There is no such thing as a safe job in the NBA coaching business—unless you're named Gregg Popovich. The ax can drop at anytime, a lesson already learned by Kevin McHale and Lionel Hollins this season. As teams continue to get a better grasp of their 2015-16 fate, more coaching casualties will almost certainly follow.
Several fires are burning beneath seats around the league—some just beginning to spark, others raging uncontrollably. More still have a few smoke clouds surfacing—but also the potential for an all-out inferno this summer.
By examining team performance, roster fits and contract situations, we've found the six skippers in the most perilous positions.
6. Dave Joerger, Memphis Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies are trying to engineer an identity change. It isn't a stretch to imagine their move out of the "Grit 'N Grind" era could be made without Dave Joerger.
He's made the most of what he has, reaching 50 victories during each of his first two seasons on the job. But Memphis is currently trudging along at a 45-win pace, which would mark its worst winning percentage since 2009-10. Scoring remains a constant struggle (the Grizzlies are 27th in offensive efficiency), and their once-dominant defense is now merely mediocre (16th in efficiency).
Joerger, whose contract runs through next season, shouldn't shoulder all of the blame for that slippage. In fact, it's hard not to be impressed by his work, since his top two scorers are both posting career worsts in field-goal percentage (Marc Gasol and Mike Conley).
That said, an organizational overhaul could still be in the works.
"There's every reason to believe Memphis (as constituted) has maxed itself out, that it is old at the core and without many assets and therefore its best days are in the past," NBA.com's Shaun Powell wrote Jan. 5.
If the Grizzlies reshuffle the deck this summer—Conley leads a handful of Memphis regulars heading to unrestricted free agency, per Basketball Insiders—would Joerger make it to the other side? That seems far from certain. He's twice been on the hot seat already, first in May 2014, then again in November, as ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported.
If the Grizzlies suffer a first-round defeat, they might add a head coach to their offseason shopping list.
5. Randy Wittman, Washington Wizards
Even as Randy Wittman guided the Washington Wizards on back-to-back playoff trips, his name always found its way into the rumor mill.
It could go back there again this summer, though not for the same reasons as before. Widely criticized for deploying an antiquated system, he's tried to bring his approach up to speed. The Wizards are running (fifth in pace) and gunning (13th in three-point makes), essentially playing the style hoop heads had long pleaded for.
What Washington isn't doing much of, though, is defending (19th in efficiency, down from fifth last season). And the offensive tweaks have barely impacted the quality of its production, as it's scoring just 0.4 more points per 100 possessions than it did in 2014-15 (102.2, up from 101.8).
The Wizards also look nothing like the sleepers many thought they could be, winning only 19 of their first 39 outings. Wittman, admittedly, has been dealt some brutal injury blows. But he's also yet to prove he's capable of elevating this franchise from good to great.
"With four-and-a-half seasons of Wittman in charge, the Wizards haven't exactly hit their potential," Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler wrote last week, "and with a huge offseason on the horizon, there is a growing belief that a change in leadership may be necessary."
This could be a franchise-defining offseason for the District. Not only will Washington make an all-out pursuit of Kevin Durant, it'll also have to make a tough call with the restricted free agency of the uber-talented but oft-injured Bradley Beal.
Wittman's contract is only partially guaranteed for next season, per CSN Mid-Atlantic's J. Michael, so the Wizards have an easy out if he fails to impress or their top free-agent recruit wants someone else.
4. J.B. Bickerstaff, Houston Rockets
Credit J.B. Bickerstaff for making the best of a tough situation.
It took a disappointing 4-7 start and McHale's subsequent dismissal for Bickerstaff to move into the Houston Rockets' premier sideline seat. But the 36-year-old only holds the title of interim head coach, with Rockets owner Leslie Alexander saying Bickerstaff could stick around longer "if the team responds to him and we win," per ESPN.com's Calvin Watkins.
That has happened to a certain degree. Houston is 18-13 since making the switch and (relatively) comfortably positioned as the West's No. 7 seed.
But how much value would the Rockets place on a brief postseason appearance? Houston was a Western Conference Finalist just last season, and its top two players are either in their prime (James Harden) or on the wrong side of it (Dwight Howard).
If the Rockets have a window to elite status, this is the time to break through it. But it just doesn't seem like that dramatic leap is coming. Not with Houston holding a bottom-third mark in defensive efficiency (104.6 rating, 21st) and a negative point differential (minus-0.8 per game, 17th).
