameouts in recent years.
Paul’s departure looms especially large here because Rivers initially made the controversial decision to leave Boston for LA in 2013 in part to coach a contender built around the future Hall of Fame floor general. How will the 55-year-old Rivers, who won a title with the Celtics in 2008 and hasn’t coached a losing team since 2007, adjust to his team’s lower ceiling?
There are a number of reasonable scenarios that could precipitate a change. The Clippers and Rivers continue drifting apart. Or maybe the Clippers fall out of the West’s top eight for the first time since 2011 and decide it’s time for a new voice. A series of injuries could force a dramatic change of direction midseason. Or Rivers repeats his 2013 playbook by seeking an exit plan and/or greater authority next summer. Or Ballmer gets itchy for new blood after another postseason loss. The list goes on.
2. Jeff Hornacek, Knicks
Don’t pity Hornacek, who knowingly made a deal with the devil last summer by joining one of the league’s most dysfunctional franchises and agreeing to work for one of its most clueless and backwards executives in exchange for a second chance at a head coaching gig.
At the same time, it’s hard not to pity Hornacek. Imagine humoring Phil Jackson’s high-minded basketball philosophical discussions during the job interview process only to watch the Zen Master turn around and immediately trade for a past-his-prime Derrick Rose and then pay $72 million to a well-past-his-prime Joakim Noah. If only coaching contracts had a four-week annulment period.
That’s all ancient history now, though, given that Jackson, Carmelo Anthony and Rose were all swept away during a stormy summer. While New York is clearly better off pursuing its next era—built around Kristaps Porzingis—without all three of those divisive figures, Hornacek is left holding the bag for a constantly-scrutinized and consistently-disappointing organization. The Knicks hired Scott Perry, a rookie GM, to replace Jackson. They didn’t locate a starting-caliber point guard to replace Rose. Their post-Anthony plan includes Michael Beasley, a quirky scientist who wears a wristwatch on his ankle and whose brain research has been seriously questioned by his fellow academics.Throw in Porzingis, a budding star who needs help (that he doesn’t have) to reach his sky-high ceiling, and this is a brutal spot for a coach who lost his locker room during his third season in Phoenix.
There are a few glimmers of hope. No one of sound mind expects the Knicks to compete for a playoff spot. Perry is said to have a deliberate personality and a long-term perspective. Porzingis, 22, may make the leap into the All-Star conversation this year, providing cover for some of the losing. Even so, these are James Dolan’s Knicks and eventually there will need to be blood once the ugly losses start piling up. Noah’s contract is so bad it won’t be tradeable any time soon, leaving Hornacek as the most likely scapegoat.
1. Alvin Gentry, Pelicans
This is a simple fact of NBA life: When an organization feels compelled to issue a formal press release, three paragraphs in length, to announce that its GM and coach will keep their jobs, that GM and coach are officially on the hottest seat possible. That’s what happened in New Orleans back in May, when Dell Demps and Gentry were given a simultaneous public vote of confidence by Saints/Pelicans executive Mickey Loomis. Naturally, the Pelicans’ statement reiterated the organization’s focus on “putting together a playoff-caliber roster” and making the playoffs after back-to-back lottery trips under Gentry.
That remains an awfully high bar for the Pelicans, who have Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Jrue Holiday and precious little else. Demps’s big move this summer was either signing Ian Clark, Golden State’s ninth guy, or talking himself into three-time cast-off Rajon Rondo. Great. In desperate need of shooting for years, Demps added a pair of floor-crunchers in Rondo and Tony Allen. And, to top it all off, Rondo and forward Solomon Hill have already suffered significant injuries that will leave Gentry immediately shorthanded for the third straight season.
Cousins has been a major complicating factor for his coaches throughout his career, and this season is no different. His pairing with Davis gives New Orleans an unorthodox Twin Towers alignment, but it also presents lineup and matchup questions. An unrestricted free agent next summer, Cousins did not request a trade to New Orleans last year and could therefore wind up as a trade chip if the Pelicans start slow. There are also the persistent attitude and composure questions to consider, as New Orleans needs the slimmed-down Cousins to avoid foul trouble, completely avoid suspensions and demonstrate something representing leadership ability if it’s going to have any shot at keeping up with a crop of West playoff hopes that runs at least 11 deep.
Sadly, the 2018 Pelicans seem to possess many of the same problems as previous vintages: a total lack of depth, a weak perimeter cast, and significant injury concerns. If Davis and Cousins don’t click perfectly and shred this broken formula, the Pelicans will find themselves issuing another press release about Demps and Gentry this season, one that prominently features the word “terminated.”