Are NBA coaches' jobs safe during the shutdown?

There are a couple of candidates who could be replaced during this break in action. More will likely be replaced after we get resolution on the season.

Good morning. Let’s give out personal information in the service of silly Twitter memes.


The Banquet in the Forest, Sandro Botticelli

The NBA coaching carousel rarely sleeps. It will be spinning soon enough. A question I’ve been pondering is at what point a front office will make the first move in this time of uncertainty, before the fate of the 2019-20 season is decided.

Think about it: the NBA is all about competitive advantage. The little edges. Being ahead of the curve. Teams often fire head coaches at odd times to get into the hunt a little bit earlier than other teams joining the hunt. Arguably, this is a reason the Brooklyn Nets canned Kenny Atkinson just before the coronavirus shutdown: they knew he wouldn’t be back for 2020-21, things were falling apart internally, just call it and start planning for the next move. The Nets have since said they do not intend to make a hire until the season is completed or cancelled. There’s nothing binding in that, though.

We have a sense of which coaches are on the hot seat and could be replaced before next season:

  • Jacque Vaughn, the interim in Brooklyn

  • Mike Miller, the interim head coach for the Knicks

  • Jim Boylen, Bulls

  • Brett Brown, Sixers

  • Mike D’Antoni, Rockets

  • Ryan Saunders, Timberwolves

  • Alvin Gentry, Pelicans

  • Lloyd Pierce, Hawks

  • Scott Brooks, Wizards

  • Terry Stotts, Blazers

  • Steve Clifford, Magic

  • James Borrego, Hornets

  • Luke Walton, Kings

To be sure, I don’t think all of these coaches will be fired and I don’t think all of them deserve it. In fact, I’d argue only three of them should definitely be replaced (the two interims and Boylen). There’s middle ground on most of the others. Brown, Saunders, Gentry, Pierce, Brooks, Stotts and Borrego, I feel, definitely deserve more time, but I’d understand impatient decisions there. Walton and Clifford are probably in the same boat, too. D’Antoni has earned his keep as well, but I like Mike D. too much to argue that he deserves more time working under Tilman Fertitta. He’s better than that.

For the playoff teams in the mix here, you can’t really fire the coach now. The Nets did it before the shutdown; I would argue that they would not have done it even if it had been in the works once the season was suspended. With all of the uncertainty on what happens next, a playoff team shouldn’t make a leap right now. So Brown, Vaughn, D’Antoni and probably Gentry, Stotts and Walton (one of whom might make the playoffs if the season were to finish normally) should be safe until there’s a decision made on the balance of the season. Can you imagine the Sixers trying to replace Brown during the shutdown with Ben Simmons potentially now able to return for the playoffs due to the delay and with Joel Embiid having nothing but free Twitter time? I wouldn’t be able to imagine it if it weren’t already proven that the Sixers franchise is owned by a couple of dudes who completely lack awareness about the image of themselves and their team.

So we’re looking at Miller, Boylen, Saunders, Pierce, Brooks, Clifford and Borrego. The Wolves move slowly in the best of times. And while Saunders is in his second year as head coach, he really just got hired last summer. I suspect Saunders is safe through at least resolution on this season, and probably beyond. I’m nervous for Pierce, who I think could be a really good coach. But I don’t think the Hawks would make a move right now in the shutdown unless Travis Schlenk has a clear target for Pierce’s replacement and can convince Jami Gertz and Tony Ressler he needs to act quickly. It’d be a minor scandal and I don’t think the Hawks like scandal.

Brooks is an interesting candidate for replacement. He has one more year on his deal, which is pricey by non-elite coaching standards. He’s in his fourth season, and things are pretty bad. But he’s managed to stay above the fray and it seems like the players — including Bradley Beal — still like him. And the situation with his boss, Tommy Sheppard, is a little weird: Sheppard is newly in the role of front office head honcho, but Sheppard was in the front office when Brooks was hired and one assumes they have worked together a lot. So this might not quite be a “new GM, new coach” situation like we’ll see in Chicago.

