The Brooklyn Nets’ firing of Steve Nash created our first coaching casualty of the year (not including Ime Udoka). Each NBA season usually sees a handful of guys get canned, so there are almost certainly more to come. It’s a harsh world out there, and besides the merit-driven decisions, there are always at least one or two surprising firings each year: relationship dynamics with star players, executives, and owners are at least as important as on-court success, and those things are a black box to people not embedded in the organization.
With that said, here are my thoughts on the likelihood of all 28 coaches returning to the same sidelines next year (we’re excluding the unknown Brooklyn coach and Boston’s interim coach Joe Mazzulla), from “Franchise Institution” to “I Sure Hope You’re Renting.” Note that this is exclusively referring to forced exits that occur this season (or immediately thereafter). Plenty of guys on this list will be at high risk of being fired next year, but I’m not worried about that. Likewise, I’m sure there’s a decent chance Gregg Popovich walks away after this season to enjoy his wine in peace, but certainly nobody in San Antonio will make him do that.
Hakuna Matata (It Means No Worries)
Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
At 950 years old, Popovich will retire one day. But, by all accounts, he’s enjoying coaching up a nascent team with no expectations of winning, and he already has them off to a surprising 5-3 start. With a handful of championships and a fantastic relationship with the team and community, Pop will be the head honcho of SA for as long as he wants.
Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat
Spoelstra is in a similar place. Championship credibility, a history of overperforming expectations, and the widespread respect of peers and media add up to a man as safely ensconced as one can be in this tumultuous profession.
Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors
Four championships in eight years generally buy you some job security. He’s going to be in GS for as long as Curry is there. I think that, if anything, Kerr is underrated as a coach. (Complaints that he hasn’t been able to develop an offense that works without Steph Curry are stupid: the chef plays 38 minutes per game in the playoffs, and you want to maximize what you can do with him on the floor.)
Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
Budenholzer was actually very, very much on the hot seat after repeated playoff debacles as a coach, but he learned from failure and tweaked his style in meaningful ways. The result was a championship two years ago. He has a great relationship with Giannis, too, and it’s impossible to see him being fired in the near future.
Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors
Given his championship pedigree and beloved status in the city of Toronto, it’s hard to imagine Nurse being fired this season. Toronto is too talented to imagine wildly underperforming expectations, and it’s likely Nurse has given himself enough leeway with previous successes to survive any worst-case scenarios this year.
Will Hardy, Utah Jazz
Like Clifford below, this is Hardy’s first go-round with Utah as head coach, and he’s impressively helmed the league’s most surprising team. He’s safe for the year and then some.
Steve Clifford, Charlotte Hornets
Only on this list because he was hired this offseason. Charlotte has manageable expectations this year, and they’re off to a relatively OK start, all things considered. But the main thing working for Clifford (who has already been fired by the Hornets before, don’t forget) is that he’s just begun and will be given time to make his mark.
Probably Safe. Probably.
Mike Brown, Sacramento Kings
Like Will Hardy and Steve Clifford, Mike Brown is in the first year of his contract. Unlike those two, however, Brown is dealing with a mercurial owner with unrealistically high expectations. It’s highly unlikely Brown gets fired this early, but it’s not impossible if the Kings really stink and players start grumbling.
Taylor Jenkins, Memphis Grizzlies
Jenkins is one of the best coaches in the league, and Memphis looks impressive once again. I am certain that, barring Udoka-esque off-the-court circumstances, Jenkins won’t get fired during the season. However, we’ve seen coaches get fired after bad playoff performances before. There’s always a remote possibility that Memphis loses in the first round and looks bad enough that Jenkins gets tossed aside. See Dwane Casey below for a perfect example.
Billy Donovan, Chicago Bulls
Your favorite coach’s favorite coach, Donovan has done a good job with Chicago and has a much better reputation in the league than he does with fans. Of course, playing for cheap owners who are highly unlikely to want to pay someone to sit at home doesn’t hurt, either.
Jason Kidd, Dallas Mavericks
Fresh off a fun Western Conference Finals run, Kidd looks to be pretty firmly in place in Dallas. He and Luka seem to have a great rapport, and there’s no real reason to think he’ll have any employment issues this year. But teams with high expectations and temperamental superstars are never truly a safe place to put down roots.
J.B. Bickerstaff, Cleveland Cavaliers
Bickerstaff hasn’t always impressed me with his tactical acumen in the past, but he’s done a fantastic job this year and really seems to connect with his players. Definitely a coach I’m watching closely to see how he develops throughout the season, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen so far, and I have to imagine ownership does, too.
Rick Carlisle, Indiana Pacers
This is a weird year for the Pacers, who seem to be starting a true-blue rebuild. That’s not something most people would’ve guessed the hyper-competitive Carlisle would be excited to oversee, but there haven’t been any reports of discontent that I’ve heard. Coaches are rarely threatened at the start of any demolition project since expectations are low, and any bad decisions contributing to losses can be waved off as “growth opportunities” by general managers eager for more ping-pong balls.
Tyronn Lue, Los Angeles Clippers
In my opinion, the second-best coach in the league behind Spoelstra. Working for a process-based, rational owner like Steve Ballmer, and with plenty of previous career success, it’s hard to see Lue having problems… but the Clippers are expected to be championship contenders and haven’t looked nearly the part, even given Kawhi Leonard’s absences. In the NBA, the past only matters so much. There’s a world where the Clippers underperform and Kawhi demands a new coach for reasons only Kawhi understands. Highly unlikely, but theoretically possible.
