NBA PM: Coaches on the Hot Seat

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The firing of former Houston Rockets head coach Kevin McHale is old news at this point, but his departure has set off a flurry of conversations about what other head coaches might be in trouble moving forward this season. Somebody else will likely be cut loose at some point, but it’s hard to know who that might be only 15-20 games into the year.

Steve Clifford, for example, has seen his Charlotte teams underachieve for a few seasons now and may have on the chopping block, but instead he was offered a recent contract extension. In other words, a guy whose seat may have been considered hot turned out to be pretty safe, further proving the unpredictability of these things in the NBA.

Despite that uncertainty, there are some names that make the most sense when considering who may be fired, though the trend here is that there may not be a whole lot to gain by doling out pink slips to the skippers of struggling teams. The general sentiment right now is that there will be a lot of movement on the coaching front during the offseason, but for now the list of coaches on truly hot seats is relatively limited.

Here’s a look at who may be on the hot seat as we creep toward the second quarter of the season:

Lionel Hollins, Brooklyn Nets

Obviously the Brooklyn Nets are having an atrocious season under Hollins, having won only three of their first 15 games despite jettisoning what they thought was a key issue for their club in Deron Williams. There is likely no long-term future for Hollins in Brooklyn, which makes him something of a lame duck despite the fact that he will make a combined $9 million between this season and next season.

The reality, however, is that Hollins very likely will not see next season as the head coach of the Nets. His original contract signed in 2014 was for three years and a fourth-year team option, so it won’t be too surprising when he’s let go in the offseason. In the meantime, there’s not a lot that Brooklyn can improve by making a move right now, nor are there many potential replacements out there interested in taking the reins. If Brooklyn were to fire Hollins, they’d be sticking with an assistant coach as their interim leader to tough out the rest of the year, and that’s not all that better than just letting Hollins finish out the year.

Byron Scott, L.A. Lakers

What Lakers fans want to hear is that the team will fire Scott and hire Tom Thibodeau to come and coach their team, which will soon acquire DeMarcus Cousins. However, despite the success L.A. has had with that brand of “rebuilding” in the past, it doesn’t look like the same will hold true this time around. The reality is that ownership isn’t entirely unhappy with how Scott is running things, and with Kobe Bryant in the last year of his contract they haven’t gone into full youth movement mode anyway.

While Scott has taken a ton of heat for not getting more minutes for second overall pick D’Angelo Russell, his lack of playing time is as much his own fault as it his coach’s. Russell came into camp unprepared physically and mentally to make the NBA leap and that has led to a slow start that Scott has taken some of the blame for.

Thibodeau isn’t taking this Lakers job because good coaches aren’t walking into unsalvageable situations midseason because they’d be setting themselves up to fail. That means there aren’t many options for L.A. better than Scott right now, but this offseason his departure coupled with Bryant’s could lead to a long-necessary rebuild, if L.A. as an organization ever accepts that it’s time for that dreaded approach.

George Karl, Sacramento Kings

When Karl took the Kings job, he probably felt as if there was no way to really walk away without having gained something valuable. If he could have turned it around in Sacramento, he would be paid well and given credit for saving a sinking ship. Now that it looks he absolutely will not save that sinking ship after a suspect offseason in which he apparently irreparably destroyed his relationship with DeMarcus Cousins, he really only has the money to look forward to. At some point this season, the culture could get muddy enough to warrant Karl’s dismissal. Regardless, his time with the Kings will almost certainly prove limited.

Randy Wittman, Washington Wizards

Wittman legitimately is in trouble, but his issues may not come to bite him until the playoffs. Before the season, Washington was pegged as an Eastern Conference favorite, expected to give Cleveland a real run for their money in terms of making the Finals. So if the Wizards face an early exit from the playoffs or disappoint in the postseason at all, there’s a very good chance that Wittman is sent packing.

Admittedly, there’s plenty of talent on this team, but some of those guys have started to publicly question some of the man’s coaching decisions, and there can be no dissension ahead of the team’s pursuit of Kevin Durant and other free agents this coming offseason. There will need to be a coach in place that gives Durant a sense of things being under control and heading in the right direction, and anything short of an Eastern Conference Finals appearance may necessitate a coaching change.

As for this sesaon, Wittman’s probably the best chance the Wizards have of seeing any real postseason success, which is what makes it very unlikely that he’ll be fired during the year.

Sam Mitchell, Minnesota Timberwolves

While Mitchell may not be the guy that ushers this young roster to the NBA Finals, the Wolves are in no hurry to fire him because they are still pretty clearly not in a position to compete at a high level. Truthfully, the team has done fairly well under Mitchell and the players are comfortable with him. There hasn’t been some any falling out between coach and star, a la Karl-Cousins in Sacramento, so that doesn’t leave any pressing need to dismiss Mitchell for reasons of chemistry and development.

The other issue with Minnesota is that the vision for the team moving forward had been that of the late Flip Saunders, but now that he’s passed away the Timberwolves organization doesn’t know exactly where they’re going with their long-term plan in Saunders’ absence. Until they have a plan in place, there’s very little reason to fire a head coach doing a reasonable job.

Dave Joerger, Memphis Grizzlies

While a Memphis Commercial Appeal story a couple of weeks ago made it sounds as if Joerger’s job was as safe as anybody’s on this list, there were sentiments even before the team’s rough start that ownership wasn’t completely in love with their head coach. Joerger did push for the Mario Chalmers trade, which for some reason was a catalyst in vaulting the Grizzlies back into contention, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s safe long-term.

What that did change, however, was the sentiment that Memphis was sunk. As it stands, they’re two games above .500 and sport the fourth-best record in the Western Conference, which is a perfectly acceptable turnaround for a team that stunk so thoroughly early on. For Joerger to have long-term security, however, will require a deeper playoff run. We’ll see how Big Ball holds up in a conference full of Small Ballers once the postseason hits.

Brett Brown, Philadelphia 76ers

The last time Jahlil Okafor won a basketball game that counted, he still was playing for Duke, which in most cases would mean big trouble for the head coach of a promising high lottery pick. But even though Brown has won only 37 games in his three seasons as head coach of the Sixers, the team has absolutely no desire to let him go. The reality is that Brown actually is a strong head coach (he’s from that Gregg Popovich coaching tree, after all) who just never has been given the talent to succeed.

More than anything, the question for Brown’s long-term relationship with the Sixers is whether he can stomach any more of that losing culture when his four-year contract is up. In other words, if Brown leaves Philly, it will be because he moved on rather than being fired. However, he has long indicated that he will at the very least coach out his contract there, which ends in 2017.

Alvin Gentry, New Orleans Pelicans

While the rope may be short for Gentry in New Orleans following a 4-11 start, nothing is imminent there in terms of a firing. Anthony Davis likes him and nobody has complained about him, which probably means he isn’t going anywhere. That group is still working on shifting system philosophies, there is a talent deficiency outside of the starting lineup and injuries have significantly limited this team. But perhaps more important than anything is that Gentry is only a couple of months into a three-year deal (with a fourth-year team option) that promises him almost $10 million guaranteed. He’ll probably need to earn a little bit more of that money before ownership can justify firing him (and having to pay two coaches).

A lot of these blurbs make it sound like more coaches are “safe” than expected, with most expected movement happening in the offseason rather than right away. However, that can change on a dime if a team’s ownership or front office believes that a coaching change could lead to more on-court success and a possible playoff run.

But the moral of the story, at least for now, is that most teams are going to stand pat with their coaches. Big changes will come later, if at all.