The Seat Is Hot: NBA Head Coaching Jobs on the Line
Earl Watson and David Fizdale have already lost their jobs, and odds are, they won't be the only head coaches who get shown the door this season.
Riffing on the futures of real people with real families never sits right. But the NBA is, by and large, in the "instant gratification" business. Speculation of this kind is a tricky endeavor.
The head coaches highlighted here aren't 100 percent without question out of a job. Many haven't even sniffed the rumor mill. They merely find themselves in tenuous situations that could end with them turning in their clipboards.
In certain spots, the status quo is growing stale, and teams might opt for a leadership change. In other instances, squads are barren of other options. Their on-court product is underachieving, and they don't have the trade assets or forthcoming cap space to make meaningful depth-chart alterations.
This list does not only take into account the 2017-18 season. Coaches will be ranked in order of likelihood they could be fired this year, given the circumstances they're operating under, but these situations can and often will spill into the summer.
And finally, interim head coaches will not be eligible for inclusion. Phoenix's Jay Triano and Memphis' J.B. Bickerstaff are working under the guise that they're placeholders. It would be unfair to penalize them for not converting temporary labels into measurable job security.
Fred Hoiberg, Chicago Bulls
The Chicago Bulls have given Fred Hoiberg the league's worst roster, and guess what: He's coached them to the league's worst record.
Ousting Hoiberg this year, or even before next season, for a failure to exceed expectations would be so Bulls. After all, general manager Gar Forman and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson could parlay his departure into additional job security themselves, citing the need to give a new coach ample time to ply their trade before declaring this a defunct rebuild.
Logistically speaking, though, Hoiberg shouldn't be in any imminent danger when Zach LaVine hasn't played, rookie Lauri Markkanen is progressing and Denzel Valentine is flashing signs of progress.
Alvin Gentry, New Orleans Pelicans
Alvin Gentry's job would make the list of those to watch if the New Orleans Pelicans weren't in the Western Conference's playoff picture. They own a top-10 offense and have shown, at times, they can dominate with an odds-and-ends supporting cast around DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis.
Keep an eye on this situation leading into next year, after Cousins makes a free-agent decision. Until then, Gentry's post should be considered more safe than not.
Dave Joerger, Sacramento Kings
Strike garbage-time play from the record, and the Sacramento Kings own the NBA's worst point differential per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning The Glass.
In other words: They're right on schedule.
Next year's first-round pick belongs to the Philadelphia 76ers, so the Kings have a one-season window in which to tank. The additions of Vince Carter, George Hill and Zach Randolph left some thinking they'd be chasing a playoff berth, but those moves always represented a culture play.
Putting Dave Joerger under the microscope for coaching the Kings exactly where they're supposed to be verges on bizarre. No one on the team is averaging 30 minutes per game—perfect for a squad with a mixture of kiddies and veterans. That in mind, his minutes distribution is weird.
All three of Joerger's most-used lineups include at least two of Hill, Randolph and Garrett Temple, which feels disingenuous to the rebuild. He did bench Hill down the stretch of a tightly contested Dec. 2 tilt with the Milwaukee Bucks but still played Randolph the entire fourth quarter while closing with him and Temple over the final five minutes.
Except, the front office cannot give Joerger a bunch of high-priced veterans and expect him not to play them. He already seems to be giving De'Aaron Fox priority over Hill, and Willie Cauley-Stein is averaging almost as many minutes as Randolph through the last 10 games.
Unless he's defying direct orders to play the youngsters even more, questioning Joerger's job security in the first year of an actual rebuild is premature.
5. Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City Thunder
Sweltering temperatures are ingrained into Billy Donovan's seat cushion. He continues to walk a fine line as he tries to strike a balance on the offensive end between three ball-dominant stars. For much of the season, particularly down the stretch of close games, ball-watching and hesitant pressing have reigned supreme.
Russell Westbrook is shimmying between overcorrections—feasting on ill-advised shot attempts or going the extra mile to defer. Paul George often looks uncomfortable for sets at a time. Carmelo Anthony is averaging more touches than him, despite playing almost five fewer minutes per game. And Anthony himself is going through similar motions with the pecking order still unclear.
Rumors of discord aren't emanating from OKC's locker room. On the contrary, Anthony made it clear that the ire is directed only at their sub-.500 record, collective shortcomings and ongoing learning curve—not any one individual.
That bodes well for Donovan's job security. And recently, he's done a better job building a half-functioning offense around George and Westbrook, with Anthony assuming a lower-usage role and Andre Roberson getting more looks off cuts to the basket.
