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NBA AM: Coaches On The Hot Seat

We may not see many coaches fired mid-season, but there are a few NBA head coaches that may be coaching for the future this season… Boston wants to keep Rajon Rondo, but won’t rule out a trade.

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On The Hot Seat:  The 2014-15 NBA season gets started in less than a week with the opening of training camps and there are a few coaches who will begin this season with high expectations and likely a low tolerance for struggles. The only NBA coaches to have been in their current position for more than three years are Tom Thibodeau, Rick Carlisle, Kevin McHale, Frank Vogel, Erik Spoelstra, Monty Williams, Gregg Popovich, Dwane Casey, Scott Brooks and Randy Wittman. That means 20 of the NBA’s 30 teams have changed coaches in the last two years; some have been replaced after just one season. So, turnover in the NBA is becoming all too common, even if it’s not always the smartest move.

As training camps open, some teams may have coaches on a very short leash. These are a few of the names to watch.

Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City Thunder

Two things have to be said at the top:  Scott Brooks is an excellent coach whose team and players adore him. That said, the clock is ticking. There is no question that the Thunder are on the clock, especially with star forward Kevin Durant inching closer to free agency in the summer of 2016. The Thunder have preached a message of continuity and instituted a strong development program, and that has paid dividends in OKC, but failing to reach the NBA Finals again before Durant’s free agency could spell disaster for the Thunder as the outside voices creep into the discussion and try to lure Durant out of OKC.

Fair or not, coaches are hired to ultimately be fired and if things don’t go where they are expected, its going to be harder and harder for the Thunder to hang on to Brooks, even though he’s the most successful coach in franchise history.

Brooks has come under fire a lot over the last two seasons, so if the Thunder regress or start to struggle expect his job status to become a topic, even if no one in Oklahoma City wants to think about it.

Randy Wittman, Washington Wizards

Like Brooks, Wittman has done a stellar job turning the Wizards around, but regression could force a change even though he just inked a three-year contract extension with the Wizards this summer – a testament to just how much pressure there is on NBA coaches to keep their job. Wittman has never been viewed as the sexy coaching candidate, but he has survived in Washington because his team has played well and the young guys have improved. If that continues, then Wittman’s job is hardly in jeopardy, but if things regress and the team isn’t competing at a high level, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has proven that he’s not afraid to make a change. Like Brooks, there isn’t a lot of room for error in Washington. As a team they expect to be back in the hunt in the East and if that starts to fall apart, expect Wittman talk to increase.

Jacque Vaughn, Orlando Magic

Vaughn was given a long leash in Orlando to help the front office sort out the roster they inherited, but this season the Magic expect to compete. There is an expectation of improvement not just from the roster but from all phases of the team operations. Vaughn has drawn a ton of criticism from the fan base and if this season looks like the last two, Vaughn’s future could become shaky at best. The one thing in Vaughn’s favor is that there really is cohesiveness between the front office and the coaching staff, so if things go bad Vaughn won’t be shoved on an island. But if the team continues to struggle, looking at change next summer won’t be out of the question as it was this past summer. This is Vaughn’s year to prove himself as a coach as for the first time in his tenure in Orlando, there are real expectations.

Monty Williams, New Orleans Pelicans

Like Brooks and Wittman, Williams is a heck of a basketball coach. His players in New Orleans and those who he’s worked with for USA Basketball like him. He has built a solid culture in New Orleans and his teams, for the most part, play incredibly hard defensively. The problem for Williams is his teams have been decimated by injuries and they are not a very dynamic offensive group, despite having some dynamic offensive talents. The window for Williams isn’t as big as it once was. New ownership wants playoff games in New Orleans and they have allowed the team to trade and spend their way into a roster that should be better than their record. Williams is certainly on the clock in New Orleans. Fair or not, he needs things to break his way this year. One of the things Williams has talked about recently was allowing his guys more freedom offensively, something he learned with his time with Team USA in Spain. If the Pelicans can get out to a strong start, things should calm down on the Williams front, but if this season plays out like the last two seasons, ownership may look to make a change.

Frank Vogel, Indiana Pacers

Vogel was under fire last season, but ownership and management stood by him amidst the team’s second-half slump. The injury to star forward Paul George and the departure of Lance Stephenson in free agency may lessen the pressure in Indiana and give Vogel more of a runway to get the team sorted out. Given the outright collapse late last season, Vogel will be scrutinized more closely, even with expectations being lower. If his team doesn’t compete, he could find himself out. There isn’t an expectation of challenging for a title this year, but with the roster Vogel still has to work with the Pacers are expecting to compete; failing to do that could spell the end of the line for Vogel.

Kevin McHale, Houston Rockets

The Rockets took some major steps backwards this summer not only losing Chandler Parsons in free agency and getting nothing in return but also trading away depth in Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. The Rockets don’t have a huge runway. Dwight Howard is eligible for free agency again in July of 2016 and being a middle of the pack playoff team isn’t going to help their cause in keeping him. Some of that’s going to fall on McHale. If the Rockets cannot get back to at least where they were a season ago McHale’s future becomes cloudy at best. If the Rockets fall backwards or struggle early McHale could be the coach most likely to be fired mid-season. The problem with expectations is that when you don’t meet them, someone pays the price.

It is highly unlikely any of these coaches are fired mid-season, unless there is utter collapse. What’s more likely is that each is scrutinized more closely than is maybe fair, but as they say, changing coaches is easier than changing rosters and coaches are hired to ultimately be fired.

As Rondo Turns:  Celtics president Danny Ainge again went on record saying his intentions regarding guard Rajon Rondo is not to trade the mercurial guard, however he did admit that moving Rondo wasn’t completely off the table.

“I love Rondo,” Ainge said to Bill Doyle of the Worcester Telegram. “He’s a fun kid to be around. I’ve seen a lot of growth in him as a person and maturity through the years.

“The truthful answer is I really don’t know. I have no intention. I’m not trying to trade Rondo, but because he’s a free agent this summer, he assured me that he wants to stay in Boston. We’d love to keep him in Boston.”

Ainge admitted that no player was untouchable, but he didn’t expect a deal for his guard anytime soon.

“The possibility of a trade is not out of the question,” Ainge said. “Nobody is untradeable, but I don’t see that happening.”

The Celtics will open training camp next week, and while Ainge said he expects improvement from his young team, he is not delusional about where there are as a program.

“I don’t think our team is in contention for a championship,” Ainge said. “We are a young team and we’re in the development stages.

“It’s hard for me to put goals on our team. I want to hear what they want to do. I want to hear what their goals are and what they believe they can accomplish this year.”

The Celtics were 25-57 last season and one of the worst road teams in the NBA.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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