This was a crazy summer for the NBA. Superstars flipped teams en masse, Carmelo Anthony won the Knicks equivalent of a championship by outlasting Phil Jackson in New York and getting traded to a contender, and the President of the United States revoked the Warriors’ invitation to the White House ... on Twitter. It was wild. It was entertaining. Thankfully, it’s almost over.
For all the insanity that did happen, however, one of the craziest things about this summer might have been what didn’t happen. That is: no head coach got fired or resigned. For the first time in the history of the league, every single coach is coming back to the team they coached last year. Wild times, indeed.
Do you ever get the feeling that things are going too well in your life and that, because the universe tends towards balance, something bad is about to happen? That must be how it feels to be an NBA head coach right now. NBA coaches historically have awful job stability. Even if most situations around the league seem more or less settled, it’s likely that something will break over the course of this season. Things will go back to normal, and some unfortunate professional with a tie and a clipboard will lose his job.
With that in mind, we present to you the first annual Hoops Inquirer Coaching Job Security Power Rankings. We’ve divided the league’s coaches up into four categories based on how likely it is that they lose their jobs in the coming season. The first is the Maximum Job Security tier, reserved for coaches who, uh, have Maximum Job Security. The second is the Probably Safe, but It’s the NBA and Head Coaches Are The Easiest Scapegoats tier, which includes coaches who will only lose their job if something goes horribly wrong. The third is the Who Knows? tier, which includes the coaches in the hardest-to-read situations. The final tier is The Unofficially Sponsored Texas Pete Hot Sauce Hot Seat, which is the proverbial hot seat but unofficially sponsored by Texas Pete Hot Sauce, the greatest hot sauce of all time—
allegedly—and the only hot sauce unofficially endorsed by the Hoops Inquirer’s 5th Quarter Podcast.
Without any further ado, here are the rankings:
Tier 1: Maximum Job Security
- Brad Stevens (Boston Celtics): Stevens is the most heralded young coach in the league, a play-calling wizard and the rare coach who actually functions as a draw for potential big-name free agents. After spending the last two years turning teams of glorified role players (and Isaiah Thomas) into Conference Finals contenders, he will finally get a chance to work with a core of bonafide stars this season. His players love him, his organization loves him, his city loves him, and he’s very, very good at his job. Just last summer, the Celtics extended his contract for an undisclosed sum and length of time. He’s not going anywhere.
- Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs): Pop! He’s led the Spurs to 19 consecutive 50+ win seasons (technically interrupted by the 1998-99 lockout season, when they won the Finals anyways) and is the 7th winningest regular season coach of all time. He’s never losing his job, ever. When college professors and popes retire, they get cool titles like “Emeritus Professor of Creepily Hitting on Female Students But Never Getting Fired Because of Tenure.” When Pop eventually does decide to hang it up, the Spurs will probably give him a similar but decidedly more positive title. Until then, he has unimpeachable job security.
- Rick Carlisle (Dallas Mavericks): The man who helped guide the Mavericks to their sole championship victory doubles as one of the most creative and consistent coaches in the league. Carlisle is an all-time great and an establishment in the Mavericks franchise. He’s safe this season.
- Mike D’Antoni (Houston Rockets): After performing a mind-meld with James Harden last season, D’Antoni seems to have finally found his ideal post-Steve Nash Suns landing spot. He has an underratedly tricky task this season in working the methodical and midrange-happy Chris Paul into his schemes, but chances are that the Rockets will be just as successful this season as they were last. D’Antoni has the support of his franchise player and his front office. Even with the offseason sale of the Rockets franchise, it seems unlikely that D’Antoni loses his job this year.
- Erik Spoelstra (Miami Heat): The Heat are one of the NBA’s best franchises, and a big part of that has to do with the innovation and consistency of Erik Spoelstra. He led a team of misfit players to within a game of a playoff berth last season. This year he’ll be faced with the task of leading largely the same group to greater success. It will be tough work, but win or lose, he has the support of his front office behind him. The Heat extended his contract last summer for an undisclosed number of years, and it's safe to say Spo is going to be around for the long haul.
