The Cleveland Cavaliers' shocking dismissal of David Blatt on Jan. 22 reinforced two truisms about the coaching carousel in today's NBA:
- No coach is safe, and no job is secure—unless you're one of the fortunate few who have helped hang a championship banner.
- The competition for the league's 30 gigs is and will be fiercer than ever.
Blatt, Kevin McHale and Lionel Hollins were the first head coaches to butt up against these trends in 2015-16, but they likely won't be the last. With so many accomplished candidates on the market—from the aforementioned coaches to Tom Thibodeau, Jeff Van Gundy and Vinny Del Negro (among others)—those who are on the hot seat can only hope the owners who sign their checks won't fixate upon more attractive replacements.
For these five head coaches, that reality could hit a bit too close to home in the months to come, especially if they don't deliver good results over the remainder of the campaign.
Jeff Hornacek, Phoenix Suns
If Jeff Hornacek has a spirit animal right now, it has to be a sad polar bear stranded in the Arctic Ocean. Piece by piece, his once sturdy ice block has receded into a sea of frustration and angst.
In late December, the Suns scrapped two of Hornacek's top aides, Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting. Around that time, Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix's best player, went down with yet another major knee injury. Since then, the rest of the roster has collapsed, with Brandon Knight, Markieff Morris, Mirza Teletovic and P.J. Tucker among a host of players who are battling injury.
Through it all, the Suns' energy has slipped on both ends of the floor.
"We need Ronnie Price effort every night," Hornacek said back in December, per Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding.
Of course, that was before Price had to have surgery on his toe. And the problems in Phoenix aren't entirely (or even mostly) Hornacek's doing. As ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote prior to Bledsoe's season-ending diagnosis:
The Detroit trade alienated Markieff Morris, and he has failed horribly to deliver on his promise as a playmaking four around those Chandler pick-and-rolls. The Knight-Bledsoe pairing has been awkward, and has created some minor locker-room tension, according to sources familiar with the matter. Both thrive as lead ball-handlers, and Knight has bristled over the years whenever anyone has labeled him as something other than a pure point guard.
Fair or not, the mess Phoenix's front office made is now Hornacek's to clean up on the court. If he can salvage what's left of the Suns' lost season, he just might secure a new contract. And if not, he shouldn't be out of work for long, in the opinion of MinnPost's Britt Robson:
For now, being the most disposable scapegoat at the helm of a franchise-worst playoff drought leaves Hornacek's job as vulnerable to greater forces as any stranded polar bear.
Byron Scott, Los Angeles Lakers
Like with Hornacek in Phoenix, there are some "wrong place, wrong time" elements to Byron Scott's conundrum in L.A. The Lakers were already in dire straits when he signed on for his head coach homecoming in 2014 and have only sunk further into the bog of Kobe Bryant's twilight since then.
To that end, Scott has been a good soldier in a losing battle. His hands have largely been tied by the franchise's admitted commitment to prioritizing Bryant's farewell tour above building toward a prosperous future.
Still, Scott hasn't done himself any favors. Time and again, he's used the media to rip his players, with particularly harsh rhetoric directed toward the promising pair of D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. That kind of "tough love" isn't likely to endear him to his players, according to Stephen Jackson, who began his NBA career under Scott with the New Jersey Nets in 2000-01.
Recently, Scott has taken that same approach to handling hecklers on social media, some of whom root for his squad.
Clearly, these aren't the best of times for Scott. And with Walton, a two-time champion under Phil Jackson in L.A., looking like a darling candidate after his historic run as interim coach of the Golden State Warriors, Scott has every reason to worry about his own job security.
Dave Joerger, Memphis Grizzlies
It seems as though every time the Memphis Grizzlies hit a bump in the road, the front office starts plucking petals off daisies and wondering if they like Dave Joerger—or like him not. When the Grizzlies got blown out three times in their first six games of 2015-16, ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported Joerger's job might be in the crosshairs.
Memphis has picked things up since then. It won six out of seven before a puzzling Jan. 23 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, and it had gotten solid mileage out of moving Zach Randolph to the bench until injuries thrust him back into starting duty.
