To be a head coach in the NBA is to continually worry about losing your job. After a surprisingly long time without any firings, how should the coaches feel about their job security?
It has been over 16 months since the last NBA head coach lost his job.
That’s a really long time for all 30 coaches to retain their positions. Missed expectations, gross mismanagement, or retirement almost always claims a few victims every season. Two years ago, a whopping 12 coaches lost their jobs. This past year? Not a one. It was a long stretch in May; four months later, it’s incredible.
Despite the longevity of the current group of coaches, nothing has fundamentally changed about NBA job security. Owners still have lofty goals of contention; a team that is the laughingstock of the league doesn’t bring an owner the prestige he expects in owning a professional sports franchise. If a general manager fears for his job, he can often prolong his employment by sending the coach packing.
The current freeze on firings is most likely side effect of the massive amounts of coaching turnover the two years previous, when 16 teams (over half of the league) replaced their head coaches. With coaching salaries precipitously rising every year, it’s a major investment to pay a coach to go home while you pay for another one to come and lead the team. It’s financially fiscal to have a slower trigger finger.
But even money can’t keep some coaches employed for long, and a number of head coaches should be feeling the heat right around their rear ends. Here at The Lottery Mafia we have crafted the Seat Index, an arbitrary evaluation of how close a coach is to losing his job.
Each of the league’s 30 head coaches (we’re not including LeBron James) is ranked from ‘1’ to ’10’ on the Seat Index. A ‘1’ means their seat is comfortably cool; a ’10’ is equivalent to sitting on a bonfire in an attempt to put it out. The combination of naked flame and hot coals will ensure their seat is impossible to keep for long.
Without further ado, we start the Seat Index rankings at the icy end of the musical chairs. These rankings will skew conservative at the start of a season, because if a team was ready to fire someone they would likely do so before the offseason, not during training camp. But that doesn’t mean coaches should relax, because the seats are heating up for a number of leading men around the league.
Frosty the Snowman: No Reason to be Concerned
1. Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich
Popovich will coach the San Antonio Spurs for as long as he wants, and as he prepares to begin a rotation as the coach of Team USA it seems clear he will be staying in the game for at least a few more years. The new Popovich, Steve Kerr, has one of the more secure jobs in the history of the sport. Not only has he brought 207 wins and two titles to the Bay Area, but in contrast to his predecessor he has cultivated strong relationships with the front office and ownership. The only obstacle to decades of coaching the Warriors could be his health, but at just 52 he could still have a long career ahead.
2. Brad Stevens, Quin Snyder
Since Stevens has arrived in Boston he has done nothing but raise their level of play above that of its player talent and set guys up for career years. The players, front office, and fanbase love him. The only reason he’s not one tier up is that when super teams crash and burn, often the head coach goes down with them. Snyder is equally loved in Utah, if a lower profile coach, but the departure of Gordon Hayward means this season is without expectations.
Flip Side of the Pillow: Probably Fine…Probably
3. Tom Thibodeau, Mike D’Antoni, Rick Carlisle
These are a trio of longtime NBA coaches, each helming Western Conference teams. Carlisle is an offensive wizard who has proven himself again and again despite constantly changing rosters. If the Mavericks bottom out, that’s the best-case scenario for this team long-term and Mark Cuban won’t punish Carlisle for it. Thibodeau needs to deliver on a huge defensive leap in Minnesota, but with such a young team he is probably safe no matter what happens this year. D’Antoni could be in trouble if the situation in Houston blows up, but more likely he maximizes the talent he now has.
4. Erik Spoelstra, Billy Donovan, Scott Brooks, Luke Walton, Dave Fizdale
Spo is the old hat of the group, and has earned job security again and again. But a hot run to end the season last year has expectations running high in South Beach, and this team may not have the chops to excel. Donovan and Brooks will need to manage teams with dark-horse Finals aspirations, but they have done that before. Walton and Fizdale will watch over a pair of teams with nominal playoff dreams, but shouldn’t be fired when they miss out.
5. Terry Stotts, Tyronn Lue, Kenny Atkinson
Three coaches in three very different situations. Stotts is a talented coach who’s loved in Portland, and he has made the postseason in four straight seasons despite the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge. But the middle of the West is loaded and crowded, and a poor season could make the Portland front office antsy. Kenny Atkinson has no expectations, but it’s hard to declare a coach secure when his team wins only a handful of games. Ty Lue should be secure – he just won a title two seasons ago and went to the Finals last year – but if this season goes badly and LeBron James leaves for greener pastures, the Cavaliers may decide to get a new coach for a new era.
Wrapped in a Snuggie: Maybe Just Rent For Now
6. Stan Van Gundy, Steve Clifford, Brett Brown, Jason Kidd, Dave Joerger
Stan Van Gundy and Steve Clifford coach Eastern Conference teams that should be better than they are. If either heads in the wrong direction, their leashes could be short. On the other end of the spectrum, neither Brett Brown nor Dave Joerger have to win a lot of games for bad teams. But Philly is already over-hyped and a realistic outcome may feel like a disappointment; Sacramento has crazy decision makers. Thus both are at risk. Jason Kidd was on the chopping block last year before a surprise run to the postseason, and now the Bucks are the darlings of the league – but ownership could decide they want another man overseeing the prime of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
7. Mike Malone, Mike Budenholzer, Doc Rivers
The Atlanta Hawks are going to fall and fall hard, and it’s unclear what management’s goals are. But if the Hawks have to rebuild their talent, they may prefer to bottom out, and Bud is too good to maximize losing. Mike Malone is a tough coach, but his focus is supposed to be defense and the Nuggets were one of the league’s worst defensive teams last season. If they miss the playoffs after signing Paul Millsap, he will most likely be gone. Doc Rivers is in a similar situation; he might not be the man for the job if the Clippers miss the postseason.
Brick Oven: Fighting for Their Lives
8. Earl Watson, Frank Vogel, Fred Hoiberg, Dwane Casey
Earl Watson and Fred Hoiberg have shown very little in their NBA head coaching careers, and that’s never a recipe for job security. But their teams aren’t expected to win anything this year, so there aren’t expectations to fail to meet. Frank Vogel was supposed to take the long athletes of Orlando and form an elite defense, and instead the Magic were terrible on both ends of the court. Finally Dwane Casey has underperformed in the postseason nearly every season of his time in Toronto, and one of these seasons that’s going to mean his job. It could be this year.
9. Nate McMillan, Jeff Hornacek
The Indiana Pacers traded their one star player, and replaced him with a bundle of average veterans via trade and free agency. They wanted to increase the pace, and McMillan completely failed to do that. Unless he does something, he will be torched at some point this season. Hornacek was a hiring of the previous regime, and if the Knicks struggle and Porzingis doesn’t make a leap, he could take the hit.
The Incinerator: Only a Matter of Time
10. Alvin Gentry
When Alvin Gentry was hired away from the Golden State Warriors, he was supposed to revolutionize the offensive attack around Anthony Davis. Instead he has been set up for failure from the beginning, with a football organization providing scant resources to Gentry and company. Injuries piled up, poor roster contruction hamstrung his lineup flexibility, and this offense never got off the ground.
Now Gentry has one season — perhaps just half of one — to show whether the Davis/Cousins pairing will work. He is already drawing bewildered feedback for choosing to start Rajon Rondo and slide Jrue Holiday to the 2. The West is going to be a bloodbath, and there are 12 teams with viable cases for the postseason. Four of those teams won’t make it, and if the Pelicans are one Gentry will be gone. More likely, he will lose his job before the season ends. For Gentry, the seat is as hot as it gets.