Bickerstaff's spot should be secure through the end of this season. Houston, however, could go big-game hunting over the summer with names like Tom Thibodeau, Jeff Van Gundy and Scott Brooks floating around the coaching pool.
3. Sam Mitchell, Minnesota Timberwolves
The Minnesota Timberwolves never envisioned Sam Mitchell as a long-term head coach. He joined the Wolves last season as Flip Saunders' assistant and was thrust into an interim head coaching gig after Saunders' sudden death in late October.
"The interim title also can be taken as a reflection of Mitchell's current job status," Patrick Reusse of the Star Tribune wrote in November. "He's good for this season, but what happens after that is anyone's guess, including (presumably) owner Glen Taylor."
The Timberwolves appear to have a blindingly bright future. They have last season's Rookie of the Year (Andrew Wiggins) and should also have this season's (Karl-Anthony Towns). Sophomore Zach LaVine has limitless athleticism, third-year swingman Shabazz Muhammad is an electric scorer and prolific playmaker Ricky Rubio is only 25 years old.
This nucleus could be special—but it might need a special coach to realize that potential. That's not to say Mitchell can't be that coach, but he hasn't been to this point, tallying a career .437 winning percentage over parts of six seasons.
Mitchell's offense doesn't seem to fit this league or this roster. The Wolves attempt the fewest three-pointers (15.3 per game) and most mid-range shots (28.2 per game). And despite being overloaded with young athletes, they rank only 17th in pace.
Mitchell has done an admirable job of navigating this young cadre through a turbulent present, but he hasn't shown enough to be penciled into any future plans.
2. Byron Scott, Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers aren't chasing a playoff berth, nor outwardly embracing the loss column. This season has become a nightly celebration of Kobe Bryant's Hall of Fame career. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has acknowledged that fact, as NBA on ESPN noted:
NBA on ESPN @ESPNNBA
Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak is fine with putting Kobe ahead of his younger player's development. https://t.co/P0ZWflBS09 https://t.co/WglErJt1961/6/2016, 6:31:41 PM
Byron Scott is perfect for that position. He'll let his old teammate hijack the offense for agonizingly long stretches and fire away as if the five-time champ isn't shooting 34.7 percent from the field. Scott presumably sees the opportunity lost for Los Angeles' young prospects during Bryant's showcases as collateral damage.
Player development, however, should trump all of the Lakers' concerns. They have a collection of talent to evaluate, led by top-10 picks D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. But those two have had wildly fluctuating roles and often been banished to the bench behind veterans Scott isn't holding accountable.
"Scott should be learning what Russell and Randle can do as starters or while playing 30 minutes a game, the better to assess what the team's assets will be," Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times wrote Jan. 6. "Instead, the Lakers remain locked in the past, making the present much tougher to take."
If L.A. wants to keep this year all about Kobe, then Scott should be clear of danger the rest of the way. But once this summer hits and the franchise starts a new chapter around the players he's neglected to develop, his seat could incinerate.
1. Jeff Hornacek, Phoenix Suns
The anvil is so close to falling on Jeff Hornacek that the Phoenix Suns head coach can hear its whistle.
His team, seen as a potential sleeper after his 48-win debut in 2013-14, is officially skydiving without a parachute. The Suns have one win to show for the 14 contests they've played since Dec. 20. Over that stretch, they have the league's worst winning percentage (7.1), defensive rating (112.3) and net efficiency rating (minus-14.8 points per 100 possessions).
As Dave King detailed for Bright Side of the Sun, the performances have actually been worse than the numbers suggest:
The losses have been historically ugly.
Giving up 142 points to Sacramento (most in 25 years). Scoring 22 in the entire first half against the league's worst defense (team-record low). Losing at home to a team that had lost 42 straight road games and 30 of 31 games overall that season. Losing by 30 to a team that had lost nine straight games and 21 of 25 overall, and had not won a game by 20-plus in years.
If any hope exists for a turnaround, it's only of the "things can't get any worse" variety. The Suns' best player, Eric Bledsoe, is out for the year with a torn meniscus. They still haven't figured out what to do with disgruntled forward Markieff Morris.
Phoenix has already shaken up its coaching ranks, ousting Hornacek's top two assistants. The lame-duck head coach seems likely to be the next to go, and his club's putrid play of late might accelerate that process.
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