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.
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