Still, the Thunder lead the league in isolation possessions. The Big Three have burned through more one-on-one sets between them (273) than all but three NBA teams, and Westbrook is the only one shooting better than 40 percent in these situations.
Crunch-time issues aren't magically going anywhere, either. The Thunder are 3-9 through games in which neither team is leading or trailing by more than five points entering the final five minutes.
Most expect the Thunder to be fine. But they don't have the luxury of patience. They won't get another audition with George ahead of free agency, so shaking up sideline leadership is their sole alternative to dealing the All-Star wing.
Even if Donovan makes it through the season, it'll be interesting to see how the Thunder respond in the event George bolts and they're staring down the barrel of another reset around Westbrook.
4. Frank Vogel, Orlando Magic
Frank Vogel doesn't deserve to be here in the most fundamental sense.
Sure, the Orlando Magic are 2-10 since their 8-4 start, during which time they placed dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions. But no one should've been counting on them to continue lording over two-thirds of the Eastern Conference.
Vogel doesn't have the personnel to build a top-tier defense, and his ability to create lineups around switchability is hamstrung by Jonathan Isaac's ankle injury. If anything, he deserves kudos for shepherding aspects of the offense into this century with more shot attempts coming inside three feet (27.9) and giving Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic license to fire away from deep. The team is also on track to hover around the top five of pace after finishing 13th in 2016-17.
That said, marginal stylistic shifts aren't enough to gift Vogel with an ironclad future. He was hired under a previous regime, and he could become a casualty of a new administration looking to install its own personnel.
Firing him wouldn't be easy if the Magic were competing for a playoff spot. Heck, things would be different if they weren't on a rebuilding hamster wheel. But they're not flush with potential cornerstones or a definitive direction.
Management can try excising some of the financial demons—namely Bismack Biyombo and Evan Fournier. But they don't have the expendable sweeteners to lop off gobs of salary in one shot. Vucevic's bargain-bin deal doesn't hold much cachet when the Association is oversaturated with bigs, while Isaac and all future first-rounders should be off limits.
Hiring a new head coach is the Magic's most efficient path toward change without a total demolition. They're already in danger of remaining on purgatory's treadmill with Gordon and Elfrid Payton nearing restricted free agency. The longer it takes Vogel to instill a measurable identity unto this team, the more likely the front office is to pivot in the one area it has some wiggle room.
3. Jason Kidd, Milwaukee Bucks
Too much about the Milwaukee Bucks feels predictable. They remain hyperaggressive on defense and force more turnovers than any team outside Oklahoma City and Utah. But the overall results underwhelm.
Milwaukee is 16th in points allowed per 100 possessions—albeit 11th since the Eric Bledsoe trade—and hasn't adjusted its ultrafeisty approach to account for opponents' own tweaks. Only the Los Angeles Lakers allow more looks at the rim during non-garbage time, according to Cleaning The Glass, and just three teams forfeit more above-the-break three-point attempts.
Some of the Bucks' offensive success even feels superficial.
They're 15th in efficiency since landing Bledsoe, not shooting enough treys and are unable to generate buckets consistently when Giannis Antetokounmpo sits. They don't play fast enough given their collection of wings (26th in pace), and while they look to push the ball after defensive rebounds, they're 20th in points scored per possession following opponent misses, according to Inpredictable.
Jason Kidd, of course, hasn't enjoyed the most stable roster. Integrating Bledsoe isn't a mindless venture, and losing Greg Monroe throws a wrench into the frontcourt rotation already missing Mirza Teletovic and Jabari Parker.
The good news for Kidd is that the Bucks aren't at risk of missing the playoffs. Also in Kidd's favor is the fact that his relationship with co-owner Marc Lasry goes way back and actually helped facilitate his jump from Brooklyn in the first place.
At the same time, Kidd doesn't seem exceptionally high on the organization's totem pole.
He left the Nets because they wouldn't grant him more power but hasn't wielded much more clout with the Bucks. A dual coach/general manager role never appeared as Milwaukee underwent front-office changes this summer, and certain "higher-ups spent much of last season wondering whether Kidd was the right man for that job long-term," per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst.
At this point, the Bucks have shown more interest than any other team in trading for DeAndre Jordan, according to Gery Woelfel of the Racine Journal Times. That's a good sign that their priority is to improve the roster—not the coach.
