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Three coaches on hot seat as we enter NBA season

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, with today the focus on coaches who may be in danger of losing their jobs.

Last season was closer to the norm. Two seasons ago no coach got fired during the season or following summer, which was an anomaly and not some vision of the future where patience and smarter team building gave coaches more space to do their jobs well. Last season Earl Watson in Phoenix and David Fizdale in Memphis were let go during the season, and when the season ended there was a flurry of change. That is more like the NBA we know

There will be change in the coaching ranks again this season.

Here are three coaches to watch whose seats are, or may get, very hot.

1) Tom Thibodeau, Minnesota Timberwolves

Owner Glen Taylor gave serious thought to making a change last summer, moving aside Tom Thibodeau as coach/GM even though last season the Timberwolves had gotten 16 games better and made the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. The reasons why are now fully on display — the Timberwolves had the most dysfunctional locker room in all of the NBA, and Thibodeau was a key reason for it.

Now the entire situation has blown up, Jimmy Butler is demanding a trade, Thibodeau is dragging his feet (or, at least holding out for the deal he wants), and Minnesota feels like a team about to take a step back in a West where every other team got better (except maybe Houston, and they still could win 60 games). That’s why Thibodeau’s job is in danger — he took over a team building towards the future, traded a lot of young talent to get Butler, signed Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose, and made this a “win-now” team. He was a GM who thought like a coach, and Minnesota’s future is now not as bright because of it.

Or, look at it this way: Karl-Anthony Towns is about to sign a max five-year extension to his rookie deal and become the unquestioned face of the franchise. He is no fan of Thibodeau and his hard-driving, old-school style. When the team’s best player and the coach are in a power struggle in the NBA, who wins?

Don’t expect a mid-season firing here unless things get even uglier. However, good luck finding anyone around the league who thinks Thibodeau will be the coach and GM in Minnesota a year from now. The writing is on the wall, the question is when not if.

2) Mike Malone, Denver Nuggets

This is the season the Nuggets expect to make the leap and return to the playoffs. With good reason — they have a strong roster, they have been knocking on the door, and have improved each of the last three seasons under Malone (they won 46 games last season, that gets you in the dance most years). Denver likes its core. They have a top 20 NBA player in Nikola Jokic who is climbing that list fast, a point guard in Jamal Murray who found his way last season and is poised to break out in his third season, plus other players such as Gary Harris and Paul Millsap who are impressive and fill needed roles. This is a team poised to finally make some noise in the West.

If they don’t, then Malone’s seat is going to get very warm very quickly. A key sign in the lack of faith: Malone is in the final year of his contract, he did not get an extension from management (GM Tim Connelly says Malone shouldn’t worry, but actions speak louder than words). He’s a lame duck trying to prove he is the man who can lead this team up the ladder in the West.

Malone has talented and creative players on this roster, he has to loosen the reins and not micromanage the joy and flow out of their game. If Malone also can improve the defense (26th last season) and the team can stay healthy, Malone may well be coaching in Denver next season. However, there is no margin for error in the West, and if things don’t go their way in a “playoffs or bust” season the players are not taking the blame in Denver.

3) Fred Hoiberg, Chicago Bulls.

In some ways it’s not fair for him to be on this list. While he has coached the Bulls for three seasons, those first two shouldn’t count against him because the problems were Gar/Pax’s fault — “hey, let’s get a modern pace-and-space coach and give him Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol one season, then Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo the next, with the temperamental Jimmy Butler tying it all together. That will be great theater.”

Last season, the Bulls had a young team better built to play Hoiberg’s style, he seemed more comfortable, and while the team won just 27 games they were young and improving. Now even more quality young pieces are there: Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine (on a $78 million contract and coming off an ACL injury), Jabari Parker (at $20 million a year), Kris Dunn, and the just drafted Wendell Carter Jr.

