Last season was the first in 46 years that no team in the NBA fired its head coach. Regression to the mean makes us wonder: Who could go this season? Listed below are the coaches who might need to manifest greatness next season, broken up into categories. These are hot takes for hot seats.
Were you hired by a general manager who just got fired? Does the franchise keep bringing up "organizational change" in press conferences? Did the last president of basketball operations love you, but now you’re dealing with Steve Mills? Call the hotline now! There is no obligation. Unless your new front office is wiretapping your calls.
O’Shaughnessy: Before Hornacek’s first season as head coach of the Knicks could even finish, Vegas had him as the third most likely to be fired in that same season. The odds were loaded, of course, by the unpredictability of Phil Jackson. But unlike Hornacek, Phil did not survive the year.
The ultimate puppeteer is still around, though, and Jim Dolan doesn’t seem likely to change the Knicks’ usual trajectory (now at five coaches in the past six seasons). But hey, Jeff, speaking of odds: New York has the best of any one team to land Kyrie Irving.
Uggetti: Let me be clear: Walton is not on any kind of hot seat. It’s still the honeymoon period for Luke and the Lakers. Smiles are still ever-present. Compliments are flying, and there is hope, fueled by Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, to be had in Lakerland. It helps that if you had constructed the perfect roster for Walton’s first head-coaching stint in the NBA, this is exactly what you would have drawn up: a group of young guys who fit his free-flowing and passing-focused system, while he maximizes their versatility. It’s a perfect marriage.
But are Luke and Magic and Rob Pelinka the perfect trio? That we have yet to see. Magic and Pelinka have made it no secret that the Lakers are casting their lines looking for big fish in the summer of 2018. Every transaction and cap-saving move appears to be engineered for it. What happens if (or when) Luke’s perfect young team becomes a team populated by Paul George, LeBron James, and who knows who else? Walton has experience managing egos with the Warriors, but this is different. In the blink of an eye, an up-and-coming youthful team can transform into a contender with a bull’s-eye on its back. This change in expectations would be drastic, and there’s no telling how Walton might deal with it all. Losing games is fine this season, but once star power enters the equation, winning will be expected. Remember what happened to David Blatt once LeBron came home? New management and talent always leave the chance for things to go wrong. This is one to keep an eye on.
Can also apply to: Frank Vogel, Jason Kidd, Brett Brown
Dealt a Bad Hand
Coaches given injury-prone rosters, or ones that just don’t make sense. Imagine if Mike D’Antoni had to cater to a franchise player who didn’t want to shoot 3s — oh, right.
O’Shaughnessy: In May, the Bulls front office felt the need to confirm that Hoiberg will be welcomed back for a third season. (He’s, um, on a five-year deal.) In the same press conference, vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said that Hoiberg must "find ways to be a better leader" this offseason, citing his erratic lineups throughout the season and likening him to a young player. So, a rookie. Or a teenager. How sweet. Paxson then conceded a tad, admitting that Chicago management signed players for Hoiberg who did not play his pace-and-space style well, or, like, at all.
Replacing Tom Thibodeau, the best coach to take the United Center since the Zen Master in ’98, was never going to be an easy task. In Hoiberg’s two seasons, Chicago finished with worse individual records (42–40, 41–41) than any in Thibs’s five-season tenure. The expectations were high, the roster fit was poor, and now Hoiberg has … Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine to save him.
O’Shaughnessy: Throw McMillan in any of these categories. The Pacers are under new management (see above) now that Larry Legend has stepped down. And Mac did also walk into a high-pressure situation (see below), as he was the chosen replacement for defensive mastermind Frank Vogel, whom the Pacers canned because [404 Error Reasoning Not Found]. But a front-office switch might not affect McMillan too much, as he has a strong relationship with Bird’s GM successor, Kevin Pritchard, after the two worked together in Portland. Being promoted from assistant coach, he also technically didn’t "walk" into the organization. McMillan fits best (worst?) in this category, with the Pacers folding his pocket 10s only to deal him the 2–7 unsuited of offseason roster changes.
In April, McMillan was optimistic that he’d coach Jeff Teague and Paul George again this season. Just three months later, Myles Turner and Victor Oladipo await, [glances at Dipo’s $84 million guaranteed] chips all in.
Can also apply to: Alvin Gentry
Running Out of Allowance
Front offices getting impatient after years of mild success, accelerated by the Warriors’ existence.
Uggetti: Rivers’s presidential term with the Clippers has been marred by a shoddy strategy that boils down to acquiring former Celtics or washed-out players from the mid-to-late 2010s — Glen Davis, Jeff Green, etc. His coaching strategy boils down to "Ubuntu" and not-so-subtle comments in the media, all of which have led to zero conference-title appearances. Just a few weeks ago, he made sure to shoot one last shot at Chris Paul on the Clipper’s way out, saying L.A. would have more ball movement with its new roster iteration.
It appears Doc and Paul were on the outs for a while, so losing CP3 should not directly affect Doc’s status, and it could set the table for a season with slightly lower expectations and slightly better roster construction. The Clippers made out well in the CP3 trade, bringing back some key pieces (Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell) while adding Danilo Gallinari, among others. And the Jerry West effect is already being felt through draft picks and roster decisions (the Clippers moved into the draft by buying the 48th pick, selecting March Madness sensation Sindarius Thornwell). But West presumably reports to Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, not Doc, a stipulation that could be problematic if the Clippers underwhelm, or if it continues to be clear that the coach should not also try to be the general manager. There’s increasing evidence that supplying your own tools for success doesn’t work in basketball.
