With the unofficial second half of the season starting on Thursday, it’s time to put up or shut up for a few NBA head coaches.
For some, that means fixing a dysfunctional locker room, and for others it means just getting into the playoffs or simply breaking the status quo and beating expectations.
In a league which doubles as a reality TV show, the seat gets hot fast. Frank Vogel went from perfectly safe to out of a job last season because the Indiana Pacers lost a playoff series in which they were heavy underdogs. Certainly, there will be more firings this season that come out of nowhere, and some coaches should be watching their backs already.
At this time of year, if you can’t put up, you’ll be put out of a job. Without further ado, here are four coaches whose seats are scorching.
Alvin Gentry, New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans hired Gentry in the summer of 2015 to take their offense to the next level. At the time, they were coming off a 45-win season that saw Anthony Davis lead the league in PER. Things could only get better with Gentry — an architect of the Phoenix Suns’ seven seconds or less offense and the Golden State Warriors’ motion offense — at the helm.
However, things did not get better. In fact, the Pelicans’ 108.2 offensive rating in 2014-15 cratered to 105.6 in 2015-16. Gentry could plausibly blame that on injuries — Davis played just 61 games, Eric Gordon missed half a season, Tyreke Evans played just 25 games and players like Jordan Hamilton and Alexis Ajinca started at times — but things are even worse this year.
The Pelicans’ offensive rating is down to 104.1, which ranks 27th in the league. And there are no injury excuses to be found. Davis has played 53 games and Jrue Holiday 42 while role players like Solomon Hill have stayed healthy. The Pelicans sit at 23-34, 11th in the West, having gone backwards from the promising point they found themselves at two seasons go.
After last night’s trade for DeMarcus Cousins (more on that here), expectations are firmly set for the Pelicans to at least make the playoffs. The twin towers combination of Cousins and Davis is likely the best 4/5 duo in the league, even with questions about spacing. If Gentry fails to win now, it’s tough to see him on the bench again next season, especially with a logical replacement — Darren Erman — sitting just a few seats down.
Fred Hoiberg, Chicago Bulls
In taking over for Tom Thibodeau, Fred Hoiberg has found himself in the unenviable position of having to live up to Thibodeau. It took Hoiberg a few months to get his NBA legs under him last season — the former Iowa coach trotted out lineups featuring Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic for 189 minutes last season — and all the while the Chicago Bulls’ locker room fell apart.
When Gar Forman and John Paxson signed Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo this summer, it seemed to run counter to Hoiberg’s pace-and-space philosophy and (surprise!) the moves haven’t quite worked out.
The chemistry — Wade and Jimmy Butler taking shots at the younger players and Rondo firing back on their behalf — is the “This is Fine” meme, personified. Their 28-29 record is barely good enough to sneak into the playoffs in the lethargic East. There’s sparingly little young talent. Between Jerian Grant, Doug McDermott, Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine and Paul Zipser, the Bulls would be lucky to find two rotational players.
On top of that, trade rumors swirl around Jimmy Butler (to the Boston Celtics?). If they pull the trigger on a Butler trade, it would be an internal acknowledgement of the failure that has occurred over the past two seasons and the need for a reset. With that reset would almost certainly come a coaching change, while the need for a scapegoat will be present without it.
In either scenario, Hoiberg is not on the sideline next season.
Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors
The Raptors are going for it. They flipped a first rounder and Terrence Ross for Serge Ibaka and are now reportedly pursuing swingmen. With Kyle Lowry due for a max contract this summer and decisions to make in regards to Ibaka and Patrick Patterson, this is Toronto’s best chance to get past the Cleveland Cavaliers and Masai Ujiri knows it.
If they can pull off the miracle this May, then, obviously Casey’s job isn’t just safe but they may build a statue of him.
But if they don’t, things get dicey. It’s tough to blame Casey if Toronto loses to Cleveland, but at some point, something has to change unless the Raptors are content with being a permanent walkover. If they lose to a different team — the Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards or a first-round opponent, say, the Indiana Pacers — blame will fall firmly at Casey’s feet.
Toronto doesn’t just have the best point guard in the East, they spent $139,000,000 on DeMar DeRozan last summer, traded for Ibaka and handed out big money to Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll in years past. They’ve built themselves up as the Cavs’ main rival in the East, but eventually they at least have to make Cleveland sweat in the playoffs.
After Toronto’s 5-11 run heading into the All-Star break, it’s tough to see them getting past the second round. Currently the No. 4 seed in the East, that’s when they’ll play the Cavs if things hold. Another noncompetitive series could spell doom for Casey.
Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers
It’s tough to blame the Trail Blazers’ fall from grace entirely on Terry Stotts, especially when the front office signed the likes of Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe to massive deals this summer. But after a 44-win 2016 season, Portland has to at least make the playoffs.
However, the playoffs feel a long way off right now. The Blazers are 23-33 and somehow only two games out of the eight seed. And if they can’t make it in the toxic race for the Western Conference’s final spot then Stotts’ seat will warm up fast. Portland is allowing an unacceptable 111.9 points per 100 possessions, good for 26th in the league. Moreover, despite a higher offensive rating than last season, the rest of the league has caught up. As a result, they’ve gone from sixth to 13th.
Stotts was a deserving Coach of the Year candidate last season, as Portland undoubtedly overachieved. But this steep decline is still unexpected to say the least. Sure, Turner junks up spacing but so do Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, and the Blazers were just fine with them starting games last season.
This sort of decline almost requires some sort of shakeup. If the Blazers can pull out a playoff berth, then Stotts is probably safe. But it’s tough to justify keeping everyone if Portland wins, say, 35 games and misses the postseason. General manager Neil Olshey could be the first to go, but a new GM would probably want to hire his or her own coach. In any scenario, Stotts would likely be in trouble.