Second, there are a bunch of fresh faces who are still getting acclimated: Cleveland, Memphis, Phoenix and Sacramento hired coaches this offseason, Chicago and Minnesota upgraded interim coaches to full-time deals, and teams such as Atlanta, New York, Orlando and Charlotte remain in the honeymoon period with their 2018 hires.
Finally, there is a growing list of coaches who seem more or less untouchable: Old standbys such as Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, Steve Kerr and Erik Spoelstra have found new company with the likes of Doc Rivers, Nick Nurse, Quin Snyder and Mike Budenholzer. How likely is it, really, for one of those coaches to be replaced by a superior alternative over the next 12 months? Not very likely.
Not every coach is safe, though. Here’s a quick rundown of five who might find themselves feeling the heat in 2019-20.
Frank Vogel, Los Angeles Lakers
Vogel deserves a fair shot, but there’s no reason to pretend he will be given an appropriate amount of time and space to execute his vision. The Lakers represent the most pressure-packed job in the NBA: LeBron James’s clock is ticking, the front office mortgaged the future to trade for Anthony Davis, and seven full seasons have passed since they have won a playoff series.
To make matters worse, Vogel, who was hired in May, arrives in difficult circumstances. He wasn’t the franchise’s first choice during a convoluted coaching search, former head coach Jason Kidd was placed on his bench, and Vogel will be the Lakers’ sixth coach since Phil Jackson retired in 2011. He also must brace for constant comparisons to the crosstown Clippers, who look like a potential juggernaut.
But, wait, there’s more. Vogel has no prior ties to James, Davis or the Lakers organization, and a majority of his projected rotation is composed of newcomers. Good luck.
Mike D’Antoni, Houston Rockets
It could be worse for the affable D’Antoni, who gets to build his offense around an MVP-caliber workhorse in James Harden and numerous veterans with continuity. Even so, this summer looks like a slap in the face to the longtime coach, who reportedly engaged and reengaged in contract extension negotiations without reaching an agreement. The latest: General Manager Daryl Morey told the Houston Chronicle last week that the discussions have been tabled until after the 2019-20 season, making D’Antoni a lame duck as his organization tries to get over the hump in the playoffs.
That pressure cooker is complicated by a few other variables, most notably the addition of Russell Westbrook. D’Antoni has the unenviable task of trying to strike the right balance between Harden and Westbrook, two of the highest-usage players of the modern era. What’s more, he will need to do so without any financial security while Harden, Westbrook, Eric Gordon and Clint Capela possess lucrative long-term contracts.
If anything goes wrong — Harden gets hurt, Westbrook doesn’t fit, mercurial owner Tilman Fertitta’s impatience boils over, the Rockets draw a tough playoff matchup — D’Antoni will be sitting there with “scapegoat” flashing in neon lights on his forehead.
Brett Brown, Philadelphia 76ers
Working in Brown’s favor: He received a public vote of confidence from managing partner Josh Harris in May, and he is reportedly owed $15 million over the remaining three years of his contract.
Working against Brown: His job status was a topic of conversation throughout the playoffs, his ownership group spent the summer heavily investing in its roster, and he will be expected to guide the 76ers, at minimum, to their first Eastern Conference final since 2001.
This is shaping up to be a “no excuses” season for the 76ers. With LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard in the West and Kevin Durant injured, the door is wide open for Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the veteran additions including Al Horford and Josh Richardson. There is zero margin for Brown to underachieve, and anything short of a hard-fought loss to Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference finals should be viewed as a grave disappointment.
Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City Thunder
A lot has changed in Oklahoma City since GM Sam Presti picked up Donovan’s 2019-20 option in December. Westbrook? Gone. Paul George? Gone. Title contention expectations? Poof. Playoff hopes? Probably poof, too.
Still, Donovan has talent to work with, namely Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams. He has also built goodwill with the Thunder’s front office during his four seasons at the helm, remaining a good soldier despite frequent roster turnover and the departures of major stars.
This is a tricky situation to gauge from the outside. Donovan doesn’t face any real pressure to win, given the summer’s fireworks, but the opportunity to coach a contender is what drew him to the NBA from the college ranks in the first place. If Oklahoma City decides to plunge deeper into a rebuild, will Presti and/or Donovan conclude that their partnership has run its course?
Scott Brooks, Washington Wizards
Washington undertook a long-awaited front-office makeover this summer, installing Tommy Sheppard as GM in place of the fired Ernie Grunfeld. Brooks, who has two years and $14 million remaining on his contract, survived the transition but hardly can feel secure.
Everything should be on the table for the Wizards over the next 12 months, including a trade of Bradley Beal, a deep and purposeful rebuild and, yes, a coaching change. Brooks will have his hands full this season, needing to prove he can show progress on the chemistry and culture fronts while trying to squeeze a competitive team from a roster that lacks many proven players outside Beal.
Should the Wizards struggle through another dismal campaign, it’s easy to envision the higher-ups deciding to search for a new voice.