When an NBA team is sold, all members of the new ownership group are required, per NBA rules, to sign a six-word pledge: "When in doubt, fire your coach."
Over the last 25 years, NBA teams averaged one coaching change approximately every two and a half years. The San Antonio Spurs, who haven’t made a move in 25 years, sit on one extreme of the spectrum, while the New York Knicks, who make a move every 25 days, sit on the opposite extreme. And the middle is largely populated by the Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, and other teams who average a few changes each decade. Unsurprisingly, the Spurs and other teams with coaching continuity win a lot and routinely sit atop NBA Championship odds in online sports betting. Meanwhile, the Knicks and other teams with eight, ten, or, in the case of the hapless Knicks, a staggering 11 changes coaches (not including interim) lose a lot and are irrelevant by late November.
“I think that in some cases one might surmise that some owners think it’s easier than it really is,” Popovich said in 2013, referencing increasing coaching turnover that has only accelerated over the last eight years. “It’s difficult to win an NBA game, let alone playoff game‑type situation. It’s not that easy. You don’t just go draft, or make this trade, or sign this free agent and then it gets done. It’s very difficult. And when things don’t happen quickly, I think some owners become frustrated. Some even take it personally, I believe, almost like a little bit of an embarrassment because they’ve been so successful in their own way and have a hard time understanding this business.”
Nine teams changed coaches during the 2019-20 carousel, up from six a year earlier but matching the 2017-18 total. How many teams will make a move this year? Which coaches are currently on the hot seat?
Updated NBA hot seat rankings (Jan 24, 2021):
5. Terry Stotts
Terry Stotts has one year remaining on an extension signed days after losing to the Warriors in the 2019 Western Conference Finals. Even with a strong 2019-20 season, it’s unlikely he would’ve been extended again, so his contract situation is hardly a hot seat factor.
At the time of the series-ending loss in Game 4, we didn’t know the Warriors’ dynasty was weeks away from folding. And we didn’t know another Western Conference dynasty was in weeks away from igniting as the Los Angeles Lakers prepped for the first of potential several championships. Life isn’t great for championship-starved Western Conference teams, and while it’s not fair to expect annual championship contention in a Lakers-controlled West, it’s fair to expect consistent playoff success from a talented roster and veteran head coach.
Even if you give Stotts a pass for last year’s injury-riddled season in which they exited in the First Round for the third time in the last four years, they still exited in the First Round for the third time in the last four years. That still matters, especially if it happens with a healthy roster this year.
Right Now: Facing injury issues again, the Blazers are what they’ve been for a long time: They’re a talented, frustrating team capable of rattling off four nice wins (as they did in early January) or scoring 87 points in an ugly loss to Indiana, followed by a 21-point loss to San Antonio four days later.
Right now, the status quo isn’t good enough. Terry Stotts could quickly rise up the hot seat board unless he figures out how to build schemes around Damian Lillard.
4. Dwane Casey
The NBA Coach of the Year Award is occasionally an ominous sign of future job-security issues, though the issues typically marinate for a couple of years before boiling over. For Dwane Casey, the job-security issue boiled over before marinating; he was the Toronto Raptors’ Coach of the Year while he was Detroit Pistons head coach.
Four days after Casey’s Raptors were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, he was fired. One month later, he was named Pistons’ head coach. And two weeks after that, he was named Coach of the Year for leading the Raptors to a franchise-record 59 regular-season wins.
Three years after the bizarre situation, Casey is again on the hot seat, though this time he won’t win Coach of the Year while coaching a new team. This time, he might be fired for leading one of the worst teams in Pistons’ history.
Right Now: The Pistons get to the line and have good transition defense. That’s it. That’s the entire list of things they do well.
Casey doesn’t have the roster to compete for a playoff spot and entered his third season with low expectations. He led a remarkable rebuild in Toronto and could do the same in Detroit if given a lot of time. It’s unclear, however, if new general manager Troy Weaver is willing to give him the time.
3. Luke Walton
The good news for Sacramento Kings’ head coach Luke Walton: He wasn’t fired alongside general manager Vlade Divac in August and remains employed and has a full two seasons remaining on a four-year deal signed upon arriving in 2019.
The bad news for Luke Walton: He’s never coached a good team and is employed by a new general manager who worships analytics. Walton uses analytics but was criticized by rival executives for being “behind the curve” in analytics, sports sciences, and player development.
Right Now: Since opening the season 3-1 with wins over the Nuggets (twice) and Suns, the Kings have 3-9 with five losses by at least 15 points. Their offensive is oftentimes explosive and oftentimes inept. The defense, meanwhile, is always inept and Luke Walton has put forth no coherent on-court argument in favor of his job security beyond this season.
2. Ryan Saunders
The Minnesota Timberwolves have been rebuilding since Kevin Garnett was shipped to Boston 14 years ago. They’re on their eighth head coach since Kevin McHale’s idiotic decision to fire Flip Saunders in 2005 and, barring a miracle of consistently competent basketball, are headed toward a 15th playoff whiff in 16 seasons.
It’ll be the second whiff in as many years for Ryan Saunders after a decent 42-game audition in relief of Tom Thibodeau in 2019 landed him a job held by his father just four years earlier. And in 75 games as permanent head coach, the Wolves have done nothing. They’ve done literally nothing well with a retooled roster that shouldn’t be this bad and will soon have a new general manager after Scott Layden stepped down in December after four disjointed years.
Right Now: This is what I wrote in the last update: “The Timberwolves are doing literally nothing well. Other than a five-point win over the Utah Jazz in their second game, there’s nothing here.”
I have nothing to add.
1. Scott Brooks
The Washington Wizards didn’t hire Scott Brooks in 2016 to lure Kevin Durant in free agency, John Wall claimed. Whether or not Wall was correct, it doesn’t matter now. The Wizards didn’t land Durant, Brooks’ former player and a D.C. native, and have paid more than $30 million for one playoff series win and tons of mediocrity and futility.
General manager Tommy Sheppard called Brooks a “decorated coach” in August while announcing Brooks’ return in 2020-21, the last season in a five-year contract that pays more than $7 million per season. He’s dealt with several notable injuries throughout his tenure, including John Wall and Bradley Beal during last year’s dud, but entered 2020-21 with more than enough talent to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2018.
Right Now: When the Wizards can’t play, the Wizards can’t lose. After an impressive blowout of the Suns on Jan. 11 ended a three-game skid, they had six straight postponements.
The offense will presumably improve with Russell Westbrook’s return but there’s no hope for the league’s worst defense, which means there’s no hope for Scott Brooks’ future as Wizards head coach.
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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor by BetMGM, an NFL and college football podcast. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @DoughtyBetMGM