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.