Ideal Head Coach for NBA's Most Likely Openings
For all the amenities NBA franchises can provide head coaches, job security is rarely one of them.
According to history's road map, the next stop after the regular season's final contest is the perpetually spinning coaching carousel.
Expectations won't be met. Lofty goals won't be realized. In some cases, personality clashes will prove more trouble than they're worth. Whatever the reason, the outcome will be the same: Hot seats will flame over and claim the position of their former tenants.
Last summer, nine different organizations made coaching changes. The year before, that number was 13.
In other words, more heads will roll than the three that already have (Michael Malone in Sacramento, Brian Shaw in Denver and Jacque Vaughn in Orlando). Looking around the league at hopes that are falling short, playoff bubbles that are prematurely bursting and poorly hidden rifts, we can get a good grasp on which coaching gigs will need filling this summer.
Factoring in team needs and coaches' strengths allows us to take things a step further and identify the ideal candidate for each likely opening.
Chicago Bulls: Fred Hoiberg
The schism between Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau and the organization's higher-ups is one of the league's worst-kept secrets. While it hasn't led to a divorce yet, there are plenty who think it could be a matter of when not if it heads in that direction.
Several league sources described the relationship as being broken "beyond repair," according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune (h/t CBS Sports' James Herbert). "While there are no plans to replace Thibodeau during the season, a mutual parting of the ways after this season wouldn't surprise many league personnel familiar with the deteriorating dynamic."
Hypothetically, a lengthy playoff run could change that opinion. But that might require having a healthy Derrick Rose, something the Bulls haven't really had since the former MVP underwent his first of three significant knee surgeries in April 2012.
Assuming the Bulls are ready for a coaching change, Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg could be their guy.
"It is widely—and I mean widely—believed throughout the league that Fred Hoiberg...is the top choice of the Chicago Bulls to replace Tom Thibodeau in the event that the Bulls and Thibs indeed part company at season's end," wrote ESPN.com's Marc Stein.
Hoiberg has an NBA background as both a player and executive. The former three-point marksman spent four of his 10 seasons as a player with the Bulls and has a history with general manager Gar Forman, who served as an assistant coach when Hoiberg suited up for the Cyclones.
Hoiberg's familiarity with the NBA game is widely apparent during his team's games. He utilizes versatile bigs (which he would have plenty of in Chicago), sets a well-spaced floor and stresses the importance of efficient offensive zones (around the rim and beyond the three-point arc).
Between his history with the Bulls and the potential offensive lift he could give them, Hoiberg would be a no-brainer target—if Chicago can pry him away from his alma mater.
Denver Nuggets: Mike D'Antoni
The Denver Nuggets could certainly decide to proceed with current interim coach Melvin Hunt. After all, he inherited a team that was playing .339 ball under Shaw and now has it winning more than half of its games (8-7 since Hunt took over).
Not to take anything away from Hunt, but it's fair to wonder just how significant a role he's played in this turnaround. The biggest trick up his sleeve could be the simple fact that he isn't Shaw.
The former coach wanted to slow things down with a roster built to run. He never seemed to fully connect with his players. The more he implemented his system, the worse off the Nuggets became.
Mike D'Antoni could have the opposite effect. Assuming he would inherit the same roster Hunt is overseeing (or the same centerpieces, at least), D'Antoni could masterfully mold the run-and-gun schemes this group is built to execute.
D'Antoni likes versatility and athleticism at the forward spots. Denver could check off both boxes with Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried. D'Antoni has proved himself as an effective point guard whisperer, which could mean more upward mobility for floor general Ty Lawson.
"D'Antoni's system focuses on fast decision-making by the point guard, often coming off pick-and-rolls," wrote USA Today's Adi Joseph. "Lawson already is good at that and may be the quickest point guard in the NBA."
D'Antoni helped build Steve Nash into an MVP, Jeremy Lin into a global phenom and Kendall Marshall into a serviceable starter. None of those players could match Lawson's athletic ability, and even Nash wasn't the assist machine that Lawson is now until the former started serving under D'Antoni.
The Nuggets have several pressing questions to address this offseason, including whether they want to keep this core together and whether Hunt should come back. If the first answer is yes and the second is no, D'Antoni should jump to the top of Denver's wish list.
New Orleans Pelicans: John Calipari
It's tempting to keep free passes at the ready for New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams. For the second consecutive season, his rotation has been ripped apart by injury.
But this franchise sacrificed too many future assets to play the waiting game in the present. Unless the Pellies catch fire down the stretch—or the Oklahoma City Thunder turn ice cold—they'll have just one playoff berth to show for Williams' five years at the helm.
Again, health problems have played a part. But injuries alone can't excuse a team with Anthony Davis and Omer Asik manning the middle ranking being tied for 22nd in defensive efficiency—or explain this club's abysmal 14-21 road record, lowlighted by losses at the Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks.
Williams has one more season left on his contract. But if you saw him on the sideline, you wouldn't recognize him as someone with job security.
