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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

10 NBA coaches on the hot seat this season

Luke Walton

The NBA is a “get wins or get out” enterprise. The business can be callous at times, spurning head coaches who have seemingly earned job security — a lesson Dwane Casey learned the hard way in May. It’s still hard to imagine Casey on the Pistons’ sideline.

It may seem ridiculous to already be speculating about which coaches could be fired this season, but the 2018-19 season is practically upon us, and before we know it, some team will be searching for a new leader. With the preseason already underway, here are 10 coaches on the hot seat.

10. Alvin Gentry, Pelicans

You could argue Anthony Davis’ impressive late-season surge saved Gentry’s job last season. The Pelicans won their first playoff series in the Davis era — an encouraging sign — but the Warriors quickly vanquished New Orleans’ momentum. This seems to be a pivotal moment for the franchise. The Pelicans didn’t have much spending money this summer, as the squad had already dished out hefty contracts to players like E’Twaun Moore, Alexis Ajinca, and Omer Asik. The team allowed DeMarcus Cousins to bolt and signed bargain-basement assets Jahlil Okafor and Elfrid Payton, in addition to Julius Randle. The Pelicans are reliant on Davis sustaining MVP-level production; if he and Jrue Holiday crash back to earth early this season, however, GM Dell Demps — left with little flexibility to add another impact player — may opt to make a coaching change.

9. Tyronn Lue, Cavaliers

It seems the pressure should finally be off of Lue now that LeBron James has joined a new team, right? We disagree. It’s no secret that King James was highly influential in Lue replacing David Blatt midway through the 2015-16 season. Though Cleveland reached the Finals in each year under Lue, the Cavs’ success was always served with a hefty side of drama. With his ties to LeBron now irrelevant, Lue’s job security appears precarious. The Cavs’ talent level is suddenly average — if you’re looking at it optimistically — and the team this summer doubled down on Kevin Love, giving him a four-year extension. That indicates the team will presumably build around the 30-year-old Love. With Cleveland’s finances in disarray and no real prospect of competing for a title in the near future, the Cavs appear headed downhill fast, and Lue could lose his job as a result of a bad season.

8. Mike Malone, Nuggets

In April, Denver GM Tim Connelly said Malone’s job was safe. “I guess [questioning Malone’s job status is] the unfortunate narrative of professional basketball, but Mo’s done a fantastic job,” Connelly told the Denver Post. The Nuggets narrowly missed out on the postseason. With a roster that’s brimming with young talent, you have to wonder whether Malone’s job will indeed be safe if the Nuggets limp out of the gate. With a young core centered on Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, and Gary Harris, expectations are high. Malone’s contract is up after 2018-19, so it wouldn’t be a big surprise for Denver to part ways with the former Kings head coach. To hold onto his job, Malone will need his team’s defense to improve; last season, the Nuggets had the fifth-worst defensive rating in the league.

7. Luke Walton, Lakers

With great (star) power comes great responsibility. As Lue noted, having LeBron on the roster generates “outside tension,” which puts “added pressure immediately on the coaches.” Walton now has arguably the toughest role in the league: coaching LeBron. Walton’s job already seemed in jeopardy last season, when LaVar Ball was calling out the young coach. The Lakers have improved in each season under Walton, but expectations are at a new level this season. In Cleveland, Lue got a bit of a break because fans — and management — recognized LeBron had little talent surrounding him. In L.A., however, the situation is different. The Lakers are flush with promising young pieces, and they shelled out cap space to acquire veteran role players like Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson this summer. Though the Lakers’ long-term prospects are encouraging, the situation this season has all the makings of something that could go wrong out of the gate. The team lacks shooters and a reliable second scoring option. If the early season goes poorly, the 38-year-old Walton could be the fall guy.

6. Doc Rivers, Clippers

The Clippers have officially moved on from Lob City — Chris Paul was traded to the Rockets, Blake Griffin was traded to the Pistons, and DeAndre Jordan signed with the Mavericks. With that era in the past, the team may also look to move on from Rivers, who’s been with L.A. since 2013. He’s no longer heading up the front office, and when he shifted to focusing exclusively on coaching last season, the results were surprisingly good. Despite the roster lacking noticeable talent, the Clippers — led by surprise star Lou Williams — hung around in the West playoff race and finished with a winning record (42-40). Given the team’s performance last season, Rivers’ job isn’t in major jeopardy, but it’s also not entirely secure. L.A. could retool with two max-contract players in 2019, and if the team wants to usher in an entirely new chapter, it may change its leadership as well.

