Buying or Selling NBA Coaches on the Hot Seat

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMay 5, 2021

Buying or Selling NBA Coaches on the Hot Seat

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    It came a little later than usual thanks to last season's hiatus and the December start to the 2020-21 season, but coaching seats around the NBA are officially warming up.

    When teams fail to live up to expectations, fans, analysts and organizations look for the fall guy year after year. That's often the coach. 

    Ownership, the front office or the players themselves may carry as much or more of the blame, but shakeups to the bench sometimes seem like the path of least resistance.

    On Wednesday, The Athletic's Shams Charania and Sam Amick gave us five names to pay attention to:

    • Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts
    • Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer
    • Indiana Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren
    • Sacramento Kings head coach Luke Walton
    • Washington Wizards head coach Scott Brooks

    Some of those inclusions may be more obvious than others. And there are arguments to keep any of them, though they're more difficult to make for some.

    Whose so-called hot seat is really hot? And whose may just be lukewarm? Let's indulge the time-honored tradition of "buy or sell" on each of these rumors.

Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    This is Terry Stotts' ninth season at the helm for the Portland Trail Blazers. His first, in 2012-13, is the only one in which they had a losing record. And the Blazers' winning percentage over his tenure (.555) ranks ninth in the league.

    Consistent runs to (but not through) the postseason don't appear to be enough to spare Stotts, though.

    Damian Lillard will turn 31 in July. He's seventh in NBA history in career offensive box plus/minus, but he has never sniffed legitimate title contention.

    Age doesn't shut title windows as quickly as it used to, but the clock may finally be ticking on Lillard.

    A new coaching staff that can coax more out of Portland's defense could be the key. During Stotts' tenure, the Blazers are fifth in points scored per 100 possessions and 22nd in points allowed per 100 possessions.

    Are the defensive struggles Stotts' fault? Or would anyone struggle on that end with a starting backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum?

    We may get an answer next season.

    "If Stotts can’t 'pull a rabbit out of his hat' with a playoff miracle of sorts, as one source put it, the Blazers are expected to opt for a new coaching voice," according to Charania and Amick.

    Verdict: Buy

Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    With a two-time MVP in the prime of his career on the roster, regular-season success isn't enough to keep the temperature of Mike Budenholzer's seat at a reasonable degree.

    The Milwaukee Bucks have the league's best winning percentage by far over the course of Budenholzer's three seasons, but early playoff flameouts in 2019 in 2020 are the lasting impression (so far). And with his team essentially locked into either second or third in the East, a potential second-round matchup against Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets looms.

    If Milwaukee can't oust the star-laden Nets, "buy or sell" on Budenholzer's future may be elementary at that point, per Charania and Amick:

    "A first-round loss would be the doomsday scenario, and even a second-round loss would seem nearly impossible for him to survive. From that point on, and even if they faltered in the Eastern Conference Finals or the Finals, all the relevant factors beyond the final outcome would come into play in the Bucks’ decision-making process."

    Losing to Brooklyn, as opposed to someone further down the title contenders ladder, should be one of those factors.

    The Bucks match up with them as well as anyone in the league, thanks in large part to Jrue Holiday's perimeter defense and Giannis Antetokounmpo's length against KD. But there may be no ceiling to the Nets' offense, and a loss to them, especially if they wind up winning it all, shouldn't be a glaring demerit for Budenholzer.

    Three seasons isn't a long time. Holiday and Khris Middleton are in the middle of their primes, while Giannis is just starting his (as scary as that sounds).

    Budenholzer deserves a little more leeway to figure this out.

    Verdict: Selling his hot-seat status

Nate Bjorkgren, Indiana Pacers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Nate Bjorkgren hasn't even finished his first season as an NBA head coach, but he's already feeling the pressure of a hot seat made even warmer by a Woj bomb.

    "Amid a year of difficulties with players and staff, Indiana Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren's future with the franchise is uncertain as the regular season nears an end," ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted Tuesday. "The Pacers are 30-34 and in ninth place in the Eastern Conference."

    Wojnarowski later clarified that Bjorkgren needed to work on relationships with key players and had shown a "willingness within the organization to try to address those issues."

    If he's already lost the trust of the team's best players, Bjorkgren may never get it back. Such was the case for John Beilein with the Cleveland Cavaliers last season, though that situation is easily distinguishable from this one.

    As far as we know, there's nothing like the infamous "thugs or slugs" debacle here. And considering that this is Bjorkgren's first major head coaching gig, he may be more open to adaptation than Beilein was.