Joerger, for his part, is no sitting duck. After Memphis' 50-point pounding at the hands of the Warriors, he essentially called out his counterparts on the personnel side when he told reporters, per Stein, "There are times when we look a little bit old."
Moreover, it's been nearly two years since Joerger almost jumped ship to join the Timberwolves in his home state. He eventually ironed out a new deal with the Grizzlies, but the detente between the two sides has remained uneasy.
Should Memphis' fortunes take another turn for the worse this season, Joerger might find himself back on shaky ground, with his bosses running out of flower petals to pick apart.
Sam Mitchell, Minnesota Timberwolves
Sam Mitchell didn't return to the Timberwolves with the expectation of being their head coach. He was thrust into that position after Flip Saunders' passing and had prepared his team to play as Saunders would have wanted them to. As Mitchell told MinnPost's Britt Robson:
When you are an assistant coach — at least my approach to being an assistant coach — I don’t walk in with an agenda. That ain’t my job. My job is to walk in with an open mind and open ears and when coach says, “OK, this is what I want to do defensively, this is what I want to do offensively,” look at those things he wants to do and help him tweak it to fit our team. You don’t come in and do it with your own plays and your own defensive principles. You don’t even think about that.
That approach worked well enough for the first 16 games, during which the Wolves got off to a surprising 8-8 start. The team's youthful inexperience has since dragged it down to six wins in 29 games leading into Monday night's matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Throughout those ups and downs, Mitchell and his staff have remained committed to teaching Minnesota's passel of promising youngsters how to play in the NBA. Mitchell explained the process as one of habit formation at heart, per Robson:
These are things that veteran teams just take for granted. We have to teach all of that. So, OK, people think, “Well you told them.” But how long does it take to break bad habits, habits that you have had ever since you started playing basketball? You can’t just do it by telling them once. If no one has ever taught you how to set a proper screen, I have got to show you Monday, I have got to show you Tuesday, I got to show you Wednesday, on tape Thursday, on tape Friday — until it becomes second nature.
Will Mitchell be around long enough to train the T-Wolves' teens and 20-somethings the fundamentals? Or will the powers-that-be in Minnesota venture outside the organization to find a fresh voice—the third in as many seasons for Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine and the fourth in the cases of Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng?
Either way, whoever gets the call in the Twin Cities will have to balance winning games now with grooming the team's talented core for the long run.
J.B. Bickerstaff, Houston Rockets
When the Rockets fired Kevin McHale 11 games into the 2015-16 campaign, Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski suggested that J.B. Bickerstaff, McHale's interim successor, would be guaranteed no more than an audition for the full-time gig:
Owner Les Alexander has gone 20 years without a title, and vows that he won’t let this window pass without exhausting the possibilities. He never hesitated on costing himself the $12 million owed to McHale, nor will he hesitate to pass on his interim coach's long-term candidacy should Bickerstaff fail to show that he can make the Rockets contenders again.
So far, the results of the change have been positive, though not overwhelming so. The Rockets went 20-15 in their first 35 games under Bickerstaff, and though the offense has scored at a top-five rate, the defense remains mired among the league's bottom 10.
That's not ideal for Bickerstaff, to say the least. Much of the clout he'd earned in Houston stemmed from the work he logged to turn the Rockets defense into an elite operation last season.
As the son of a longtime NBA coach, Bickerstaff understands he may not be the long-term option for this or any job he holds. He said, per ESPN.com's Calvin Watkins:
For me, it’s my whole life this is what I’ve seen. I’ve lived this life for a long time and rightly, wrongly, fairly, unjustly people are fired and it happens. Very few people get to live the Jerry Sloan or [Gregg] Popovich lifestyle. You have a time and your time as soon as you get there. It’s like the hourglass -- your time is ticking, so you understand that going into it. Your responsibility is to do the best job that you possibly can, and if that decision has to happen, make it a very difficult decision for someone. That’s all you can hope for.
Bickerstaff will have to keep hoping his team picks up its effort on the defensive end. Otherwise, the Rockets could have eyes for any number of the qualified candidates out there—including Thibodeau, whose ties to the organization date back to his days of coaching under Jeff Van Gundy—to fill the top job in Space City.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.