NBA Coaches On The Hot Seat
There’s something in the air about this time in every regular season of the NBA. It’s a little thing called the blame game.
By this point, teams have generally been judged to have had a brilliant run, a solid run or a disastrous run. For those in the latter category, finger-pointing has commenced. Typically, the line of fire begins with the head coach.
Sometimes teams don’t wait until the end of the season to make a coaching change (several occurred mid-season this year), and sometimes it’s not just coaches with losing records who are at risk or even coaches with winning records who are safe. With just a handful of games remaining in the 2011-12 regular NBA season, there are certain coaches, interim and otherwise, that find themselves on the proverbial hot seat.
We’ll break it down; each of these coaches is not necessarily headed for unemployment, but they may need to think about packing.
STAN VAN GUNDY – ORLANDO MAGIC
Was there ever a more cringe-worthy moment(s) in recent memory? Stan Van Gundy tells reporters that management told him (“right from the top”) Dwight Howard wants him fired, and as if on cue, Howard steps on camera out of nowhere – unaware of what was just shared – and throws an arm around his coach. Playful banter ensues. Diet Pepsi is chugged. Van Gundy makes a hasty exit. Howard evades direct questions. And finally, Howard declares he didn’t say anything to anybody about anything.
Later Magic general manager Otis Smith confirmed Van Gundy will coach for the duration of the season, but he had no answer when asked about next season. Van Gundy’s contract does extend through next year. Magic senior vice-president Pat Williams said he wants both player and coach to remain in Orlando for a long time – he even questioned if one could find a better coach than Van Gundy anyway.
Van Gundy has made it clear he wants to stick around. Is it true that Howard was given control over Van Gundy’s fate as a condition of not opting out? Whether he has control or doesn’t, the pairing cannot sustain past this season.
As for now, the Magic have sealed a playoff spot (currently 36-25; the .590 winning percentage is the lowest in Van Gundy’s five seasons in Orlando) while Howard is sidelined with a herniated disc. His availability for the playoffs is undetermined.
PAUL SILAS – CHARLOTTE BOBCATS
The Bobcats are the only team in the NBA that has a single-digit win total (7-53). Should they not grab another win by the end of the season, they will make the record books as the team with the worst winning percentage in league history. Currently, they are on a franchise-worst 17-game losing streak with six games left.
Let’s be fair, it’s not all Paul Silas’ fault. He doesn’t have much to work with here. The leading scorer on the team at 15.0 points per game is 32-year-old Corey Maggette (recently shut down for the season) and the leading rebounder at 5.7 per game is 19-year-old rookie Bismack Biyombo.
Charlotte has the worst Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating in the league. They rank dead last in points per game (87.5), field goals made, three-pointers made, total points and total rebounds, as well bringing up the rear in field goal percentage (.416) and three-point percentage (.298).
However, 68-year-old Silas hasn’t helped matters with, at times, a defeatist attitude. The fact he’s handed the coaching reins to his son – an aspiring head coach – more than once this season hasn’t set well, either. Silas’ contract expires soon; a coaching change seems likely to go along with inevitable roster changes planned via the draft, free agency and amnesty as the rebuilding continues.
RANDY WITTMAN – WASHINGTON WIZARDS
Randy Wittman (then-assistant coach for the Wizards) was named interim head coach following the termination of Flip Saunders earlier this season. Saunders had a 2-15 record; the Wizards are 13-31 under Wittman. Thus, a 15-46 season (second-worst in the league) doesn’t bode well for a coach trying to make a mark.
Wittman has coached 351 games during his six seasons (including stops in Cleveland and Minnesota) in the NBA. He has a total win-loss percentage of .322, and he’s never taken a team to the playoffs.
Given the circumstances, Wittman is probably coaching to the best of his ability. He brought a new philosophy to the team, one that held players accountable. “A very nice job,” is how Grunfeld recently described his work. Wittman was promoted in January, during this truncated season without benefit of normal training camp and practices, when the Wizards had the worst record in the league. He’s worked through the loss of the team’s leading scorer (Nick Young at 16.6 ppg) and then-leading rebounder and shot-blocker (JaVale McGee at 8.8 rpg and 2.5 bpg) at the trade deadline and the addition of Nene and little-known ten-day-contract players.
