Hot seat watch: Which NBA coaches face uncertain futures as season nears?
Not Quite Yet Hot Seat
Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers
To be clear, nothing that Stotts did or didn’t do during his first year in Portland is the reason he winds up on this list. Indeed, it’s not often that a coach can overachieve during a season in which his team lost 13 straight games to close the season, but that’s pretty much what happened with the 33-win Blazers last season. Handling a “rotation” that consisted of five starters plus a bunch of young, unproven players and roster flotsam, Stotts elected to ride his starting five as far as they could go, playing Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and J.J. Hickson more than 2,300 minutes each. Stotts really had no alternative, given the roster at his disposal, but the concentrated workload proved to be an unsustainable gimmick, as Aldridge, Batum and Matthews all succumbed to various injuries down the stretch.
This summer brought help: Blazers GM Neil Olshey acquired Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, CJ McCollum, Thomas Robinson, and Earl Watson, giving Stotts some actual choices when he looks down the bench. Those choices come with a price: raised expectations. Although he resisted laying out a “must make the playoffs” ultimatum, the Blazers’ notoriously fickle owner Paul Allen told reporters during training camp that the front office had done a “great job improving the talent” and that it was now “the coach’s turn to take that talent and see how far we can go.” During his Media Day comments, Stotts said that his roster is the best he’s had as a head coach and laid it all out on the line, saying: “Expectations are the playoffs and beyond.”
Even though his motion-heavy offensive system has a chance to rank in the top 10 this season, Stotts’ fate could very well hang on the improvement Portland makes on the defensive end. Last season, the Blazers ranked No. 26 in defensive efficiency, and they spent most of camp implementing a new scheme for defending pick-and-rolls. If significant improvement isn’t made, Stotts could find himself in a familiar position, as he was unable to hang on until the third year at his two previous stops (Atlanta and Milwaukee). Dumping Stotts next summer for failing to make the playoffs or failing to produce an above-average defense would almost certainly be unfair, but fairness doesn’t really enter the equation when it comes to Allen’s decision-making when he’s disappointed — which is often.
Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City Thunder
The league’s best organizations tend to subscribe to the “find the right guy and stick with him” mantra. The Spurs, Heat, Mavericks and Thunder have all taken that approach in recent years, as Oklahoma City locked up Brooks to a lucrative four-year extension in 2012. Even though the Thunder have been dead set in their ways — perhaps to a fault — under GM Sam Presti, the external pressure on Brooks will almost certainly hit an all-time high this season.
Brooks faces obstacles on two fronts: the extraordinarily high expectations that come with the team’s track record of success, and the fallout from Russell Westbrook’s knee injury. On the first count, anything short of a trip to the Finals is now a disappointment for the Kevin Durant/Westbrook/Serge Ibaka core, after the bar was set there in 2012. On the second, Westbrook’s absence has revealed some flaws, particularly when it comes to a simplistic offensive system, that wind up getting traced back to Brooks. This is a common dilemma for a coach with superstars: receive none of the credit when the stars play well, and take all of the blame when the stars falter or are unavailable.
If he coached the same roster but for a different organization — say, the Knicks or Lakers — there’s little question Brooks’ job security would be a leading topic of preseason conversation after a 2012-13 season that ended in the second round of the playoffs. Oklahoma City’s team-oriented climate offers him all the stability a coach could ask for, and the team’s location shields him from some portion of the vultures that collect around big-market coaches in turmoil.
Even still, what happens if Oklahoma City — which isn’t expected to have Westbrook until December, and isn’t as deep as in years past — falls short of the conference finals again? What happens if their offense again breaks down into “Durant vs. the world” one-on-five play, with not enough structure to provide support? What happens if Brooks continues to live and die with the same old targets of fan ire, Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher, and he winds up burned once again? It’s going too far to say that Brooks’ seat is truly “hot” at this moment, but he’s clearly got more questions to answer this season than his fellow incumbent coaches in charge of top-shelf contenders (Erik Spoelstra, Gregg Popovich, and Tom Thibodeau).
Five Others To Watch
Mike D’Antoni, Lakers: There shouldn’t be any reason for the Lakers to churn through D’Antoni in what is looking like a rebuilding season. Then again, there wasn’t any reason for Lakers executive Jeanie Buss to tell the world that the organization’s hiring of D’Antoni over Phil Jackson, her fiance, was a “betrayal,” so all bets are apparently off.
Jason Kidd, Nets: Of the nine first-year coaches, none faces more pressure than Kidd, who will get the full big-market scrutiny while working for a very demanding and competitive owner. If anyone would blow up a franchise icon after just one season without thinking twice, it would be Mikhail Prokhorov. The roster pieces are in place — and the assistant coaching staff has been assembled — to give Kidd a great shot at success out of the gate.
Monty Williams, Pelicans: Caretaker of the post-CP3 Pelicans, Williams, who has gone 94-136 (.409) in three seasons, hasn’t had much with which to work. His situation is an interesting one to watch because New Orleans has ranked No. 29 or No. 30 in pace throughout his tenure. Does that super-slow approach make sense with an Anthony Davis/Jrue Holiday/Eric Gordon/Tyreke Evans/Ryan Anderson core? Will Williams — who is highly-regarded for his communication ability and was named an assistant coach by USA Basketball this summer — be able to make the right adjustments?
Mike Woodson, Knicks: “Woody” should be on solid ground after leading the Knicks to their most wins since 1997 and their first playoff series victory since 2000. He’s conquered his No. 1 objective — constructing an elite offense around Carmelo Anthony — and the team’s salaries align such that most of the major roster moves will take place in 2015, rather than 2014. “James Dolan Being James Dolan” is his biggest concern.
Rick Adelman, Timberwolves: One of the league’s best coaches, Adelman has endured a snake-bitten tenure in the Twin Cities, thanks to a host of injuries and a flawed roster composed by former GM David Kahn. Neither of those weighty issues qualifies as the biggest factor influencing his coaching future, as Adelman admitted in March that his wife’s health problems nearly led to his retirement. Here’s hoping Adelman is in position to do his part to lead the Timberwolves to their first postseason appearance since 2004.