Doc was undeniably an instrumental part of the Clippers’ transition from the Sterling era to the Ballmer era. But at some point or another, the goodwill was going to run out. It’s 2017, three years after Doc assumed the president role, and the check-engine light just turned on. Jerry West got into the passenger seat. Buckle up.
Stan Van Gundy
Uggetti: Unlike Doc, Van Gundy asked for the power to be president of basketball ops and head coach. He wanted it. The Pistons acquiesced and, unknowingly, signed themselves up for a period of mediocrity, which, admittedly, will buy you a 5- or 6-seed in the Eastern Conference this season. Detroit’s problems go far beyond its averageness. The Pistons were better per 100 possessions when Ish Smith was their point guard this season, not Reggie Jackson, whom they are paying $16 million, $17 million, and $18 million over the next three years. Meanwhile, installing Andre Drummond as the linchpin of the offense has backfired badly. They likely reached for Luke Kennard in the draft, and signed Langston Galloway and Anthony Tolliver. If that roster is set for the near future (the team is projected to have no cap space until 2021), it’s safe to say the SVG experiment has been underwhelming, if not a failure. There’s no other GM or exec to blame. It’s Stan’s gig. Just like he wanted it.
Uggetti: Few, if any, active coaches have walked through the fire of a hot seat and lived to tell about it more times than Dwane Casey has in Toronto. It feels like in every one of the past three seasons, there have been rumors of him getting ousted. Just last year, a report came out that said had the Raptors lost to the Pacers in the first round of the 2016 playoffs, he would have been fired. Casey’s endurance is admirable, but the Raptors’ roster construction isn’t. They re-signed Serge Ibaka, DeMar Derozan, and Kyle Lowry, but lost glue guys like P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson. Even in a weakened East, the Raptors look to be a few steps behind the Cavs, Celtics, and Wizards. And if they can’t upset those teams, will Casey survive this time around?
O’Shaughnessy: Patience is a virtue, unless it’s costing you money. Stotts didn’t personally sign Portland’s checks last offseason, but he did coach the exact same core to a worse defense, worse overall record, and quicker postseason exit than the year before (though an obligatory exception applies for playing the Warriors in the first round). December was a low point, with the team going 4–11 and having the second-worst defensive rating, but Portland finagled its way to redemption by securing the last playoff seed in the Western Conference.
This season, nearly everyone in the West will be a juiced version of last year’s team except for the Blazers. Stotts isn’t at fault for Portland not beefing up, but in-season losses create the illusion that Stotts should be blamed. Even after wiping Allen Crabbe’s contract, Portland will pay an estimated $10 million in luxury tax fines this season. Coughing up that for 40 wins or fewer is enough to make any front office panic.
Can also apply to: Mike Budenholzer, Steve Clifford
Walked Into a High-Pressure Situation
Either the last guy was like, really, really good, or the franchise hasn’t won a playoff game in a decade (or you’re trying to tell LeBron what to do).
Uggetti: "With a great roster, comes great responsibility." — Uncle Ben in an alternate version of Spider-Man where Tobey Maguire’s previous claim to fame is the glue guy on a perennial high school basketball team. The star just got injured for the season and Peter Parker is being forced to step in and lead the team to the title. (Did I just make an Oscar nominee?)
Anyway, we’ve seen this before. Offseason additions turn into great expectations, and the Wolves are now under the microscope of talent-fueled scrutiny. Jimmy Butler will make this team better, but how much better depends on how the other pieces around him develop, and on how Thibodeau ushers them into a system that not only takes advantage of Jimmy’s skills as a scorer, but Karl-Anthony Towns’s and Andrew Wiggins’s too. And above all, it’s crucial that they’re competent on defense — the Wolves were bottom-five in the league last season.
Thibs is cut from the same loyal cloth Doc is. He’s got his guys, and he will get his guys — or he will get the guys he coached against. According to him, it’s why the team went after Jeff Teague to be its starting point guard. "Coaching against him, I realized how hard he was to contain," Thibs said. In this case, unflinching affection for Jimmy, Taj Gibson, and Teague might serve him well. We’ve yet to see it, but the Wolves have all the makings of a contender. Anything less and we can start wondering about the heat on Thibs’s seat.
O’Shaughnessy: Lue was the hero after swooping in as Cavs head coach midseason a year and a half ago. Cleveland won the title, which is great to do after five months on the job, and Lue also deserves praise for taking the wheel after David "lightweight" Blatt was taken out of his misery. (I wonder if management is still telling J.R. Smith and Kevin Love that Blatt went to the NBA farm.)
But last season, as the Cavs dropped 31 games (a high since the second coming of LeBron), the narrative surrounding Lue shifted. He failed to find a workable rotation that allowed LBJ to rest and blamed Cleveland’s bottom-10 defense on not having "the smartest guys" on the roster. The light turbulence of last season is getting bumpier with Kyrie Irving asking for an out. If the team plummets, then maybe in a year, the Cavs won’t have their head coach either. (LeBron, not Lue.) Dan Gilbert will need a scapegoat if the King leaves, and who would be better than Lue?
Can also apply to: Billy Donovan, Scott Brooks