NBA Coaches on the Verge of Losing Their Jobs by Season's End
The NBA coaching carousel moves with perpetual motion.
This season has already witnessed five dismissals. Once the campaign closes, more movement will almost assuredly come.
The motivation behind guillotine drops is as different as the candidates themselves. Some have disappointed in the simplest regard, failing to maintain the expected win-loss standards. Others have failed to connect with their most important players. Another subset wears the "interim" tag, which could mean their clubs will conduct wide coaching searches over the offseason.
Few seats are safe in this business, but these are the most precarious.
J.B. Bickerstaff, Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets have a problem.
One year removed from their first Western Conference Finals appearance since 1997, they're now fighting for their playoff lives with a .500 record and bottom-half efficiency rating (minus-1.3 points per 100 possessions, 17th). Franchise faces James Harden and Dwight Howard have had difficulty getting on the same page—or even in the same book—and the supporting cast has been erratic.
None of that bodes well for the security of interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff. But, as the son of former NBA skipper Bernie Bickerstaff, J.B. understands that's something rarely seen in this profession.
"I've lived this life for a long time and rightly, wrongly, fairly, unjustly people are fired and it happens," he said, per ESPN.com's Calvin Watkins. "Very few people get to live the Jerry Sloan or [Gregg] Popovich lifestyle. ... It's like the hourglass—your time is ticking, so you understand that going into it."
Houston's issues may extend well beyond Bickerstaff's reach. Howard's offensive involvement has declined, and Harden has played some atrocious defense (minus-0.80 defensive real plus/minus, per ESPN.com, tied for 278th overall). The team waived offseason additions Ty Lawson and Marcus Thornton. Injuries have altered the rotation several times over.
But excuses—even valid ones—don't often save a coach's job. Not that Bickerstaff needs reminding of that.
Tony Brown, Brooklyn Nets
If there's such a thing as a no-win season in the NBA, then the Brooklyn Nets are having it.
They don't have enough talent to contend for a playoff spot. They have zero incentive to tank because their 2016 first-round pick belongs to the Boston Celtics. There's not even much player development to be done, as a broken ankle has sidelined top prospect Rondae Hollis-Jefferson since early December.
That puts interim coach Tony Brown in a bad spot. But what could make his difficult challenge impossible is Brooklyn's reported desire to lure in a big fish. The Nets want "a significant presence as head coach," according to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski, who mentioned Jeff Van Gundy, Tom Thibodeau and Ettore Messina as potential candidates.
Those names have clout that Brown's can't match. A big-league assistant for nearly the last two decades, this is his first attempt at manning the helm.
The Nets have shown moderate improvement under his watch: .281 winning percentage (up from .270) and a minus-5.9 net efficiency (up from minus-6.9). But it's hard to tell whether that will move the needle at all for new general manager Sean Marks—or for Brooklyn's free-agency targets. Even Brown knows his stay could be temporary.
"This is not just an audition for Sean. A lot of teams are looking to see how I'm doing in this position," Brown said, per Brian Lewis of the New York Post. "It's a resume-type deal here."
George Karl, Sacramento Kings
The relationship between Sacramento Kings coach George Karl and All-Star big man DeMarcus Cousins started out on the wrong foot. This franchise has been walking toward—or, at times, drowning in—disaster ever since.
Cousins' camp was reportedly against the hire made last February, per USA Today's Sam Amick. Over the ensuing months, Karl said he'd never had an "untradeable" player, per CSNBayArea.com's Bill Herenda, then reportedly tried to drum up support within the organization to have Cousins moved, sources told Wojnarowski.
Cousins responded with a thinly veiled social-media shot and lit into the coach during a profanity-laced tirade. More recently, Cousins screamed at Karl during a sideline huddle, which drew Cousins a one-game suspension. The big man went out of his way to clarify the suspension came "from the head coach," per Marc J. Spears, then with Yahoo Sports.
The situation in Sacramento is toxic. The Kings were leaning toward dismissing Karl at the trade deadline, sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein, and the head coach is "still expected to be replaced after the season," according to Amick.
The rift with Cousins isn't the only reason for the inferno raging beneath the 63-year-old coach's seat.
"Karl just isn't up for the job physically," wrote NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper. "While he still has a sharp basketball mind and still has the desire for the job, the grind has become too much and the lack of energy is obvious to the front office and players."
Kurt Rambis, New York Knicks
The New York Knicks don't have a greater asset than Kristaps Porzingis. And interim head coach Kurt Rambis has yet to prove he's capable of unlocking the 7'3" rookie's monstrous potential.
Porzingis' percentages have crumbled under Rambis' watch. After shooting 42.3 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from outside under former coach Derek Fisher, those marks have fallen to 39.3 and 28.0, respectively, during the 14 games Porzingis has played with Rambis in charge.