With that comes pressure. This is the kind of roster Hoiberg was hired to coach, and while they’re not going to be a threat to Boston/Philly/Toronto yet there needs to be signs of a real connection, real growth, proof that Hoiberg is the guy who can maximize that potential or his seat will get warm. Another 3-20 start like last season and things could turn for Hoiberg fast, his hand-picked status from Gar/Pax will not save him any longer.

Report: Dwight Howard gave back $2.6 million in buyout with Memphis, what he will make in L.A.

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Dwight Howard will get his money, the full $5.6 million he opted into this summer. The man is getting paid.

The checks are just coming from two different teams.

To facilitate a move to the Lakers, Howard is giving back $2.6 million in a buyout with the Grizzlies — exactly how much he makes on a minimum contract with Los Angeles. From Adrian Wojnarowski and Bobby Marks of ESPN:

My guess is the Grizzlies will just take the cap hit this season to get Howard off the books.

This is exactly how this was expected to go down financially if Howard came to Los Angeles. The risk for Howard is he will sign a non-guaranteed contract with the Lakers — they can waive him for whatever reason, pay a small buyout fee, and Howard loses out on the $2.6 million.

That’s motivation for him to follow through on what he promised the team.

 

Former NBA, ABA coach Tom Nissalke dead at 87

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Tom Nissalke, who won coach of the year honors in the NBA and ABA, has died. He was 87.

Nissalke passed away at his home in Salt Lake City on Thursday after facing a “series of health-related problems” in recent years, according to the Deseret News.

He was the first coach of the Utah Jazz after the franchise relocated from New Orleans in 1979.

Nissalke was also an NBA head coach in Seattle, Houston, and Cleveland.

Nissalke got his start in the pro ranks as an assistant with Milwaukee and helped guide a team featuring Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to an NBA title in 1971. His work with the Bucks landed him a head coaching gig with the ABA’s Dallas Chaparrals. He led them to a 42-42 record in his first season and was named the league’s top coach.

He was hired the next season in Seattle but was fired after a 13-32 start. Nissalke then coached the Utah Stars and San Antonio before returning to the NBA with the Rockets. He won 124 games in three seasons with Houston, twice taking the team to the playoffs and the 1977 Eastern Conference finals.

Nissalke was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year after going 49-33 in 1976-77.

After retiring, he was active with the YMCA and worked as a radio analyst.

Nissalke is survived by a daughter, Holly, son Thomas Jr, and two grandchildren. His wife, Nancy, died in 2006.

 

How Dwight Howard convinced the Lakers to take a chance on him

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Laker fans Friday sounded like your friends after an ugly relationship and breakup, when you suddenly consider taking that person back. Laker nation took to Twitter screaming “ARE YOU SERIOUS? What are you thinking? Are you even thinking?”

The Lakers, however, are entering a second relationship with Dwight Howard with their eyes wide open — he will sign a non-guaranteed contract to be the team’s center (sharing duties with Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee). Howard will have to prove himself, on and off the court. The Lakers have leverage and can waive Howard and move on to Joakim Noah or someone else quickly if things do not pan out.

But how did it even get to this point? How did Howard — who did his annual summer media tour saying “I have changed, I am taking the game and my conditioning seriously, I just want a chance” and league observers shrugged because they have heard the same thing for years — convince the Lakers to roll the dice on him again? Shams Charania of The Athletic laid it all out.

Howard’s message to [Laker assistant coach Jason] Kidd and the Lakers was the same one he delivered to The Athletic in July from NBA summer league: He’s learned from the past several seasons, learned that, at age 33, he is simply one of the guys now. Howard believes he can contribute at a high level for any NBA team, but the eight-time All-Star also understands he has to focus on rebounding, defense, blocking shots, finishing around the rim and simply playing whenever he is asked… Kidd became convinced about Howard’s newfound awakening…

The Lakers then began setting workouts for free agents, and Howard traveled from Atlanta to Los Angeles on Wednesday. His meeting and workout with the Lakers was set for Thursday, but Howard went to the Lakers’ facility in El Segundo, Calif., on Wednesday afternoon for his own training session. The Lakers were surprised to see him, sources said, and many key decision makers were in attendance…

League sources said Howard had a convincing and emotional meeting with the players and Lakers officials, explaining how he had reached rock bottom a season ago and needed to find a new mindset in his life. On and off the floor. He was not the teammate he needed to be in playing for three teams in the past three years. He did not take the game seriously enough, he did not understand what was needed to turn the corner.

