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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.

Watch Kawhi Leonard dunk all over Giannis Antetokounmpo, highlight of 26-3 Toronto run

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For most of the first three quarters of Game 6, the Milwaukee Bucks were in control of the game and looked to be on the way to forcing a Game 7.

But Kawhi Leonard sparked a 10-0 run for Toronto to end the third, scoring eight and assisting on a Serge Ibaka bucket.

That run carried over into the fourth and became a 26-3 run that was highlighted by this insane dunk by Leonard over Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Insane.

I’d say that’s Leonard’s best shot as a Raptor if not for the series winner against Philadelphia.

The Bucks responded with a 7-0 run and this game is going to go down to the wire.

Bucks play with desperation, lead by as many as 15 in first half

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If you think a 15-point lead is safe, go talk to a Portland Trail Blazers fan and get back to me.

The Bucks will still take it. Milwaukee has come out with a sense of desperation, but more importantly got to play with some pace and couldn’t miss early from three — they started 4-of-6 and were 7-of-13 from three as of this writing — and what we saw were play after play from the Bucks, the kinds of things we haven’t seen the last three games. They led by 13 after one, and the lead got as high as 15.

Can the Bucks sustain this, or will they cool down as the Raptors heat up? It’s going to be a wild rest of the game in Toronto.

The Raptors are up 3-2 in the series and playing for their first ever franchise trip to the Finals. The Bucks are playing to force a Game 7 Monday back in Milwaukee.

 

Dwyane Wade got an All-NBA vote, Gabrielle Union would have gone with Klay Thompson

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Honesty from your spouse is a bedrock of any good relationship.

But come on Gabrielle Union, show your man a little love.

Dwyane Wade got one second-team All-NBA vote, and he took to an Instagram story to thank that voter (even if he wouldn’t have voted for himself). His wife would not have voted for her man.

Just a few notes:

• That is a funny video.

• We do not know who cast that vote for Wade, yet. The NBA’s end of season awards are voted on by 100 media members who cover the league (the NBA selects those voters). There is transparency, the full votes will be released after the NBA’s award show next month.

• Third team All-NBA guard was probably the toughest choice on the entire ballot. Because the NBA forces voters to select only two guards for each of the teams (six guards total), rather than allowing voters to just chose the 15 best players for the honor, deserving guys get left off every year. In this case, Stephen Curry and James Harden were first-team locks. Damian Lillard was a clear second-team choice, and a majority of voters had Kyrie Irving joining him on the second team. Russell Westbrook was not far behind Irving and was clear-and-away the fifth choice for voters. That left one guard spot between Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Bradley Beal, Ben Simmons, or anyone else considered worthy (Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, etc.). There is no wrong choice in that group. If players were not locked into positions for All-NBA more guards would have made the cut in an increasingly backcourt dominated league. (For transparency purposes, I did vote Walker in on my ballot barely over Thompson.)

• No media members I know are comfortable with these votes having an impact on player salaries. It makes us all uneasy, even as voters study and try to make the best choices. The NBA and players’ union need to come up with a better system in the next CBA. I’ve got a crazy idea, how about letting the teams decide who is worthy of being paid that much?

Brooklyn Nets like Kyrie Irving, but how much does he like them?

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Kyrie Irving is a popular guy. He has a strong relationship with Kevin Durant and rumors of them pairing up on the Knicks next season have been rampant all over the league this season. Irving also is hanging out with LeBron James in Los Angeles, and LBJ is reportedly up for the idea of getting the band back together (minus Kevin Love, and in Los Angeles this time). Boston has every intention of keeping Irving, and ideally pairing him with Anthony Davis who they would acquire via trade.

The Brooklyn Nets will be free agent players this summer and think they would be an excellent fit for Irving. The goal would be to pair him with All-Star D'Angelo Russell in the backcourt, reports Brian Lewis of the New York Post.

How seriously is Irving considering the Nets? A lot, according to Anthony Puccio of SNY in New York.

Sources tell SNY that Kyrie Irving and his camp are strongly considering Brooklyn if he decides to leave Boston. Irving’s camp has kept a close eye on the Nets as the season progressed and the team got better, with the playoffs only helping their case.

SNY also learned recently that the Nets would not shy away from signing Irving even if they re-sign point guard D’Angelo Russell. The ideal scenario would be to pair two max free agents, such as Kevin Durant and Irving, but sources say the Nets would be open to pairing Irving and Russell in the backcourt together.

The Nets, just like the Clippers, could be major players in free agency this summer (the Clippers are more focused on Kawhi Leonard, but if he chooses to stay in Toronto the Clippers will be a potential force in trades and on the free agent market). This is a young team that surprised everyone and made the playoffs this season, they have a good culture and good role players, they just need a star or two to take them over the top.

Irving could be that guy, or at least one of those guys, in Brooklyn.

Irving will have options and you can bet his decision is not yet made. He may be leaning one way or another, but circumstances with other players and time to think things over may (likely will) change his mind. Maybe a few times.

Where his mind is July 1 matters. It could be in Brooklyn then, but it could be a lot of places.