There's a temptation to chalk those woes up to Porzingis crashing into the proverbial "rookie wall." But closer inspection reveals that Rambis has changed the way Porzingis is utilized.
Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal explains:
Rambis has said that due to Porzingis's athleticism and versatility, he could "eventually see him at the 3-spot some," referring to the small-forward position. That was days after Rambis said he wanted Porzingis to sprint down court after opponents' misses more frequently in hopes of getting more post-up opportunities.
Rambis, who has said Porzingis is "going to be phenomenal," has also been critical of the rookie’s shot selection, saying "there are shots out there that he takes that I flat-out don't like."
Trading triples and transition dunks for post-ups is like laughing in the face of modern basketball. That the 240-pound Porzingis doesn't even rank inside the 45th percentile of post-up scorers only adds to the frustration with his usage.
Rambis could have the support of longtime friend and Knicks President of Basketball Operations Phil Jackson, but that may not be enough. While Knicks All-Star Carmelo Anthony said he'd be OK with Rambis coming back, he also stressed the importance of speaking with "other candidates," per Marc Berman of the New York Post.
Byron Scott, Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers have been an unmitigated disaster with Byron Scott on the sidelines.
Last season, they set a franchise record with 61 losses. They're on pace to lower that bar this year (.203 winning percentage, down from .256). Scott has let Kobe Bryant—and his unsightly 35.6 field-goal percentage—run wild during the future Hall of Famer's farewell tour while taking a heavy-handed approach with the franchise's budding building blocks.
Top-10 picks D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle have been shuffled in and out of the starting five. Scott sees the short leash as "tough love," per Bill Oram of the Orange County Register, which is a colorful way to describe robbing the prospects of precious developmental time.
Russell, the second overall selection in last summer's talent grab, has found his way in spite of Scott's approach. Since the All-Star break, Russell has averaged 17.5 points on 44.4 percent shooting (42.9 from deep). Scott's supporters may view that as evidence his methods worked, but that's not the effect Russell has seen from the public criticisms.
"I didn't deal with it," Russell told Andrew Keh of the New York Times. "I didn't care. I didn't care at all."
Scott's not reaching L.A.'s youth might be reason enough to give him a pink slip. If not, Scott's career 451-637 record may do the trick. The Lakers are seemingly in desperate need of a change, though ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne reported they "haven't yet decided whether to bring Byron Scott back next season."
Earl Watson, Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns fired head coach Jeff Hornacek after a 14-35 start. Their winning percentage has dipped even further under interim skipper Earl Watson (.250, down from .286).
That's unlikely to be the main metric used to evaluate Watson's performance, though. He inherited a roster that had already lost Eric Bledsoe (torn meniscus) and T.J. Warren (broken foot) to season-ending injuries, then watched fourth-leading scorer Markieff Morris get moved at the trade deadline for a first-round pick and no immediate relief.
Watson's priority is player development. And the jury's still out on how he's done there. Rookie Devin Booker is shooting just 37.8 percent from the field and 30.3 from outside since Watson took over. Third-year center Alex Len has shown some signs of life but continues to battle with consistency.
That being said, Watson does seem to have the support of his locker room.
"Watson has gained strong respect from players," wrote Marc J. Spears of ESPN's The Undefeated. "Two said consensus is players want him to stay."
But this isn't their call to make. The Suns front office has to decide whether Watson's ability to connect with this roster can translate to victories. Phoenix might be in rebuild mode now, but it may have intentions of competing for a playoff spot as soon as next season.
Randy Wittman, Washington Wizards
It feels as if Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman is permanently perched atop a burning chair. And those flames are threatening to finally engulf him this offseason.
The Wizards started the year as sleepers and could finish it without a playoff ticket. An attempt to modernize the offense with more triples and better pace has failed to take hold. They're 22nd in offensive efficiency, and their defensive ranking has dropped nine spots since last season (from fifth to tied for 14th).
Injuries have been a bit of an issue, but this is a results-driven business—particularly with the franchise hoping to impress prized free-agent target (and District native) Kevin Durant. Even if Wittman can help Washington salvage a seat at the postseason party, an early exit isn't the type of result this club coveted.
"It would take a lot for Washington brass not to think hard about changing directions here," wrote Sports Illustrated's Jeremy Woo. "As they prepare to bid heavy on Kevin Durant, offering him the chance to pick his coach could sweeten the deal."
Whether Durant comes or not, the Wizards have a promising young nucleus in place. John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and midseason addition Markieff Morris are all under the age of 27. The window for this core to contend may be opening soon.
But for that to happen, the Wizards must have the right coach in place. Wittman's annual appearances on the chopping block suggest he might not be it.