- Kenny Atkinson (Brooklyn Nets): The Nets were bad in their first season under Atkinson, but they were fun bad, which is basically the Nets equivalent of being good. Atkinson is a great player development coach who seems to have a knack for putting even the worst players in positions to succeed and expand their skills. The Nets have a bit more talent on their roster this season, so Atkinson may even be able to push them to win some more games. Being good isn’t the point, though--establishing culture and developing young players is. So even if the Nets are bad again, Atkinson will keep his job, at least for the coming year.
- Tom Thibodeau (Minnesota Timberwolves): Thibs is is a legend with an eminently meme-able personality. The Wolves, who house some of the league’s most exciting young talent, are now looking more and more like a Thibodeau team after this summer’s acquisitions of former Chicago players Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. He’ll win a lot of games with this Wolves team, and even if he doesn’t, his leash in Minnesota should be long enough to keep him in charge for the coming year.
- David Fizdale (Memphis Grizzlies): Fizdale helped breathe life into the Grizzlies last year by revamping their offense and letting Marc Gasol loose from beyond the arc, all while embodying the team’s signature blue collar ethos. The Grizz are going through some changes right now. Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, two of the foundational pillars of the Grit n’ Grind era, are gone. It’s not immediately clear what the path forward is for the franchise as its roster core continues to age, but it seems certain that Fizdale is cemented in his place as head coach for the time being.
- Steve Kerr (Golden State Warriors): Come on.
Tier 2: Probably Safe, but It’s The NBA and Head Coaches Are The Easiest Scapegoats
- Luke Walton (Los Angeles Lakers): The only scenario in which Luke Walton loses his job this season would probably involve LaVar Ball. I don’t feel like talking about Lavar Ball today.
- Doc Rivers (Los Angeles Clippers): Doc’s Clippers have never made it past the second round. Still, nobody really expects the Clippers to be a great team the year after losing Chris Paul, so Doc is probably safe no matter what. Then again, he was removed from his position as President of Basketball Operations this summer, and when team owner Steve Ballmer was asked about the move in a recent Los Angeles Times interview, his answer was pretty opaque:
"...When it comes time to sign a big contract, people love to say, “Who’s in charge?” I’ll tell you who’s in charge. The owner. I’m not saying the owner does this without a lot of advice and counsel, but before you spend $170 million or $205 million, guess what? The guy who has got to pay the check has got to buy in. And I have to be willing to stand up for decisions. So does Lawrence. So does Doc. We all have to be willing to stand up for that decision…"
- What What does that mean? Probably nothing, but it’s kind of hard to tell. Doc is safe, maybe. But maybe not.
- Billy Donovan (Oklahoma City Thunder): The new-look Thunder are one of the league’s most fascinating teams coming into this season. Exactly none of the intrigue surrounding this team has to do with Donovan, who has essentially run the Thunder about as well as his predecessor Scott Brooks ever did. This likely means three things: 1. If the Thunder win a lot of games, Donovan won’t get much credit. 2. If the Thunder underwhelm, Donovan won’t take much blame. And 3. If the Thunder implode in some unimaginably awful way, Donovan is an easy person to sacrifice as a scapegoat. That last one probably won’t happen, but you never know.
- Dave Joeger (Sacramento Kings): In the first year post-DeMarcus Cousins, Dave Joeger will have a chance to comfortably coach a Kings team brimming with young talent. The Kings recently picked up his contract option for the 2019-20 season. He’ll keep his job unless something really bizarre happens.
- Steve Clifford (Charlotte Hornets): The Hornets will probably make the playoffs in an anemic Eastern Conference, and they’ll do it playing Clifford’s signature “play defense and never crash the offensive glass” style. His current contract runs through the 2018-19 season, and there has been no indication that his job is unsafe. He’ll be fine.
- Terry Stotts (Portland Trailblazers): Stotts is a fun offensive coach who runs a team that isn't talented enough to make it past the first round in the Western Conference playoffs. Still, his position feels secure with the Blazers, at least for the time being.
- Jason Kidd (Milwaukee Bucks): He’s done a fine job developing superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and crafting a suffocating defense that has allowed Milwaukee to improve steadily over the past few seasons. He’s fine. The Bucks signed him to a three year extension at the end of the 2015-16 season. He won’t lose his job. Probably.
- Brett Brown (Philadelphia 76ers): This is the first time Brown has ever coached a 76ers team that was legitimately expected to win games. After years of shepherding D-League (G-League?) rosters through losing seasons, he will be given the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of Philadelphia’s tanking successes.