    As far as Indiana's record goes, context is important.

    Myles Turner, once a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, played only one game since April 6. T.J. Warren, who averaged 19.8 points last season, went down with a season-ending knee injury after four games this year.

    With next season being the last one that's guaranteed on Bjorkgren's contract, he at least deserves the first portion of that campaign to see what he can do with a healthy roster.

    Verdict: Sell

Luke Walton, Sacramento Kings

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    If the traditional aspects of being a head coach were the only factors at play here, Luke Walton's seat may be as hot as that of any coach in the league.

    After three sub-.500 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers (only one of which included LeBron James), Walton has underwhelmed with the Sacramento Kings.

    Like the pre-2019-20 Lakers, these squads aren't teeming with talent, but De'Aaron Fox is a fringe All-Star, Buddy Hield is one of the game's most prolific shooters and Marvin Bagley III was the No. 2 pick in 2018. That has been enough to coax an above-average offense, but that's about the nicest thing you can say.

    Sacramento is 21st in winning percentage and 29th in defense over the course of Walton's two seasons. And though the front office hasn't given him many (if any) lockdown defenders, a lack of interest and effort on that end can often be attributed to coaching.

    Perhaps more than any other area of basketball, defense requires effort. How willing are you to get in a stance for 24 seconds? How hard will you close out or make that next rotation? Are you willing to help your teammates and recover? Answers to those questions can be influenced by a coach's ability to motivate.

    Walton's future with Sacramento may not be as simple as all that, though.

    According to Charania and Amick, Walton has a good relationship with Fox. And unlike most coaching contracts, there's no provision that allows the organization to stretch what's owed to Walton over a number of years if he's fired. Following a period of immense financial turmoil for the Kings and a number of teams around the NBA, paying two head coaches at once may not be palatable.

    Sacramento currently has a 20.3 percent chance at a top-four pick in this loaded upcoming draft. Giving Walton another high-upside prospect to play alongside Fox and Tyrese Haliburton may finally bring some hope to the Kings. And it's probably preferable to the onus of double-billing.

    Verdict: Sell

Scott Brooks, Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Scott Brooks is nearing the end of his fifth season as the head coach of the Wizards, and it'll likely be his third straight losing campaign.

    Like Bjorkgren, though, there's plenty of important context here.

    The Wizards have been hit about as hard as anyone in the league by injuries and "health and safety protocol"-related absences. And it seems to have taken a good chunk of the season to adjust to the presence of Russell Westbrook (as was the case with Russ and the Houston Rockets in 2019-20).

    They're still missing Thomas Bryant (torn ACL), but the rest of the roster is seemingly jelling. Washington is 13-3 and third in the league in net rating since April 7.

    In that same stretch, Westbrook is averaging 21.8 points, 13.6 rebounds and 13.1 assists, while Beal is putting up 29.9 points.

    The Wizards look very much like the team you'd least like to face in the upcoming play-in tournament. And while they'd likely get dispatched by the Bucks, Nets or Philadelphia 76ers in a first-round series, friskiness any series could buy Brooks a little more time.

    With roles properly calibrated, Bryant coming back and Deni Avdija and Rui Hachimura developing, Washington has reason for some optimism.

    Verdict: Sell

Others to Watch

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Charania and Amick didn't specifically mention them, but a few other coaches might find themselves in similar reports between now and next season.


    Stan Van Gundy, New Orleans Pelicans 

    Zion Williamson is a borderline top-10 player, Brandon Ingram was an All-Star last season, and Lonzo Ball is one of the league's better Swiss Army knife guards. And yet, the New Orleans Pelicans' chance at a playoff spot, even with the play-in tournament, is vanishingly small.

    One could easily argue that this is more on the front office for trading Jrue Holiday and not surrounding Zion with more shooting, but it's hard not to feel like the Pelicans have underachieved.


    Dwane Casey, Detroit Pistons

    After winning Coach of the Year with the Toronto Raptors in 2017-18, Dwane Casey has the fifth-worst winning percentage in the league over his three seasons with the Detroit Pistons (and the worst over the last two seasons).

    In the midst of a full-scale rebuild, Detroit might eventually think about hiring a coach with more of a specialty for development.


    Steve Clifford, Orlando Magic

    The thinking here would be similar to that for Casey. Steve Clifford has proved on a number of occasions that he can draw competitiveness out of sub-optimal rosters, but the Orlando Magic aren't likely to be within shouting distance of the playoffs for a while.

    Someone with more of an eye and ability for building up young talent may help more in the long run.