Dwane Casey, Detroit Pistons
Casey was once fired after winning Coach of the Year, so I’m probably overestimating his chances. But young teams not expecting to win rarely fire coaches as long as the youth movement is proceeding on track, and there’s nothing that I’ve seen to make me think Casey is in any imminent danger.
Mark Daigneault, Oklahoma City Thunder
For my money, Mark is one of the best coaches around, but you’d never know it because the Thunder always suck. It’s tough to make lemonade out of rotten limes, but that’s mostly what Daigneault has been handed in his career. Oklahoma City plays its cards very close to the vest, however, so there’s always the possibility of dissent within the ranks that we just don’t know about.
Wouldn’t Expect A Firing, But Wouldn’t Shock Me
Willie Green, New Orleans Pelicans
Green led a miraculous turnaround for the Pelicans last year in his first year, and he’ll be given some time to make his mark now that Zion is back in the fold. The only reason he’s not higher is that if Zion came to ownership and told them to find a new coach, he’d be gone, and Zion hasn’t exactly been a bastion of open communication and team support in his brief time with the Pellies.
Michael Malone, Denver Nuggets
Malone was already a surprise sacking once when he coached the Sacramento Kings. He has a very, very strong personality that often rubs bosses and ownership the wrong way, so even though he’s done great work with the Nuggets, there’s always a chance that he pisses off the wrong owner, the Nuggets are surprisingly on track for the play-in, and the team decides they need a new voice in the locker room. I doubt it happens, but it’s easy to envision.
Chauncey Billups, Portland
I moved him up a tier because the team has looked completely transformed to start this season, but maybe I’m letting recency bias blind me. The Blazers were horrific last season even given Damian Lillard’s injury, and they looked to be more of the same in the preseason this year (reminder #325 that preseason should never be used to calibrate team expectations, ever). But a fast start and some obvious improvements in scheme have me and Chauncey both feeling better about his prospects.
Darvin Ham, Los Angeles Lakers
The popular first-year coach should probably be in the tier above, but you’re a fool if you think anything in Lakerland is reliable right now. Cheap ownership won’t want to pay Ham to sit at home. Still, given a combustible combination of egos, superstars, and expectations, I wouldn’t bet the house on Ham surviving the year even if I think a firing is unlikely at face value.
Chris Finch, Minnesota Timberwolves
Would have had him in the higher tier before the season started. Even though we knew it would take Minnesota time to gel, given their unusual lineup configurations, it’s another thing to see the sludginess in action. Finch was widely respected last year, but he’s the handpicked coach of a now-unemployed executive, and there’s always the chance that the new bosses want their guy at the reins if Minnesota’s slow start continues.
Jamahl Mosley, Orlando Magic
The same story as Dwane Casey above, except Casey has a long and storied career, while Mosley’s resume is short and without much team success to speak of. That’s not his fault, but that does mean he can’t use his track record to defend himself in any dispute. Still, as we’ve said, rebuilding teams are usually safe for at least a year or two.
Postseason Is Critical
Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns
Last season’s complete and utter collapse against the Dallas Mavericks (losing by 700 points in Games 6 and 7 combined) is hard to forget. Phoenix looks like a regular season juggernaut once again, but this team needs to make a deep playoff run for Monty to feel good about his future in Phoenix.
Wes Unseld Jr.
Unseld’s only in the second year of his deal, but the team traded for Kristaps Porzingis because it wants to make the playoffs. If the Wizards underperform, Unseld could be a quick offseason casualty.
Nate McMillan, Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks made a big swing to add Dejounte Murray, and they expect to be a real threat in the East. The good times from two years ago, when McMillan came in mid-season and led a Cinderella run to the Eastern Conference Finals, are long gone. A poor showing this season or another brutal first-round loss might result in the team moving in a different direction.
Someone Hand Me A Fire Extinguisher For This Chair
Doc Rivers, Philadelphia 76ers
Doc is a conundrum. I think he’s vastly underrated as an X’s-and-O’s coach, and he’s rarely given credit for the things he does well by NBA fans that generally despise him. But it’s also indisputable that, despite his championship with the Celtics fifteen years ago, he has a long history of extremely talented rosters completely imploding (he’s blown three separate 3-1 playoff series leads!), and he never seems to make the obvious adjustments when it matters. Harden’s month-long absence may be Rivers’ saving grace: if the team stinks, he can at least point to Harden’s foot injury as an excuse. But early returns on the Sixers haven’t looked promising, and at this point, I think saying it’s a 50/50 chance that he survives the season might be generous.
Stephen Silas, Houston Rockets
The rare exception to the “rebuilding teams are safe” rule. The Rockets have looked bad, but most importantly, they feel bad in some ineffable way. Teams this young rarely look this miserable together. I also haven’t understood some of the lineup or strategic decisions he’s made this season. A notoriously frugal owner helps some, but like Rivers, I think Silas’ continued employment after this season is a coin flip.
Tom Thibodeau, New York Knicks
Woooo boy. Thibodeau won Coach of the Year two years ago, but a playoff flameout against Atlanta immediately washed away the fans’ goodwill, and a disappointing season by any measure last year didn’t help. Unfortunately, Thibodeau seems to be repeating the same mistakes he’s made his whole career, and the Knicks haven’t looked great at 3-4. A fractured and confused/confusing front office makes it hard to parse how they really feel about Thibs, but at this point, I’d be surprised if Thibs is still on the sidelines next season.
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