"Pelicans coach Monty Williams is starting to appear more like an embattled coach under immense pressure to win because of a growing fanbase that seems to be running out of patience after each mounting loss to teams with losing records," wrote John Reid of The Times-Picayune.
If New Orleans decides it's ready for a change, it has to find someone who understands how to make this athletic, ball-dominant perimeter collection work. And it needs a coach who instantly commands Davis' respect.
Frankly, it needs Kentucky's John Calipari. He's worked with both Davis and Tyreke Evans before. And, as a front-office source told NorthJersey.com's Steve Popper, Calipari "desperately wants" another NBA coaching gig.
Calipari would have no shortage of suitors, but no other team can give him the chance to reunite with Davis. In return, Calipari would give New Orleans a dribble-drive motion offense that creates optimal space for Davis and spreads the wealth among the team's explosive backcourt players.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Ollie
With a roster this rich in talent, it's hard to tell how much of the Oklahoma City Thunder's success comes from coach Scott Brooks.
He's done a fine job utilizing his team's length and athleticism at the defensive end, but this group can be frustrating to watch on the opposite side. And that's true even when Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook are all healthy at the same time.
It doesn't take much creativity to grease the gears for an offense led by that high-powered trio. But Brooks can be as vanilla as they come, trotting out predictable pick-and-rolls or post-up plays with no built-in counters outside of hero ball.
"Oklahoma City under Brooks has virtually no secondary action attached to any of their most frequent play calls," wrote BBallBreakdown's Ben Dowsett. "... It’s incredibly tough to argue that Brooks’s iso-heavy, predictable style is truly maximizing perhaps the league’s most dangerous one-two offensive punch skill-wise."
With Durant done for the year, OKC has lost another opportunity for this trio to produce a title. As the reigning MVP inches toward free agency in 2016, it's tough to say how many chances are left.
Durant has always supported Brooks, so any move to replace the coach would be a delicate one. But UConn's Kevin Ollie could make a relatively smooth transition, since he played in OKC and, more importantly, left a major impression on his superstar teammates.
Ollie likes to play with pace and spreads the floor to help his top players get clean looks. The ball skips from side to side to open up a defense, rarely stagnating the way it has under Brooks' watch.
Ollie resisted the NBA's siren song last summer and inked a five-year, $15 million deal to stay with the Huskies, but the chance to coach Westbrook and Durant could lead the former combo guard back to the NBA.
Orlando Magic: Kenny Atkinson
The Orlando Magic had a .288 winning percentage under deposed coach Jacque Vaughn this season. Interim coach James Borrego has improved that number, but only to .318.
Considering where the franchise set the bar prior to the start of this campaign, it seems very possible the Magic will keep searching for a coaching solution this summer.
"This is an important year to see growth and progress," Hennigan said in September, per Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel.
The Magic are on pace to win one more game than they did in 2013-14 (23). Given the collective rises of Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, sophomore Victor Oladipo and rookie Elfrid Payton, Orlando is right to be aim higher.
Atlanta Hawks assistant Kenny Atkinson could be the man to help the Magic take the next step.
"He's worldly, with a curiosity for forward-thinking ideas, everything from injury prevention to analytics," ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz wrote. "He's someone who would look for new solutions as a head coach rather than insist he has every answer and rely on tired conventional wisdom."
In other words, Atkinson is open to anything that could make his team better. And he's willing to try new things until he finds the right fit for his team.
Atkinson isn't pigeonholed into any specific strategy. He can let one develop organically, then discover ways to optimize it. And he's strong in player development, an obvious perk for a team in Orlando's position.
Washington Wizards: Alvin Gentry
Randy Wittman has coached 594 games in his career—and lost 362 of them.
There are so many other reasons for the Washington Wizards to consider a coaching change, but you don't have to dig much deeper than that one.
But if there's a bigger stain on Wittman's resume than that unsightly record, it's his unwillingness to move forward from his antiquated offense. Essentially, his team embraces the areas that the number-crunchers say to avoid.
As bad as that sounds, it gets even worse. The Wizards are a top-10 shooting team at the rim and beyond the arc. When they work for smart shots, they convert them at a tremendous rate. And their fourth-ranked defense shows they're ready for a long postseason run as soon as they clean up that offensive execution.
Wittman isn't going to make that happen; Golden State Warriors associate head coach Alvin Gentry could.
"He's our offensive coordinator, like it would be in football," Warriors center Andrew Bogut told CBS Sports' James Herbert. "His main role is with reads and spacing and putting sets, little tweaks. ... Unfortunately for us, I hate to say it but there's a high chance we lose him in the offseason because he's just too talented of a coach to not be head coaching."
The Warriors, who ranked 12th in offensive efficiency last season, have jumped into a tie for first under Gentry's watch this year. In 2013-14, the Los Angeles Clippers held the top spot with Gentry serving in the same role.
Washington has the players to be an offensive force. Giving Gentry the reins could make that possibility a reality.