Then again, with big splashes come bigger expectations. The Bucks have the name power to compete for home-court advantage through at least the first round of the playoffs, but if they jump through hoops just to remain in sixth place or lower, Kidd's status will be uncertain at best.
2. Steve Clifford, Charlotte Hornets
Including Steve Clifford stings. Yours truly pegged him as a top-seven head coach leading into last season and, even now, wouldn't vault him outside the top 10.
But the Hornets are one of the NBA's biggest underachievers. They're supposed to be a playoff lock. They lean more toward fringe status at the season's quarter-pole, and not only that, but they're running out of excuses.
Nicolas Batum's return hasn't spurred a resurgence. The Hornets are manufacturing more offense without Kemba Walker on the court since getting him back, but scoring like a bottom-seven attack isn't anything to celebrate.
Plus, this uptick doesn't have much to do with Batum. It feels more circumstantial. He's posting a career-low effective field-goal percentage after doing the same last year, and the Hornets were forced to log more time without Walker while he rested a bruised left shoulder.
Charlotte's defensive indifference, meanwhile, is more troubling than anything else.
"If you look at our team, (to succeed) we have to be a terrific defensive team and a great rebounding team," Clifford said prior to a Nov. 18 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, per the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell. "We're not, and that's my job."
The Hornets are 15th in points allowed per 100 possessions on the season and 18th since Clifford lamented the departure of that identity. They're the league's top defensive rebounding team over that eight-game stretch and among the 10 best overall at scoring after live turnovers, according to Cleaning The Glass.
But all that rings hollow when they're under .500 and bowing out of close games en masse. They're 5-8 with the third-worst point differential per 100 possessions in contests during which neither side leads or trails by more than three points entering the final three minutes.
Scapegoating Clifford for these various breakdowns isn't ideal. But the Hornets won't have much choice if they keep tumbling down the Eastern Conference ladder. They're locked into this core with more than $115 million in guaranteed money committed to next year's roster.
Authoring a full-scale teardown has its merits with Walker's trade value at an all-time high. But the Hornets have traveled great lengths to remain in the middle. Deviating from the unofficial party line would qualify as a seismic shock.
Fair or not, he's about the only facet of this product they can change without mortgaging the future or abandoning the present. A home-heavy December could be the stretch that determines Clifford's fate.
1. Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers
Remember when the Clippers were 4-1 and profiling as one of the season's best feel-good stories? No judgment here if you don't, because it seems like forever ago.
L.A. is 4-14 with the NBA's worst defense since that blazing start. We could say the outlook gets better from here, but we'd be lying.
Blake Griffin is on the shelf with a sprained left MCL. Milos Teodosic hasn't played since Oct. 21 while rehabbing a plantar fascia injury. Danilo Gallinari has been collecting rust since Nov. 5 with a strained left glute. Patrick Beverley is done for the year after surgery to repair a microfracture and torn meniscus in his right knee.
Injuries always figured to be an issue, but the extent to which the Clippers are being railroaded is absurd. Clinching a playoff berth seems out of the question, and resisting that harsh reality would be a grave misstep.
Tanking the rest of this year for top-five lottery odds is the more prudent move.
The Clippers control their own first-round pick, something they cannot say about 2019 when they'll send their choice to the Boston Celtics if it falls outside the lottery. Adding a high-end prospect and moving forward with Griffin and whoever remains will position them to revisit competing as early as next year.
Rival teams are already playing up this scenario. Multiple squads have inquired about DeAndre Jordan's availability, and his decision to hire a new agent (Jeff Schwartz) could signal the Clippers are getting serious about moving the free-agent-to-be (who owns a player option), according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski.
"When you take the job as a coach, you're going to be a target," Rivers said on Nov. 29, per ESPN.com's Arash Markazi. "It's so easy. Players get hurt, you start losing, it's the coach's fault. I've been on this rodeo a long time. I know what I can do. I believe in the guys here. It is what it is."
Rivers' precarious situation with the Clippers isn't so cut-and-dried. He is not responsible for three of L.A.'s four best players being injured. But the team stripped Rivers of his front-office influence over the summer, naming Lawrence Frank vice president of basketball operations and, prior to that, bringing on Jerry West as a special adviser. Rivers is also a billboard of a fast-fading era when the Big Three rendered them contenders.
Chris Paul is gone; Jordan could be next. And if two-thirds of that trio is removed from the picture, L.A. will find itself gearing up for a full-scale rebuild—one for which Rivers, nearly two decades into his coaching career, probably won't be invited to stick around.