Then again, the Wizards have typically been really fast to act when they know they will be replacing a coach. So if Sheppard has a clear target and wants to avoid risking losing him, Brooks could be the collateral damage.

Borrego has a good reputation and I have to be honest that I have no confidence that the Hornets front office even realizes it could make a coaching move during the shutdown if it wanted to. So Borrego should be safe at least until there is resolution on the season. I am not confident Clifford will keep his job in Orlando after a terribly disappointing season — I’m not sure anything in Orlando will remain the same after this year other than Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz being there — and the Magic could decide to step out quickly. It’s plausible.

For the Knicks and Bulls, I think there is clearly rationale to chase big names right now, even if those names are employed by other teams.

The Knicks and Bulls aren’t going to do bupkis the rest of the season, if it resumes, but play it out. If there is some sort of 30-team tournament, the Bulls and Knicks will be run off the floor quickly. Miller only joined the Knicks’ bench this season and took over for Dave Fizdale in December. Continuity does not apply. Boylen is — and I say this with the utmost respect to someone who appears to work hard and may very well be a great person off the court — one of the worst NBA head coaches in every visible aspect of the job in recent memory. It often appears his players, including star Zach LaVine, have soured on him. There’s no reason to keep him in charge.

But you don’t fire either of those coaches just to elevate an assistant. You only do it if you have an unattached head coach you want to hire before next season, and you want to guarantee you can land them now, before another team snaps them up. Someone like Stan Van Gundy, Ettore Messina (technically tied up in Italy but …), Mark Jackson, Ty Lue, Dave Fizdale (for the Bulls, not the Knicks, obviously), Kenny Atkinson, Becky Hammon, Jerry Stackhouse.

There’s an opportunity here. The Bulls have just proven that you can make hiring decisions in a time of quarantine. I’m not saying it’s the right thing to do, but for teams with plans to move on, clear targets on who they want to bring in and tough enough skin to take a little backlash from voices like Jeff Van Gundy and Rick Carlisle, this could be just the opening needed.


Karnisovas Is It

The Bulls did in fact hire Arturas Karnisovas to lead their front office, as I wrote about in Wednesday’s subscribers only newsletter. (I just unlocked that newsletter for free subscribers, as well.) Stephen Noh digs into Karnisovas’s background and pedigree to determine how he might perform in Chicago. Kevin Kaduk offers his take in Midway Minute. Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times indicates that the Bulls will indeed be hiring for multiple positions — Karnisovas is going to be the executive vice president of basketball operations, and a general manager will be put in place below him. K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports notes that this is the first outside hire to lead the Bulls front office since Jerry Reinsdorf bought the franchise in 1985.

This is truly a new day for the Chicago Bulls.

After the front office is filled out, Karnisovas and crew will need to replace Jim Boylen as coach and prep for a potential top-10 pick in one of the worst NBA Drafts in two decades. As discussed in the coaching carousel discussion above, Boylen is legitimately one of those coaches who could be fired during the shutdown. There’s no real reason for stability during this period: Chicago isn’t doing anything this season, and there’s no way the Bulls are going to keep Boylen for next season. Just pay the man and let him move on with his life.

It’s going to be really interesting to see a Bulls team not loathed by the team’s fans and not tripping over its own shoelaces at every turn.


Reliving the Epic 2016 Finals

I don’t link to a lot of podcasts in GMIB, but The Chase Down pod has a project so alluring that I can’t resist. Justin Rowan and Carter Rodriguez are doing a 7-part retrospective on the 2016 Finals — one episode per game with a killer line-up of guests including Bomani Jones, Marcus Thompson, Ethan Strauss and Jason Lloyd.

The Game 1 episode just came out. Here’s the Spotify link. I can’t wait to listen.


Links tomorrow. Thanks for the support. Be excellent to each other.