Before the start of the season, the expectation was that only one team in the Western Conference wouldn’t prove capable of competing for a spot in the play-in tournament. Naturally, that team was the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are currently in ninth place in the Western Conference – a standing that would send them to the postseason. While there’s still plenty of time for the prognosticators to be proven right, the worst team in the West starting better than expected reflects the conference’s overall strength.
Another reason openings on the NBA’s coaching carousel are more likely to come from the Eastern Conference than the West is because is four teams from the latter made coaching changes in the offseason.
In addition to the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans and the Thunder bringing in new head coaches in advance of the 2020-21 campaign, the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies did so ahead of last season. There’s also the case of Ryan Saunders, who coached the Minnesota Timberwolves in their final 42 games of the 2018-19 season and impressed them to the point that they kept him in his post.
While there’s unlikely to be more than a handful of Western Conference teams searching for a new head coach between now and the start of next season, franchises that underachieve may decide it’s time for the team to hear from a new voice.
Without further ado, here are a few of the head coaches in the Western Conference who are on the hot seat or could find themselves there if their team disappoints in the playoffs.
Luke Walton – Sacramento Kings
In the spring of 2019, Luke Walton replaced Dave Joerger as head coach of the Sacramento Kings. The former was moving on from the Lakers after a tumultuous three seasons in which they finished below .500 each year; while the latter was leaving a team following an expectation-defying ninth-place finish in the Western Conference.
The Kings got off to a rocky start in Walton’s first year at the helm. In January, Buddy Hield, who on the eve of the regular season, signed a four-year, $94 million contract with bonuses that could reach $106 million, was moved to the bench in favor of Bogdan Bogdanovic. Hield didn’t start a game the rest of the season and his diminished role created a rift between him and Walton.
Just before the pandemic forced the NBA to go on hiatus, the Kings were starting to turn their season around, winning seven of their last 10 games, which earned them a trip to Orlando for a chance to compete for a spot in the play-in tournament.
They failed to reach postseason play and during the offseason, Bogdanovic joined the Atlanta Hawks. That opened the door for Hield to reclaim his spot in the starting lineup. Coming off the bench behind him and De’Aaron Fox is Sacramento’s first-round pick, Tyrese Haliburton, who, as Basketball Insiders’ Ariel Pacheco detailed in his NBA Rookie of the Year Watch, has been one of the most impressive newcomers to start the 2020-21 season.
However, 11 games into their season, the Kings are 5-6 and they’re in a tie with the Denver Nuggets for the final spot in the play-in tournament. When this season’s over, Walton will be halfway through his contract. He needs to demonstrate to the Kings’ new general manager, Monte McNair, he’s the right coach for this team. Not reaching the play-in tournament – or performing poorly in it – could convince McNair it’s in the franchise’s best interest for him to find a new head coach.
Ryan Saunders – Minnesota Timberwolves
When Gersson Rosas became the Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations, his first critical decision was to stick with Ryan Saunders as the team’s head coach after an impressive 42-game audition to close out the 2018-19 season.
Including his time as the team’s interim head coach, the Timberwolves are 39-77 with Saunders at the helm. Minnesota finished with the third-worst record in the NBA last season and has the fourth-lowest winning percentage 10 games into this season.
That speaks more to the flaws in the Timberwolves’ roster, particularly on the defensive end, where they’re surrendering the fourth-most points per game. Rosas is well aware their roster needs reconfiguring. However, Saunders needs to provide a more compelling reason for why he should remain their head coach beyond this season.
Terry Stotts – Portland Trail Blazers
In Terry Stotts’ nine years as head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, including the first ten games of this season, his record is 366-292. The only time they missed the playoffs with him at the helm was the 2012-13 season, his first year on the job. They’ve reached the Western Conference Semifinals three times, including 2019, when they beat the Nuggets on the road in Game 7 to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
So why might he be on the hot seat when Portland’s season comes to an end? Well, if the Trail Blazers underwhelm in the playoffs, especially if that means a second-straight first-round exit, there may not be much of an appetite to maintain the status quo.
If the Trail Blazers want to make a significant change in the offseason, they could trade CJ McCollum to put a new running mate alongside Damian Lillard. It’s nearly impossible to envision them moving on from Lillard, the five-time All-NBA face of the franchise, before next season.
Aside from shaking up their roster, the Trail Blazers’ other options would be to move on from Stotts or their president of basketball operations, Neil Olshey.
If Stotts’ ninth season in Portland is his last one, it will have more to do with the franchise deciding change is for the best. That, of course, and the unfortunate timing of his tenure coinciding with the Golden State Warriors evolving into a dynasty and LeBron James reviving the Lakers. Considering Stotts’ coaching credentials, when his time as the Trail Blazers’ head coach comes to an end, if he wants to keep coaching, it won’t take him long to get another opportunity.
Quin Snyder – Utah Jazz
Quin Snyder is an excellent coach. Twice, the Utah Jazz extended his contract when he had two years left on his deal, including signing him to a long-term extension in 2019.
Right now, his job’s not in jeopardy. However, if Utah doesn’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs for the third year in a row, Snyder’s seat will be warmer entering next season.
Each of the names on this list could help guide their respective team to a season successful enough to earn them another year at the helm. However, head coaches know even when they first accept an opportunity to lead a team, they’re on borrowed time. A change in management, the team underperforming, or the players growing tired of repeatedly hearing the same messages from the same voice are just some of the reasons that can prompt a franchise to change its head coach.
Elsewhere, Basketball Insiders’ Ariel Pacheco detailed the head coaches on the hot seat in the Eastern Conference.
Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option
Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.
On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.
Source says Mavs are leaning toward picking up center Willie Cauley-Stein's $4.1 million option for next season. Deadline is Sunday and Mavs are waiting to see if situation unexpectedly materializes to make that cap space worth parting with a big man they like.
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) July 31, 2021
This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.
However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.
Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.
Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.
Lakers Need More Than Big Three
The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.
The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.
The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.
Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.
The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.
Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?
For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.
The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.
As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.
LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Anthony Davis got together at LeBron’s house two weeks ago and agreed to set aside their egos and focus on winning a championship in LA. Per @BA_Turner pic.twitter.com/CDhidtvHxv
— NBA Retweet (@RTNBA) July 30, 2021
Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.
When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.
Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.
What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.
— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) July 30, 2021
Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.
In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.
Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.
With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.
Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.
Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years
According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).
Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.
The Jazz will be pressing hard to re-sign Mike Conley, league sources say, and are preparing an offer estimated in the three-year, $75 million range.
More coming soon in my This Week In Basketball column you can get directly by signing up here: https://t.co/A6ycVm5PUQ
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) July 30, 2021
On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.
The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.
However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.
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