Howard has said all that before. Multiple times. To multiple teams and teammates. Maybe this time he has genuinely figured things out, but whatever he did and said was enough to convince the Lakers to buy in…

To a point.

One could argue — and I would make the case — that Noah would be a better fit on the court for the Lakers’ needs in terms of passing and defense, but he comes with plenty of risks as well (health, getting along with LeBron James, and how much he liked the nightlife as a Knick in New York and what that would mean in L.A.). At least with Howard, the Lakers mitigated that risk with the non-guaranteed contract. If Howard will not accept his role and is disruptive (as he has been in recent stops), if he is still eating candy like a bingeing 10-year-old on Halloween night, if he can’t stay healthy, the Lakers can waive Howard and move on. If the Lakers brought in Noah, they would have been smart to have the same non-guaranteed contract (if Noah would have signed that kind of deal).

For now the Lakers have their man, but he’s basically on probation. Howard has to prove in deeds everything he has said in words.

Report: Dwight Howard agrees to buyout with Grizzlies, will join Lakers on non-guaranteed deal

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Once again, the Lakers are betting that Dwight Howard and his back are healthy. However, this time the Lakers have hedged that bet.

After a workout this week in front of Lakers’ coaches and front office staff, Howard’s agent has worked out a buyout with the Memphis Grizzlies, and Howard will sign with Los Angeles, filling the role that had belonged to DeMarcus Cousins before he tore his ACL this summer. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN added vital details.

There’s a segment of Lakers’ fans — a large, vocal segment — that is going to hate this move because of the history. The Lakers get that, but the coaches and staff also know this: If he’s healthy, and if he’s willing to accept a role on the court, if he’s willing to adapt how he is in the locker room and with the staff and front office (there are reasons Howard has bounced from team to team to team in recent years), Howard is the best fit for the Lakers on the court.

Last time Howard was a Laker back issues limited him on the court, and his not taking the game or his conditioning very seriously (Howard has a legendary candy-eating habit) rubbed Kobe Bryant the wrong way. To put it mildly. LeBron James is going to bring that same work ethic and attitude, but now the Lakers have some leverage on Howard with the non-guaranteed contract.

The Lakers had planned to lean heavily on Cousins this season. The Lakers have arguably the best center in the game today in Anthony Davis, but he does he want to play 30+ minutes a night banging away down in the post (nor is he physically built for that). Cousins was going to be the center much of the game, with Davis sliding over to the five for key stretches. But Cousins is almost certainly lost for the season with a torn ACL.

Howard was the best potential fit to replace Cousins on the court, or at least do so in combination with JaVale McGee (it’s going to take both of them to soak up all the minutes at the five the Lakers need). For three seasons, from 2015-16 to 2017-18, Howard averaged 13+ points and 12 rebounds a night, was a big body on defense, and played at least 71 games in averaging 30 minutes a night. Exactly the kind of player the Lakers could use. The problem was Howard was never happy just playing that role and doing those things, which led to disruptions as he pushed for a larger role.

There are two key concerns bringing in Howard. Health is one, Howard played just nine games for the Wizards last season following another back surgery and some hamstring issues. The other is Will Howard accept the role he is given, play hard, and not be a distraction?

If Howard doesn’t fit, the Lakers also worked out Joakim Noah — who impressed a lot of people around the league with his solid 41 games for Memphis the second half of last season — and Mo Speights. They will have other options.

But for now, the Lakers are betting on Howard.