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NBA AM: Opening On The Hot Seat

As training camps set to open, there are a few coaches that need to deliver this season… Or else…

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Opening On The Hot Seat Never Fun

They say NBA coaches are hired to be fired. In fact, some joke that deciding on the exit terms of a contract might be harder than reaching the actual deal for hire. This past summer saw unprecedented stability in NBA coaching circles, mainly because so many coaches were hired in the last two years. In fact, 12 of the NBA’s 30 head coaches were hired or promoted in 2016. Three more were hired in 2015, making it half the league having been hired within the last two calendar years.

With the NBA set to open training camps at the end of the month, there are a few coaches that will open the season likely coaching for their jobs, here are a few of them:

Dwane Casey – Toronto Raptors

The Toronto Raptors are absolutely on the clock on several fronts, more so after spending so aggressively this summer to keep the core of the team together. Casey has always been an awkward fit for the Raptors, but he has had success, and that’s kept him in place.

Casey was a hold over after current Raptors president Masai Ujiri took over the leadership of the team in 2013. At the time, many around the NBA felt Casey would be replaced with someone from Ujiri’s circle. Unexpectedly, the Raptors won and became one of the up and comers in the East, keeping Casey on the bench. However, after two seasons of missed opportunities, the Raptors have locked themselves into their current roster, and now it’s on Casey to make it all work.

Casey has done a remarkable job, especially when you consider how many drafted players have not panned out in Toronto, as well as some of the questionable free agent moves the club has made. But as they say, coaches are hired to be fired, and that’s the likely outcome if the Raptors do not meet the expectations of competing for the Eastern Conference.

Casey has the fourth longest tenure in the NBA behind San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Dallas’ Rick Carlisle. All three have won a championship with their current teams.

It’s highly unlikely the Raptors make a coaching change in-season, but with how much the Raptors have locked themselves into this current roster, Casey is the only thing they could really change if they can’t get the job done this season.

Mike Budenholzer – Atlanta Hawks

Let start by pointing out the obvious—Mike Budenholzer is a heck of a basketball coach. However, with the Hawks moving in a very different direction, it’s hard to imagine that Budenholzer is going to be the guy to skipper the rebuilding of the team.

The Hawks made a number of changes to their leadership structure this summer, with the biggest being removing Budenholzer as team president and naming Travis Schlenk as general manager. Schlenk was also given complete roster autonomy.

Budenholzer is a coaching lifer, so it’s unlikely that he’ll push back too hard on changes that Schlenk wants to make, but it’s pretty clear the Hawks are not aiming for the win column, and that usually ends up bad for the incumbent coach.

While terms of Budenholzer’s contract were never leaked to the media, League sources said his original deal was a three-year deal that paid roughly $2 million per season. When Budenholzer was named team president in 2013 after the Danny Ferry scandal in Atlanta, sources said his salary was increased. However, the terms of his revised deal were not revealed. Coaching sources said Budenholzer was entering the dreaded lame duck time in a coaches’ contract, making him more likely to be replaced than retained. This is more likely to be true if the Hawks are headed in a new direction.

For the Hawks, rebuilding around a great coach like Budenholzer wouldn’t be a bad decision, the problem for the Hawks is it seems they want to go in a new direction, which is hard to do with the same guy that set the last direction.

Like Casey, it seems unlikely that an in-season change is coming to the Hawks. What’s more likely is for the Hawks to see how things go with Budenholzer and the rebuild and make decisions from there.

Steve Clifford – Charlotte Hornets

The Charlotte Hornets hired Steve Clifford in 2013, making him the seventh-longest tenured coach in the NBA. The Hornets extended Clifford’s deal in 2015, locking him into guaranteed money through the 2018-19 season.

Clifford is as good as they come and is well regarded by the leadership in Charlotte, including majority owner Michael Jordan. The problem for Clifford is that he’s made the playoffs twice in his four seasons as head coach.

Admittedly, a lot of Charlotte’s problems have been with roster issues and injuries, but coaches ultimately pay the price for those issues, not the players and almost never the general manager—at least not before a coaching change.

To say there are expectations on the upcoming season in Charlotte is an understatement, especially for a team sporting a $118.9 million payroll and a looming luxury tax bill.

It’s highly unlikely that a coaching change is made in Charlotte mid-season unless the floor falls out from under them, but there is no question that this is a big season for the Hornets and Coach Clifford.

Doc Rivers – Los Angeles Clippers

Much like the Hawks, the Clipper underwent a massive front office change with former team president Doc Rivers being removed as head of basketball and being asked to focus solely on coaching the team.

With a completely revamped roster and a lot of new faces in the process, this is a big season for Rivers, who has two more seasons left on his deal.

Rivers is entering his 19th season as a head coach and his fifth as the coach of the Clippers. In that span, Rivers has a 328-217 record but a dismal 18-22 record in the post-season.

There is a growing sense in NBA circles that Rivers will coach out his contract and call it a coaching career. The question becomes whether or not the Clippers shove him out the door before that.

The Clippers have been mired in injuries under Rivers’ watch, so the roster shakeup that took place after moving off star guard Chris Paul should provide more depth and options. The Clippers have won 51 or more games a season under Rivers, which is nothing to sneeze at. The question becomes can the Clippers be anything in the postseason? That’s ultimately going to make the decision on Doc’s future.

Brett Brown – Philadelphia 76ers

It is incredibly hard not to like 76ers head coach Brett Brown. His enthusiasm was contagious even when things got really bad during the “tanking years.” His players like him. Free agents seem to respond to him (at least JJ Redick did). So, why would he make this list?

League sources continue to say as much as everyone likes Brett Brown, the Sixers do not seem to be sold that he can be the guy that turns the development years into winning years. They hope he can, but new leadership in Philadelphia is increasingly interested in winning and winning now, and Brown must deliver on some of that.

Brown has endured more injuries and struggles than almost anyone in the NBA, so the question is will the Sixers stick with him long enough to find out what he really is as an NBA coach?

There are expectations in Philadelphia this season, and they are not tied to lottery picks. The Sixers expect to compete for something this year, and they want to see the progression towards the playoffs. Expecting a 28-win team to jump to 42-43 wins might be too high of a bar, but when you consider the Sixers will put two top overall picks on the floor this season, combined with two rookie of the year candidates, there is an expectation of being significantly better.

If Brown can deliver on the roster’s promise, he may buy himself some time. If the team doesn’t improve, looking at a coaching change is not only likely, it’s almost inevitable. That’s not because Brown is a bad or inadequate coach, it’s that it’s hard to change the culture of a losing team with the same voices that were there and that’s just a reality of going the tanking route to improving.

Unless the Sixers just revolt and crater, which seems unlikely, Brown likely finishes out the season. However, if the Sixers are not in the 35-40 win discussion with a healthy roster, it’s going to be a tough offseason for the franchise, mainly because Brown is so well-liked.

While it’s never fun to talk about someone being let go from a job, coaches themselves will tell you that it’s a result-oriented business and for many on this list, they have had several years to find their way. If years go by and no progress is made, it’s going to be hard to justify staying the course.

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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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