- Mike Malone (Denver Nuggets): The Nuggets had the highest rated offense in the NBA after moving Nikola Jokic to the starting lineup last season. They almost made the playoffs last year, and, with the addition of forward Paul Millsap, it seems almost likely that they finally get back into the postseason in 2017-18. Malone is a fine coach who is reportedly liked by his players. He’ll stick around.
- Ty Lue (Cleveland Cavaliers): Ty Lue is the nominal coach of LeBron James’s Cavaliers. It’s not clear whether he personally is a great coach or just a coach that James likes. James’s contract is up at the end of the year, and it would be strange for the Cavs to dump the coach James likes while they’re trying to convince James to stick around past this year. Still, that same logic could drive the organization to fire Lue mid-season if things get off to a bad start.
- Scott Brooks (Washington Wizards): Brooks led the Wizards to 49 wins and a Game 7 second round playoff out in his first season as head coach. He has largely the same roster coming into this season, and it seems possible that his Wizards could be a second or even first seed in the coming year. He will keep his job.
- Stan Van Gundy (Detroit Pistons): SVG is a good coach and his team is talented enough to make the playoffs in an atrocious Eastern Conference.
- Mike Budenholzer (Atlanta Hawks): Budenholzer is one of the best coaches working in the league right now, and it’s very unlikely that he gets fired. Still, you have to wonder if he really wants to be a part of a rebuilding Hawks team. He’s made no indication otherwise, but it wouldn’t be the most surprising thing if he decided to part ways with the Hawks if their rebuild takes longer than currently anticipated.
Tier 3: Who Knows?
- Frank Vogel (Orlando Magic): Vogel is a great coach working for a franchise that almost exclusively makes head-scratching decisions. His job is probably safe as he enters his second year with the team but, again, few things with the Magic have made sense in the post-Dwight Howard years. The Magic have a solid roster. They might win games. They might even make the playoffs. It might not matter. The Magic are an enigma. Who knows?
- Nate McMillan (Indiana Pacers): The Pacers had no discernable identity last season, played some of the most boring basketball on this side of the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett Nets, and lost Paul George this offseason. I don’t think any of this means McMillan is on the verge of losing his job, but I also don’t think that it doesn’t mean that, either.
- Dwane Casey (Toronto Raptors): Dwane Casey, who has generally guided the Raptors to improvement in each of his seasons in Toronto, is probably the safest of this bunch. Still, the Raptors are starting to feel stagnant. They’re not the best team in the East, and at this point, they might not even be in the top 3. Eventually, something will have to give with this team. Casey signed a three year contract extension with the team in 2016, and he’s probably safe here, but this Raptors team has the feeling of a situation that could turn desperate very quickly if they continue to be Clippers East.
- Earl Watson (Phoenix Suns): Is Earl Watson a good coach? Does it matter for this rebuilding and amorphous Phoenix Suns franchise? I think the answer to both of those questions is probably “No,” but I don’t think anyone can say for certain at this point.
Tier 4: The Unofficially Sponsored Texas Pete Hot Sauce Hot Seat
- Jeff Hornacek (New York Knicks): The Knicks are going to be bad in their first year post-Melo. Hornacek was the coaching choice of the ousted Phil Jackson regime, and new front offices often like to put their own guys in coaching roles. Hoops Inquirer has reported that Hornacek will be given the year to implement his own non-Triangular vision for the team, but it’s not hard to imagine how things could sour on a dime and leave Hornacek without a job.
- Alvin Gentry (New Orleans Pelicans): The Pelicans made it to the playoffs the year before Gentry came in as head coach and haven’t made it back to the postseason since. There are a lot of reasons for this, and not a lot of them directly involve Gentry. Still, there’s clearly a feeling around the Pelicans organization that something needs to change soon. It was exactly that sort of sentiment that motivated the team to trade for DeMarcus Cousins at last year’s trade deadline. If the Pelicans get off to a rough start again, I would expect Gentry to be the first to go.
- Fred Hoiberg (Chicago Bulls): Fred Hoiberg has never been given a roster that matches his offensive philosophy in his time with the Bulls, and this year seems to be no exception. The Bulls are going to be one of the worst teams in the league this season no matter what Hoiberg does, especially if Zach LaVine is out for an extended period. This might be it for him. Poor Fred.