NBA Head Coaches on the Hot Seat Entering Season's Final Month
The last month of the NBA regular season can be a race for playoff seeding, or for some coaches, a last-ditch effort to keep their jobs.
This year is no different, especially in some of the league's biggest markets where the pressure is typically cranked up the highest.
Whether it's failing to meet expectations or suffering another early playoff exit, the next two months could decide the fate of the following six coaches.
Seats That Could Get Hot (Honorable Mentions)
Doc Rivers, Philadelphia 76ers
2021-22 Record: 40-24, third in the East
The Sixers are still in their honeymoon period with James Harden and just two-and-a-half games behind the Miami Heat for the No. 1 overall seed. Joel Embiid is playing like an MVP, and Tyrese Maxey should be a candidate for Most Improved Player.
With that being said, what happens if Philly loses in the first round? Landing a top seed in the East could still mean a first-round matchup with a Brooklyn Nets team featuring Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving (for all games if the vaccine mandate is lifted by mid-April) and Ben Simmons. Playing a tough Toronto Raptors team is no easy series, either.
Rivers' teams have melted down in the playoffs before both in Philly and with the Los Angeles Clippers. He almost certainly won't lose his job this offseason, but a shocking first-round exit—perhaps one that began with a big lead—could have him on the hot seat going into next year, especially with Embiid and Harden built to win now.
Dwane Casey, Detroit Pistons
2021-22 Record: 18-48, 14th in the East
Having one of the worst records in the NBA can naturally put you on the hot seat, fair or not. After being named Coach of the Year with the Toronto Raptors and subsequently fired in 2018, Casey probably doesn't feel too safe no matter how his teams finish.
The Pistons weren't supposed to win this season, but this could mark three straight years of 20 wins or fewer. Casey was originally brought on in 2018 to lead a playoff contender that featured Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson. Now, not a single player from the 2018-19 roster is still on this Pistons squad.
We could also see a mutual parting here a la Mike Budenholzer and the Atlanta Hawks in 2018, with Casey getting out of his contract if a job opens up on a team more ready to win.
Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz
2021-22 Record: 41-24, fourth in the West
In eight years in Utah, Snyder is set to lead the Jazz to their sixth playoff appearance. He's never won fewer than 38 games in a season, maxing out at 52 a year ago.
So why should he be worried about his job?
This comes down to a lack of playoff success, something Dwane Casey got axed for in 2018 despite winning 59 regular-season games. Utah has yet to make it out of the second round with Snyder at the helm, twice bowing out in the first round.
This roster is only getting more expensive with Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert set to make nearly $68 million by themselves next year. New Jazz CEO Danny Ainge may want to make his own head coaching hire should Utah suffer another disappointing first- or second-round exit.
Alvin Gentry, Sacramento Kings
2021-22 Record: 24-44 (18-33 under Gentry), 13th in the West
The only coach on this list with an interim tag, Gentry replaced Luke Walton as the leader of the Kings just 17 games into the season. While Walton won just 35.3 percent of his games in Sacramento this season, Gentry's success rate has been identical.
The Athletic's Sam Amick reported that Gentry was hoping to avoid the "interim" in his title when taking the job, something the Kings obviously won out on. This could signal a lack of confidence moving forward for the 67-year-old, especially for a team that's still four games out from even reaching the 10th seed and final play-in spot.
Simply being the head coach of the Kings franchise means sitting on a seat that's perpetually hot. Since governor Vivek Ranadive took over in 2013, Sacramento has employed six different head coaches, a number that will likely stretch to seven this offseason.
Gentry shouldn't be saddled with all the blame for the way this season has unfolded. Trading Tyrese Haliburton to the Indiana Pacers was a shock to nearly everyone's system, De'Aaron Fox has taken a sizable step back, and this roster lacks quality wings.
A late-season miracle where Sacramento reaches the 10th seed, wins two play-in games and advances to the West playoffs for the first time since 2006 is perhaps the only scenario where Gentry remains the head coach of the Kings for next season. If this happens, he should get a statue as well.
Tom Thibodeau, New York Knicks
2021-22 Record: 28-38, 12th in the East
If not for the Los Angeles Lakers, the Knicks would hold the title as the biggest disappointment in basketball this season. While there's still a flicker of hope at making the playoffs (New York is three-and-a-half games out of the play-in tournament), this looks like another lost year for Knicks basketball.
Thibodeau's seat should be considered quite hot just a year removed from winning Coach of the Year and guiding what looked like a bottom-dwelling Knicks team to the No. 4 seed in the East.
The front office is already pointing fingers at Thibodeau, according to SNY's Ian Begley: "And in conversations with Knicks owner James Dolan this month, (executive vice president William) Wesley has been laying the blame for the season—at least in part—on Thibodeau's coaching, per SNY sources."
The management of Kemba Walker has been a disaster. The four-time All-Star went from starter to out of the rotation to starter again to now shut down for the rest of the season. Thibodeau has also played Cam Reddish just 14.3 minutes per night off the bench after the Knicks surrendered a 2022 first-round pick (via Charlotte) for the promising young wing, continuing to lean on his veterans despite mounting losses.
New York's starting units have been among the worst in basketball, with the five-man combo of Walker, RJ Barrett, Evan Fournier, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson registering a net rating of minus-13.8 over 24 games. Despite the unit's ineffectiveness, Thibodeau played them together more than nearly every other combo in basketball, with their 428 minutes together ranking fourth overall in the NBA.
Thibodeau's specialty has long been defense, going back to his days as an assistant with the Boston Celtics. While he had the Knicks at a sparkling 107.8 rating (fourth overall) last season, New York has fallen to 16th overall now (110.2 rating). The offense, bogged down by the lack of a premier point guard and Randle's disappointing play, is 23rd overall (108.8 rating).
It's fair to wonder if his contract will play a role in his job security. He's only in the second season of a five-year deal, meaning the Knicks would have to eat a significant amount of salary moving forward.
However, New York likely needs to show some signs of hope for the remainder of the season, including giving Reddish more of an opportunity when he's fully healthy, for Thibodeau to keep his job.
Frank Vogel, Los Angeles Lakers
2021-22 Record: 28-37, ninth in the West
The only coach on this list to actually have won a championship with his current team, Vogel has already come under attack this year after Los Angeles failed to commit to him long term in the offseason.
Despite guiding the Lakers to a 2020 NBA title, Vogel received no extension until August 2021. Even then, general manager Rob Pelinka "rewarded" him with just an extra year on his contract. By comparison, Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer got a three-year extension following the franchise's 2021 championship.
The Lakers have struggled this season thanks to a combination of various injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook's poor fit with the team and a roster filled out with subpar role players. A defense that ranked first in the NBA last season has now fallen to 17th overall.
Much of this isn't Vogel's fault. He wasn't the one who executed the trade for Westbrook, a move that financially strapped the franchise and likely led to Alex Caruso leaving in free agency for the Chicago Bulls.
Alas, it's hard to envision the 48-year-old returning to the Lakers next season, as someone has to pay the price for a team that's now a whopping 11.5 games out of the sixth seed and the final guaranteed playoff spot.
ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Dave McMenamin both agreed that had Jason Kidd not taken the Dallas Mavericks' head job and was still a lead assistant on the Lakers bench, Pelinka would have made a coaching change by now.
Vogel's only chance to stay likely depends on getting a healthy James and Davis in time for the playoffs and going on some sort of surprise run. Based on how the season has unfolded thus far, that appears extremely unlikely.