Assessing the NBA Coaching Carousel

There was a lot of movement in the coaching market this NBA offseason, but were there any significant upgrades?
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For months, the NBA’s coaching carousel seemed like it would amount to little more than a quick spin, with New York and Chicago the only teams conducting searches. Then Philadelphia flamed out, and Brett Brown was shown the door. Billy Donovan ran for one soon after. Alvin Gentry was given the boot. Nate McMillan, shockingly, was too. Mike D’Antoni walked out of Houston, and a stunning second-round exit spelled the end of Doc Rivers’s time in Los Angeles.

With the jobs filling up—Oklahoma City and Houston stand as the only teams left with vacancies—it’s time to ask: Were there any significant upgrades?

The Clippers played musical chairs on their bench, shifting Tyronn Lue a few feet over to take Rivers’s seat. Lue was a natural choice: He has a championship on his résumé and several years of deep playoff runs in Cleveland. He has proven he can win over the respect of stars, no small thing on a team headlined by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. And he has familiarity, which could be critical for a team that will need to hit the ground running next season—literally, perhaps, as Lue indicated this week that he wanted the team to play faster—whenever next season begins.

Is Lue an upgrade over Rivers? Depends on whether you believe the Clippers would have suffered the same fate if the season finished without interruption. L.A., remember, was rolling when the pandemic hit. The bubble blew up any momentum it had before the stoppage. Players shuffled in and out, injuries happened. That’s not an excuse—Denver dealt with similar issues, and the Nuggets summoned the strength to rally from a 3–1 deficit in the conference semifinals—but a reminder that Rivers had the Clips well positioned before the NBA ground to a halt.

And what about Rivers, who was unemployed for just a few days before the 76ers scooped him up? Rivers will bring needed gravitas to the Sixers locker room, a powerful voice that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will listen to. But Rivers’s hire in Philadelphia doesn’t address a fundamental issue—the Sixers are deeply flawed. The team lacks perimeter shooting, Al Horford is getting older, and it remains an open question whether Embiid and Simmons are fit to play alongside each other. Rivers can make some tweaks—how he plays Simmons moving forward will be worth watching—but the pressure is on Elton Brand and the front office to balance out the roster.

Stan Van Gundy is the newly minted coach in New Orleans, and the loss of Van Gundy on television notwithstanding—Van Gundy was brilliant working games last season for TNT—this is an excellent choice. Van Gundy is a teacher, someone whose bona fides are rooted in a successful five-year run in Orlando, where Van Gundy coached a young team into the NBA Finals in 2009. The Pelicans need that, need Van Gundy to do for Zion Williamson what he did for Dwight Howard, to pull more out of Brandon Ingram, to unlock the talent of Lonzo Ball. New Orleans oozes potential—it’s fair to say that with a healthy Zion the Pels would have made the playoffs last season—and Van Gundy is just the coach to bring it out of them.

Donovan bolted Oklahoma City for Chicago, where he inherits one of the NBA’s more interesting rebuilds. Jim Boylen had to go—that it took new team president Artūras Karnišovas months to do it was the only surprise. Donovan will take heat for the way the Thunder season ended—seriously, what was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander doing inbounding the ball in the final seconds of Game 7 and why was a lob to Steven Adams against super-small Houston not the primary play?—but Donovan was a steady hand on an Oklahoma City team that seemed to reinvent itself every year. In Chicago, Donovan will have a chance to mold a solid young core, as he did with Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort and others in OKC, while waiting for the summer of 2021, when the big market Bulls can be players on the free agent market.

McMillan didn’t deserve to be fired in Indiana, even after Miami broomed the Pacers out of the playoffs. Nate Bjorkgren is something of an unknown—the ex-Nick Nurse assistant in Toronto is another coaching lifer who rose from the high school ranks to the G League to the NBA to earn this opportunity—but unknowns aren’t a bad thing. What was Nurse before the Raptors gave him a shot? Or Erik Spoelstra before Pat Riley entrusted him with the Heat? Brad Stevens was a mid-major college coach before Boston came calling. There’s a lot of Nurse in Bjorkgren, who promises the Pacers will shoot more threes, be more disruptive on defense and throw out some unique rotations. It’s worth giving him a shot.

Tom Thibodeau has been through the wringer in recent years, but make no mistake: Thibs can coach. The Timberwolves imploded in part due to personnel moves Thibodeau made, in part due to his frosty relationship with key figures in the T-Wolves' front office, but let’s not forget Minnesota won 47 games in Thibodeau’s last full season, and that the Bulls were annually among the NBA’s best. Thibs gets painted as a coach more comfortable with veteran players, and that’s probably true, but those Chicago teams were headlined by a group of twentysomethings in Derrick Rose (the NBA’s youngest MVP on Thibodeau’s watch), Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng. In Minnesota, Karl-Anthony Towns developed into an All-Star under Thibodeau. Whatever his flaws are with personnel—and Thibodeau should never, ever be in charge personnel with a team again—Thibs is a high-level coach who can maximize talent on any roster, young or old.

Coaching changes are easy, a quick way for teams to energize a fan base and create hope for the future. This offseason had some notable ones. We’ll see how many work out.