It’s interesting to note the Wizards have logged wins over such unsuspecting teams as the Chicago Bulls, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers this season.
Whether or not Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and general manager Ernie Grunfeld part ways (likely), expect a new coach – one with a higher name recognition and experience – to take over in furthering their quest for a new identity.
KALEB CANALES – PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Portland is another team which fired their coach mid-season (Nate McMillan, who was in his seventh season with the Blazers) and elevated an assistant to the position on an interim basis. Kaleb Canales isn’t exactly a household name, but something had to be done in an attempt to address the team’s problems. It began with a coaching change.
One thing’s for sure, his journey to reaching the head coach position traveled an unusual path. Just eight years ago, Canales – who never played college or professional basketball – worked as an unpaid intern in the Blazers’ video department. He studied films upon films of games, players and coaches and steadily worked himself up the ranks. At 33, he’s the youngest head coach in the NBA.
The Blazers (28-34) were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs just this week. It’s the first season since 2007-08 they failed to clinch a playoff berth.
Under Canales’ watch, the Blazers have an 8-11 record. McMillan was terminated with a 20-23 record, following a 121-79 loss to the New York Knicks.
The injury issues that continue to plague this team have now reached legendary status and won’t be dissected here. It was more than that, though, this season. Internal malcontent came to the forefront while the team experienced roster changes, on-court schemes/adjustments and serious losses. Shortly after firing McMillan (amid the infamous “he lost the locker room” tag), Blazers owner Paul Allen said he had to face reality of how the season was going and look toward the future. Canales is a serviceable and temporary replacement. He’s well-respected by his players, and his enthusiasm is contagious. A few weeks ago team president Larry Miller said Canales could possibly be considered a candidate for the permanent head coach position; it would be shocking if they didn’t select an experienced coach to get back on track.
VINNY DEL NEGRO – LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Not very long ago, Vinny Del Negro would have landed at the top of this list. We all read the “sources say” reports in late March: Del Negro supposedly lost his team. That’s a term that normally spells the kiss of death. But is it true? At the time this news widely appeared, the Clippers had lost 11 of their past 18 games. Alleged complaints centered on Del Negro’s rotations, too-basic schemes and penchant for not criticizing his stars.
Following those reports, Clippers owner Donald Sterling and vice-president of basketball operations/general manager Neil Olshey suggested no mid-season coaching change would be made. Everyone seems happy now that the team (38-23) has won 12 of their past 14 games and sealed a playoff bid.
The hot seat has cooled, but look for chatter to resume should they fail to move past the first round, maybe even the second, of the upcoming playoffs. Note that Del Negro’s present contract expires in June and the Clippers hold a team option for next season.
We stopped short of adding Avery Johnson of the New Jersey Nets to our list…but just barely. His 22-40 record is hardly inspiring, but unless Deron Williams somehow stays next season, the Nets should give him another year.
We also left off Monty Williams the New Orleans Hornets (19-42, last place in the Western Conference). The new owner should give him a chance with franchise stability finally in place. Byron Scott of the Cleveland Cavaliers (20-40) appears safe as well.
Six teams began the 2011-12 season with new coaches: Rick Adelman of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Mike Brown of the Los Angeles Lakers, Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors, Kevin McHale of the Houston Rockets, Mark Jackson of the Golden State Warriors and Lawrence Frank of the Detroit Pistons. None of these coaches appears to be on the hot seat.
An addition to those mid-season replacements mentioned above (Wittman and Canales), Mike Woodson replaced ex-New York Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni and former assistant coach Keith Smart replaced ex-Sacramento Kings coach Paul Westphal during the season. Both Woodson and Smart should be safe for now.
News of NBA coach firings will start trickling down soon enough.
Which coaches do you think are on the hot seat? Tell us in the comments section below.