Hot seat watch: Which NBA coaches face uncertain futures as season nears?
The NBA’s coaching carousel went crashing off its axis over the last year, as a total of 14 teams enter the 2013-14 season with a different head coach than last year. That number actually undersells the amount of movement, as four teams (Lakers, Nets, Suns and Bucks) burned through both a head coach and an interim coach over the last 12 months.
The sheer volume of turnover is amazing, but a high baseline of change was anticipated. At this time last year, the likes of Mike Brown (Lakers), Vinny Del Negro (Clippers), Alvin Gentry (Suns), Scott Skiles (Bucks), Keith Smart (Kings) and Lawrence Frank (Pistons) were firmly on the hot seat, and it didn’t take long before Doug Collins (Sixers), Avery Johnson (Nets) and Larry Drew (Hawks) joined them. Observers could be forgiven if they were a bit numb and desensitized by the time the year’s most shocking departures — George Karl (Nuggets), Lionel Hollins (Grizzlies) — went down over the summer.
An attempt to categorize the causes of the coaching changes looks something like this: failing to make the playoffs, failing to produce progress on a lottery team, failing to advance in the playoffs, failing to see eye-to-eye with management on roster management, failing to see eye-to-eye with management on compensation, failing to have the stomach for a rebuilding effort, failing to reach self-imposed expectations, failing to properly develop young players, failing to keep the house in order, and failing to connect with the superstar player(s). There might be even more than that. Together, this was all just a reminder: a coach can be let go for any number of reasons, logical or not.
Things should be (relatively) more stable over the next 12 months. Nine coaches hired this summer are first-timers, and they will presumably be able to avoid the Mike Dunlap Treatment by surviving more than one season before critics start coming for their heads. What’s more, a solid number of teams pegged to be among the NBA’s worst this season — the Sixers, Suns, Bobcats, Celtics and Kings, to name five — have new coaches, reducing the likelihood of the infamous “Owner/management freaks out at losing season and cans the coach” technique. Indeed, all five coaches in those spots were seemingly hand-picked to handle their rough circumstances.
So, who’s left? Which coaches should be a little nervous as opening night approaches? Let’s take a look.
Tyrone Corbin, Utah Jazz
Among the projected cellar-dwellers who seem intent on pursuing the developing/rebuilding route, Utah is unique in that it hasn’t undertaken a coaching change since 2011. One might assume at first that a youth movement would take some of the pressure off Corbin, who is 87-89 (.494) in two-plus seasons after taking over for Jerry Sloan, but that’s probably an oversimplification. Corbin was initially appointed to make the transition from Sloan as smooth as possible while keeping Utah in the mix for the playoffs; this Jazz team is in a very different place after letting Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Mo Williams leave in free agency. Further complicating matters: Corbin is entering a contract year and he’s working for a GM, Dennis Lindsey, who joined the organization after Corbin was promoted to the head job.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported in September that no contract extension was expected for Corbin, which makes sense given the franchise’s sharp turn this summer. The task ahead for Corbin is straightforward: prove to management that he’s the guy who can get the most out of a young core that includes Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks and Trey Burke. If he falls short, or simply doesn’t put his stamp on the season, Corbin could go the way of Gentry, Frank, Smart and Byron Scott (Cavaliers) by falling victim to the “it’s time for a new voice” routine.
Randy Wittman, Washington Wizards
Honestly, Wittman, who is 47-84 (.359) since taking over in Washington in 2012, should be commended for surviving this long. John Wall’s midseason return has helped erase the memory of a brutal 0-12 start that eventually blossomed (mushroomed?) into a brutal 4-28 record through the first week of January. The top reason Wittman hung on: Wall’s absence was so obviously the leading cause of Washington’s atrocious play that dumping the coach before he had a chance to guide his franchise point guard would have seemed unfair.
Unfortunately for Wittman, “our star player was hurt” is a card that coaches of perennial lottery teams usually don’t get to play in successive seasons. Owner Ted Leonsis has made it clear that returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 is the organization’s priority. “I’m tired of losing,” he said earlier this month, according to the Washington Post. “I expect us to be a playoff-caliber team. I think our fan base expects that too and that’s the pressure I’ve placed on our organization.”
Those statements — among others — leave zero wiggle room for Wittman, who is in the final season of his current contract. It’s playoffs or bust, and any extended patches of poor play over the next few months will likely bring intense scrutiny.
Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors
The Point Forward has been pretty consistent over the last year: the problems in Toronto began in Bryan Colangelo’s front office, not on Casey’s bench. In two seasons with the Raptors, the affable Casey is 57-91 (.385), and while that winning percentage is unsightly, it’s hard to argue that anyone else could have squeezed out more victories from the talent and personalities on hand.
Colangelo’s departure — and the trade of Andrea Bargnani this summer — presents a good news/bad news scenario for Casey. The good news: this is a new day for the Raptors, whose core now consists of hard-working players, many of whom are young and hungry to establish or improve their reputations. The bad news: Masai Ujiri, hired to replace Colangelo, will look at the salary cap books and see a bloated payroll that needs to undergo some serious cuts, especially if Toronto struggles out of the gate. In other words, Casey simply isn’t entering this season with every coach’s basic hope of a stable roster. This is a period of transition, and change, perhaps drastic change, could happen at a moment’s notice.
Like Corbin and Wittman, the 2013-14 season represents the final season of Casey’s contract and, like Corbin, Casey is working for a GM who didn’t hire him. “Everyone’s on a year-to-year contract,” Casey told the Sporting News in August. “I am going to be judged by how we improve. I am not going to spend a waking moment worrying about my contract.” One certainty in what could prove to be an unpredictable Raptors campaign: Casey is approaching his job with exactly the right attitude.
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.