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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.

Lakers exercise 4th-year contract option on Kyle Kuzma

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) The Los Angeles Lakers have exercised their contract option on forward Kyle Kuzma for the 2020-21 season.

The Lakers made the move Thursday on Kuzma, who is currently out with a foot injury suffered while playing for USA Basketball during the summer.

Kuzma was the 27th overall pick in the 2017 draft out of Utah. He has become a solid NBA scorer, putting up 18.7 points and 5.5 rebounds last season while starting 68 games for the Lakers.

Kuzma will make over $3.56 million next season in the fourth-year option of his rookie contract. He is making $1.97 million this season.

The Lakers expect Kuzma to return to action soon. He has been cleared for noncontact basketball activities.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-NBA

John Wall will be an assistant coach for the Wizards this season

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John Wall won’t be playing for the Washington Wizards of this season, but he will have a chance to do something for the team that’s helpful. With Bradley Beal back on board after signing a 2-year, max-level extension, Wall will be helping coach Scott Brooks from the sidelines.

According to a new story from NBC Sports Washington, Wall will be helping Brooks this season in an assistant coaching role. For his part, Wall has said that he is excited about the opportunity, and that it’s a chance to see what his life after basketball might hold when it comes to potentially getting into coaching.

Via NBC Sports Washington:

“I think this year will tell me whether I can be a coach or not,” Wall told NBC Sports Washington on the Wizards Talk podcast.

“I think you have to have a lot of patience and you’ve gotta know how to interact with every player. Every player’s attitudes and character and mood swings are totally different. I learned from when a coach tried to coach me when I was young and I wasn’t the guy to coach.”

This is a good idea to keep Wall around the team and engaged. It would be sort of weird if Wall just wasn’t around while he did rehab, then expected to come back as the top dog next season.

He may never be the player he was before his injury, but if Wall remains with Brooks on the sideline for the remainder of the season it would mean he’s at least committed to taking the culture seriously in D.C. That, or he doesn’t want Beal to usurp his throne.

Fans plan to give out pro-Hong Kong t-shirts at Lakers, Raptors opening nights

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We are not yet out of the thick of things regarding the NBA and China. There are murmurings about how upset people are up with Daryl Morey back here domestically, and the beginning of the season will start with a sort of weird pall over it. NBA fans, perhaps the most socially progressive in major American sports, won’t soon forget responses from Adam Silver and LeBron James on the matter, which they’ve seen as limp-wristed.

To that end, there are two fan groups who are looking to spread pro-Hong Kong t-shirts during opening night games in the NBA next week.

Folks at Staples Center in Los Angeles should expect to see t-shirts in solidarity with protesters in Hong Kong being handed out as the Lakers take on the Clippers on Oct. 22. A reddit user going by the pseudonym Sun Lared posted to the Lakers subreddit about printing up t-shirts, and their GoFundMe reached a reported $43,000 before donations were disabled, according to LA Mag.

Via Twitter:

Inspired by Lared, another GoFundMe has reached $34,000 as of publication to hand out free t-shirts as the New Orleans Pelicans travel to Ontario to take on the Toronto Raptors on October 22nd.

Mother these t-shirts make it onto the backs of fans, and whether they make it inside the arenas for those basketball games is another thing altogether. It certainly will be an interesting PR debacle if the NBA continues to confiscate pro-Hong Kong t-shirts and signs the way they’ve done during the preseason already.

This isn’t going away any time soon.

Zion Williamson has right knee soreness, won’t play final preseason game

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It’s the preseason, and so teams are trying to be extra cautious with their stars. That will apparently be the case this week as No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson has reportedly not traveled with his New Orlean Pelicans for the final preseason game of the year against the New York Knicks.

Williamson has apparently strained his right knee, and his not heading to New York with the team isn’t looking like it’s just for rest as the regular season approaches. Williamson may actually have a bit of soreness working against him right now, which is the last thing any NBA fans want to hear right now.

Via Twitter:

The release from the Pelicans says that Williamson remained in Louisiana to undergo further testing on his right knee.

Hopefully this is nothing serious and the season can get off to a thrilling start. It certainly looks to be headed in that direction based off of how Williamson has performed already in preseason action.

New Orleans kicks off the regular season on Oct. 22 against the defending champion Toronto Raptors in Ontario.