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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.

Dwight Howard was heckled by arena clean up worker during postgame workout

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Dwight Howard was a beast against the Brooklyn Nets Friday night, dropping 25 points and grabbing 17 rebounds against one of his former teams. Well, he was dominant in the first half, when he picked up a fourth foul relatively early in the third quarter Scott Brooks went away from Howard for too long, the Nets scored at will and pulled away for the win. Still, Friday was Howard’s best game of the season.

And yet he was 3-of-10 from the free throw line, so he went out after the arena closed and practiced his foul shots.

What that video didn’t show was Howard getting heckled during that workout by one of the people hired to clean up the arena. From Candace Buckner of the Washington Post.

…before hitting the showers, [Howard] returned to the main court to practice his free throws. He had missed 3 of 10 attempts during the game. So, while Howard got into a shooting rhythm, tuning out the background noise with music playing in his ear buds, a contract worker who was part of a team hired to clean around the 400 level tried to break his concentration.

“Brick!” the worker yelled, but as Howard’s shots swished through the net, he switched to: “’That’s right, Dwight! You better make them!”

While many fans would like to buy that worker a beer, it did not go over so well with the Wizards’ staff, and the man was removed from the arena.

The Wizards are 5-10 on the season with the third worst defense in the league. The Wizards’ defense is not better with Howard on the floor — he’s not the cause of their problems, but he’s not solving them either. His defense was part of the reason the Wizards thought he would be a fit.

Draymond Green to sit out Saturday, likely longer, with sprained toe

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Before the drama around Draymond Green and Kevin Durant against the Clippers, Green had missed a couple of games due to a sprained toe. Against the Clippers, he was 3-of-9 shooting and did not move like he is capable of. Then, after a one-game suspension, Green came back against the Rockets and struggled again, shooting 0-of-3 and not looking like himself.

While some will want to tie this to the Durant incident, the fact is Green’s toe needs more time to heal and he is going to get it, starting with sitting out Saturday vs. the Spurs.

Green said this after his suspension game, via NBC Sports Bay Area.

“After playing 42 minutes against the Clippers, it was pretty sore that next day,” Green said of his injured toe, and he then joked, “Thank God I got suspended. I was sore, really sore, so I sat there and iced the whole day. Did some treatment at home. … Everything happens for a reason.”

Kerr said “We decided to give [Green] some time off. Don’t know how long it’ll be.” Which makes it sound like this will be more than one game.

The Warriors are -10.5 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when Green is off the court. Combine that with Stephen Curry still being out with a strained groin and the Warriors are battling through some injuries, and suffering some ugly losses because of it, early this season.

Just a reminder, Anthony Davis is very good at basketball, dropped 43 on Knicks

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Anthony Davis went into this season wanting to be seen as the best player in basketball.

Part of that perception is team success, and while the Pelicans are a good-not-great 8-7 to start the season it’s not because of Anthony isn’t doing all he can. He dropped 43 points and 17 rebounds on the Knicks, helping spark the Pelicans comeback against the Knicks. Check out the video above.

Davis is averaging 26.5 points with a quality 56.4 true shooting percentage, plus 17.1 rebounds a game. His PER of 26.8 is sixth best in the NBA. When Davis gets some help, and the Pelicans play a little defense, this is the kind of team AD might want to stick with.

Allen Iverson: “No way Melo should retire… he got a lot left in the tank, man”

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Carmelo Anthony is in limbo now. He’s not with the Rockets, not suiting up for games or playing, but he’s still on the roster. Houston has yet to waive him because they and his agent have not yet found a landing spot for him — other teams don’t want to get into the Carmelo Anthony business right now. Maybe that changes as injuries come and rosters shift, but right now there are no takers.

It has led Tracy McGrady and others to suggest Anthony retire.

Allen Iverson disagrees, speaking to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Iverson is right, Anthony needs to be in the right situation. I’m just not sure what that is.

Anthony, like all great athletes, wants to leave the game on his own terms. The challenge is he is no longer a top two or three player on a good team, yet he feels entitled to be put in that role (or, at least, be treated like one of those guys). ‘Melo came off the bench in Houston but didn’t like it. The problem is that’s where his game is at that point — he’s a bench role player who can get some buckets but hurts the team defensively. That limits when he can be put on the court, especially in the playoffs. Can he accept that spot on a team?

Eventually, a team is going to give Anthony a chance, and I hope that works out. I would like ‘Melo to leave the game with us remembering him as the Hall of Fame player and elite scorer that he was, not like this.