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As the Coaching Carousel Turns

Head coaches are getting hired and fired all over the NBA. We assess the embattled veterans and fresh faces vacating and filling the hot seats.

Dwane Casey Getty Images/Ringer illustration

During the 2016-17 season, not a single head coach was let go—the first time in 46 years that no front office took out the chopping block. It seems that we’re now making up for lost time. Milwaukee, Atlanta, Detroit, and now Toronto have openings, and more teams could join that list soon. Only time will tell if a coaching move is for the best, but here’s the gut reaction on all of the firings and hirings so far.

Toronto Raptors: Fired Dwane Casey

A riddle: What is better than a franchise-record 59 wins, the 1-seed in the Eastern Conference, the best bench in the league, and the honor of being named the 2017-18 Coach of the Year by your fellow coaches?

LeBron. LeBron is better.

It’s not enough to call Cleveland’s savior the rain on Casey’s regular-season parade. LeBron is a flood. In four games, he washed away accolades and job security. After Game 3, Kevin O’Connor wrote about whether the Raptors have hit their ceiling, which was an irrelevant question a couple of months ago. Who cared if this was Toronto’s ceiling? Toronto was great. Toronto moved the ball, Toronto cultivated a destroyer of a second unit, Toronto effectively spaced like it had Golden State’s handbook.

But the Raptors’ performance dipped at the end of the regular season. In the playoffs, it plummeted. In Round 2, Casey didn’t just make a few in-game mistakes. He was utterly outcoached. There was always a chance that this personnel, even at its best, wouldn’t be good enough; the Raptors will grapple with that this summer. But Casey couldn’t get the best out of them in the playoffs, and the front office officially let him go Friday after seven seasons at the helm.

Detroit Pistons: “Parted Ways” With Stan Van Gundy

Landing the jobs of both head coach and president of basketball operations was reportedly the reason Van Gundy took the Pistons position. In the end, it was also the reason he was fired. SVG was willing to give up his power in the front office after this season. But the roster he created wasn’t even one he was well-suited to coach.

Van Gundy’s offenses have historically loaded up on shooters around an All-Star center, yet Detroit traded away one of its best 3-point shooters, Tobias Harris. It took the blood of Blake Griffin’s contract off the Clippers’ hands in return. Barring Griffin getting the Westworld treatment and receiving new limbs, his and Andre Drummond’s max deals will continue to age poorly. Under SVG, the Pistons re-signed Reggie Jackson and drafted Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard—the latter of whom may be a fine player, but will always carry the burden of his team selecting him over Donovan Mitchell.

Van Gundy took the franchise back to the playoffs two years ago, but it was a short field trip that ended in an Eastern Conference rite of passage: getting swept by LeBron. That was the high point; this is low. Entering the offseason, Detroit is just $5.1 million shy of the luxury tax. SVG wanted the Pistons to form a fucking wall. Instead, he dug a fucking hole.

Charlotte Hornets: Hired James Borrego

At the beginning of May, Hornets managing partner Curtis Polk said the focus of the coaching search was player development. If I were running the Hornets, I’d settle for any kind of development.

New president and GM Mitch Kupchak followed through on Polk’s words in hiring Borrego, who has a decade’s worth of experience under Gregg Popovich as a Spurs assistant. (Celtics assistant Jay Larranaga was also a finalist, according to ESPN, meaning Charlotte basically interviewed candidates from the Harvard and Yale of player development.)

Popovich is the godfather of tapping into a player’s maximum capacity. Danny Green is one example; Rudy Gay is another. Those are the types of players Charlotte needs Borrego to unearth. The roster is collectively underwhelming—even Kemba Walker, who has all the handles, finishes, and 3-pointers to be in The Conversation of great points guards, is brought down by his surroundings. There are the forgotten lottery picks—Malik Monk, Frank Kaminsky, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and, though not their own, Michael Carter-Williams—and there are the overpaid. Nicolas Batum has three seasons left on his five-year, $120 million contract, but plays like he doesn’t have three quarters in him.

Borrego’s only experience at the helm was as interim head coach for 30 games during Orlando’s 2014-15 season. But he was a top Pop assistant and comes from the NBA’s strongest coaching tree. Those are the sorts of roots Charlotte is desperate for.

Phoenix Suns: Hired Igor Kokoskov

If the leaks that Kokoskov was Phoenix’s third choice—after David Fizdale and Mike Budenholzer turned down the gig—were true, the Suns deserve nothing but applause. That means the front office was considering multiple options, which is a step up from 2016, when then-interim head coach Earl Watson was promoted to big don without any outside interviews conducted. (Never let the Suns forget, because if you forget history, you are doomed to repeat it: Watson was hired after only one season as an NBA assistant. One!)

Kokoskov is much more than an “We’re out of Coke—is Pepsi OK?” alternative to Fizdale and Budenholzer. He served on Quin Snyder’s staff for the past three years, capping his 17th season as an assistant in the league. He won a title on Larry Brown’s 2003-04 Pistons staff, and he was with Phoenix during its Western Conference finals run in 2010. (Since then, the Suns have been to no postseasons; Kokoskov has been to two.)

Kokoskov has never led an NBA team, but he has experience as a head coach with the Georgia national team and, more recently, the Slovenian national team. Not only did that team win EuroBasket 2017, bringing the country its first championship, but Kokoskov coached Luka Doncic, a projected top-five pick in this year’s draft.

Suns GM Ryan McDonough said he was impressed with Kokoskov’s offense, which revolved around “ball movement, player movement, and on a lot of possessions, a lot of multiple players open for layups, 3-pointers, just wide-open shots.” One look at the Western Conference finals, and it’s obvious that running such a system is now the goal. It’s a good thing the Suns are young, because they have a ton of catching up to do: Last season, Phoenix shot the worst from 3, dished out the second-fewest assists, and struggled to share the rock in general.

Kokoskov is praised for his ability to reach players. Alvin Gentry, a former Suns head coach who worked with Kokoskov in Phoenix, called this “one of the best hires [the Suns] have ever made,” and that locker room relationships were Kokoskov’s strongest suit. For a team made up of 23-year-olds and under—Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, and Tyler Ulis—that’s half the battle.

New York Knicks: Hired David Fizdale

Of this list of hires, Fizdale is the only one with experience as a full-time head coach. But he got only a season-and-a-pinch with the Grizzlies before getting let go and has nearly as much to make good on as the others. He was beginning to check all the boxes, like speeding up Memphis’s traditional style while still emphasising defense. But Fizdale didn’t get enough time to solidify that he was more than someone with potential.

Last week I wrote about Fizdale’s track record modernizing big men. During his time as an assistant with the Heat, he created the stretch-4 template with Chris Bosh, then tried to push Marc Gasol outside the arc in Memphis. (Gasol would eventually aid in Fizdale’s firing from the Grizzlies, but he did, in fact, start shooting 3s.) New York drafted its future in Kristaps Porzingis and hired Fizdale to steer him in the right direction.

This story was updated Friday to reflect the firing of Raptors coach Dwane Casey.