5. Terry Stotts, Blazers

Stotts is the leading candidate to replicate Casey’s fate this season. He’s done a tremendous job in Portland, but his team hasn’t found success in the postseason. Shortly after Portland fell to New Orleans in Game 4 of their first-round series, completing the Pelicans’ sweep, Marc Stein tweeted that “murmurs have already started in coaching circles that 10 consecutive playoff defeats will cost Terry Stotts his job.” GM Neil Olshey elected to keep Stotts around — for now. Rumors have also indicated the Blazers are open to shopping C.J. McCollum or Damian Lillard, but it’s tough to imagine the team breaking up the electrifying young backcourt. Portland also this summer re-signed big man Jusuf Nurkic, doubling down on its current roster. With Stotts owning an uninspiring 12-28 career postseason record, he could be the scapegoat if this team falls short yet again, or falls behind in the competitive playoff race by the All-Star break.

4. Fred Hoiberg, Bulls

Who knows what’s going to happen with the Chicago Bulls this season? That team looks entirely unpredictable. Hoiberg was successful at Iowa State, and he was considered one of the hottest young coaching commodities in hoops circles — but his move to the NBA, like Billy Donovan’s, has not been ideal. His Bulls teams haven’t escaped the first round since he took over, and his win total has declined every year. Chicago has an enticing group of young players — Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. are particularly promising — but it isn’t clear who will bear the Bulls’ primary scoring burden. Zach Lavine? Jabari Parker? Is having one of those players as your primary option even remotely encouraging? Hoiberg’s system has not translated well to the NBA; the 45-year-old may not make it through year four of his five-year deal.

3. Dave Joerger, Kings

Seemingly everyone was baffled when the Grizzlies didn’t bring back Joerger. The Kings were thrilled to sign the emerging young coach, who had pushed Golden State to six games and had led Memphis to 55 regular-season wins. But his time in Sacramento has been a letdown. In Joerger’s first season (2016-17), Sacramento won 32 games; last season, the Kings won 27. If their win total declines yet again — which many expect it will given the proliferation of talent in the West — the Kings may allow Joerger’s contract to expire. The wrinkle in this situation: Sacramento has embraced a rebuild and is focused on developing its young talent. If De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley III, or Harry Giles seem to be blossoming into a star, the Kings may hesitate to switch coaches, fearful of stunting the young player’s development.

2. Tom Thibodeau, Timberwolves

Minnesota made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2003-04, but Thibs is in serious trouble. Despite the playoff berth, last season was a letdown. With Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl-Anthony Towns in tow, pundits expected the Wolves to challenge the top teams in the West. Instead, they limped into the playoffs and barely challenged Houston in the first round. Now, Butler — who also played for Thibs in Chicago — wants a trade to a major-market team with space to sign him to a max deal. Butler’s camp can try to spin this a different way, but there’s no denying the dynamics in Minnesota’s locker room were off. The three stars just didn’t play well together, and personalities seemed to clash. Some responsibility for that funky dynamic has to fall on the coach. Thibs’ coaching approach may have worked with the hard-nosed Bulls, led by Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, but he hasn’t replicated his success in Minnesota. This situation looks poised to blow up.

1. Billy Donovan, Thunder

You have to wonder whether Donovan regrets leaving Florida. In his first season, the Thunder took a 3-1 lead on the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals — but, of course, they blew that series (and have not escaped the first round since that point). Then another blow: OKC lost Kevin Durant to Golden State. Then Russell Westbrook turned into a one-man wrecking crew, driving basketball purists mad. Last season featured the awkward Carmelo Anthony Experiment, and the season ended in disappointing fashion with a hasty exit at the hands of the Jazz. OKC brought back Paul George this summer, and GM Sam Presti said “continuity is (Donovan’s) best friend going forward.” With George back, Anthony gone, and Dennis Schroder added to the rotation, OKC is starting to gain some title buzz — they could challenge Houston as the West’s No. 2 team, people are saying. Fans are expecting a contender. Donovan inherited a tough gig with high expectations, and this appears to be his final chance. If his team doesn’t escape the first round yet again this year, he’ll all but certainly be looking for a new job (perhaps back in the NCAA ranks).

Aaron Mansfield is a freelance sports writer. His work has appeared in Complex, USA Today, and the New York Times. You can reach him via email at [email protected]



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