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A Way-Too-Early Look at the NBA Coaches Who May Be on the Hot Seat

No one is getting a pink slip a week into the season, but there are still high stakes for some notable coaches

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A handful of games into a season is long enough to check the temperature on some coaching hot seats, right? All right, so declaring a coach on the “hot seat” in mid October may require a bit of overreacting, but coaching jobs don’t exist in a vacuum: If the stakes are high enough or the previous track record is bad enough, even a few losses can bring a coach’s job security into question. Let’s take an early look at which coaches should be looking over their shoulders already:

Hot Because It Deserves to Be

Tom Thibodeau

Thibodeau is one of the league’s two remaining head coach/president hybrids. Besides Gregg Popovich, no other coach also mans the front office. Thibs has double the power, double the decisions to make, double the direct deposits (maybe?), but also double the chances of being the fall guy if it all goes wrong. (It’s going wrong.)

The word “hybrid” is almost ironic for Thibodeau. His seat is hot because he refuses to evolve in either facet of his job. As a president, he’s signed his former players but no 3-point shooters, building a team that could compete before the space-and-pace revolution. The only modern aspect of the offense is Karl-Anthony Towns, who was with the Wolves before Thibodeau arrived. Thibs has surrounded his unicorn with three isolation-first guards and Taj Gibson, a strategy which is hardly contemporary, even if Minnesota scores 120 points a game. Before the season began, Jeff Teague was asked about switching: “Every other team does it,” he said. “I think we’re like the only traditional team left.”

The way Minnesota was operating was criticized before Jimmy Butler demanded a trade in September and lit the organization on fire, but the attention put a spotlight on just how old school Thibodeau really is. The coaching staff reportedly said that Butler’s hostile first practice, during which he screamed at players and front office members, was the “best practice” of the preseason. Look around the league—coaches with recent success like Steve Kerr and Brad Stevens don’t use the yell-until-they-break approach anymore. That tough tough-love tactic hasn’t gotten 22-year-old Towns and 23-year-old Andrew Wiggins fired up the last two years, and a coach who can’t connect with players is useless when locker room issues present themselves.

Part of Thibodeau’s case to stay is that he brought in Butler and took Minnesota to the playoffs for the first time since 2004, and it might take actually trading Butler (and the sharp falloff following it) for owner Glen Taylor to decide Thibs’s time is up.

Warm Because of Circumstances

Fred Hoiberg

Hoiberg’s stint as a coach of the Bulls will be forgotten. That sounds like a dig against Hoiberg, but it’s not really his fault. He has two years left in Chicago, and it’s unrealistic that Hoiberg will coach a team fresh off the tank to a winning season in time to renew his contract. He doesn’t have much good favor built up to make up for the losses ahead, either—in Hoiberg’s first two seasons in Chicago, he inherited a team that didn’t fit the play style he preached, he wasn’t given much help from free agent signings, and he was undermined by Butler. Now Hoiberg has to make the most out of Jabari Parker, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, and Wendell Carter Jr.—a team that no one expects to win.

Hoiberg’s seat has been warm already during his time in Chicago, and management has a history of saying words that sound supportive but undercut their coach. At the end of the 2016-17 season, executive John Paxson said that “Fred’s challenge this offseason is to find ways to be a better leader” and that the front office had “a lot of discussions throughout the year about issues we have, things with [Hoiberg], but that’s for us internally to have and to talk about.” If LaVine and Parker don’t show significant growth this season (which is another uphill battle for Hoiberg), then in the eyes of the Chicago front office, Hoiberg will fall short. And with $118 million invested into those two, that’s tanking the wrong way.

Luke Walton

Coaching the Lakers already brings a lot of pressure. That pressure is infinitely higher when the Lakers have LeBron James. Over the last two seasons, Walton has led really bad L.A. teams to really bad records—26-56 in 2016-17 and 35-47 in 2017-18—and he’s now expected to form rotations worthy of a deep postseason run. LeBron will act as fixer there; he’s done more in Cleveland with less. But the moment something starts to go wrong on a LeBron team—Los Angeles is 0-2, so it’s already kind of there—the entire operation gets picked apart until a culprit can be found. That’s easily the coach, especially in this instance. We all remember David Blatt, who was also a first-time NBA head coach.

Heated Over Time

Scott Brooks

On Saturday against the Raptors, Brooks was ejected for the first time in 10 seasons as an NBA coach. The crowd chanting “REFS YOU SUCK” as Brooks walked out might be the most support he gets from Wizards fans this season.

This is Brooks’s third season in Washington. The franchise let his predecessor, Randy Wittman, go after four, and Flip Saunders before him after two and some change. But where the Wizards have often turned over their head coach, they don’t seem to mind a little stagnation in the front office. General manager Ernie Grunfeld has been around since 2003, not only surviving the waves of mediocrity since, but thriving despite it—he signed a contract extension last season before his eighth playoff appearance in 14 years (Washington exited in the first round in half of those appearances).

Grunfeld’s also committed to Washington’s very expensive core that was assembled before Brooks came aboard. John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter Jr. will be enough every season for a coach to reach 40-ish wins and a quick hello in the playoffs, but the Wizards need someone who can take that group to the next level. Wall is in his prime at 28 and Beal is 25; if this isn’t the time, when is?

Billy Donovan

Lately, Oklahoma City’s front office is far more efficient than its 3-point shooting, which is a pretty low bar. In a matter of three years, the Thunder have had a mixed bag of personnel moves: They lost a top-two player in the league, flipped old assets (Serge Ibaka) for new ones (Victor Oladipo), traded players who didn’t work, and re-signed those who did. Paul George stayed and Russell Westbrook is at the top of his game. The wait is supposed to be over.

Maybe Donovan’s leash is also longer because the franchise has done so much retooling of its roster. But even before the latest upheavals, Donovan had a reputation for not being able to get through to Westbrook, and as a result, his offense looks how Westbrook wants it to look. For all the offseason overhauling, the Thunder are still scrambling to find new ways to score. With Andre Roberson out until at least December, they won’t be able to counter those shortcomings on defense as effectively. This is supposed to be the season they make their return to contention, and OKC’s front office is running out of things to change.