The summer is the season of optimism for NBA fans, with draft picks and signings set to fit perfectly and improve teams all over the league–hypothetically. Once the season begins, however, the goodwill can dry up fast. Last year, blockbuster acquisitions in Detroit and Brooklyn had set expectations high for newly hired coaches Maurice Cheeks and Jason Kidd, but both teams struggled out of the gate, placing both coaches on the hot seat. Kidd survived the season and guided the Nets to the playoffs, but the root of conflict survived as well, and Kidd bolted for Milwaukee in a bizarre power struggle. Cheeks was fired in-season, and remains without a coaching job.
Mike Woodson faced constant speculation about his own job, and lasted through the season only to be let go by incoming team president Phil Jackson. Larry Drew bore the brunt of the Kidd move, and Tyrone Corbin was let go by the Jazz, despite his baby-faced roster performing about as well as expected. Mark Jackson led the Warriors to improvement for a second consecutive season, but pushing the Clippers to a Game 7 in the opening round of the playoffs wasn’t enough to salvage his position in Golden State after some turbulence between Jackson, the rest of the coaching staff, and the front office.
In the NBA, very few jobs are ever truly “safe,” unless your last name is Popovich. Let’s look at some of the coaches who could encounter early traces of job insecurity.
1. Winning Enough? Scott Brooks, Kevin McHale, and Frank Vogel. In parts of 13 seasons combined with their current teams, these coaches have only two losing seasons between them. Brooks receives plenty of flack for his in-game strategy and roster management, despite having coached a young Thunder team to a surprise appearance in the 2012 Finals, and regularly orchestrating dominant regular season performances that have been undercut by postseason injuries to Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. After Oklahoma City’s disappointing series loss to the eventual champions in 2013/14, GM Sam Presti voiced his support for the coach moving forward.
Vogel built a defensive juggernaut that gave the Heat one of its stiffest annual challenges in the playoffs, but Indiana struggled mightily for much of the second half of last season, and the team will suffer this year from the losses of Lance Stephenson and Paul George. The Pacers squelched rumors that the coach could be let go after the team lost in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second consecutive year, but Vogel will be coaching on an expiring contract unless the team grants him an extension in the coming months.
McHale has failed to take the Rockets beyond the first round in his tenure, and expectations are that the team is due to build on its success around James Harden and Dwight Howard. The front office in Houston didn’t do McHale any favors this offseason, allowing mainstays Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, and Omer Asik to depart while striking out on free agent Chris Bosh.
2. First-Year Coaches: David Blatt, Steve Kerr, Derek Fisher, and Quin Snyder. Blatt was signed to coach a team that failed to reach the playoffs last season, but Cleveland has since become a championship contender with the additions of LeBron James and Kevin Love. It’s rare for a first-time head coach to cut his teeth with such enormous expectations. Kerr takes over for a team that envisions a higher ceiling than they had attained with Jackson. Kerr’s involvement in the decision to withhold Klay Thompson from a potential Love trade could come back to haunt him, especially if the star power forward thrives in Cleveland while the shooting guard’s game doesn’t take off under Kerr’s tutelage.
Fisher and Snyder figure to operate with more patient front offices and fan bases, as both were hired to develop players within their systems with an eye toward the future. Of course, “low-pressure” isn’t typical of any coaching job in the New York market, and Fisher has insisted that his team should make the playoffs this season.
3. The Clock Is Ticking: Jacque Vaughn and Brian Shaw. Vaughn has been at the helm for a rebuilding Magic team the last two years, racking up an understandably poor .262 winning percentage. While Orlando is still far from contending, the team has shored up the rotation with veteran additions and has a number of young players on schedule to provide a bigger impact. A season spent at the very bottom of league standings might be unacceptable to Magic brass, especially if the young pieces fail to pop. Shaw took the reigns for one of the Western Conference’s best teams in 2012/13, but injuries and the departure of Andre Iguodala prevented them from reaching the postseason altogether this spring. The West should be no less fierce this season, but the Nuggets have high hopes that Shaw will be working to meet in just his second year on the sidelines.
4. Anything Can Happen: Jason Kidd and Dave Joerger. Both coaches are entering their sophomore seasons as NBA head coaches after having reached the playoffs on the first try. Aside from their teams’ performances, there are strange off-the-court similarities between the two. Kidd exited Brooklyn in the aforementioned stunner, and Joerger appeared destined to leave Memphis amid a series of puzzling revelations about his relationship with Grizzlies owner Robert Pera, before the two eventually hashed out their differences and agreed on a contract extension. Both would appear to have a long leash for the coming season, but the combustible personalities in play have undermined peaceful coaching situations before.
Who do you think will find himself on rocky footing soonest in 2014/15? As we have routinely seen, ongoing success is no guarantee that a coach is in the clear. If you think I’ve failed to mention the most likely name, vote “Other” and leave your choice in the comments.