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.