It’s once again time to slide up a thermometer up the Association’s ass. This time, let’s check the temperature of the coaching situations around the NBA. A wise man once said that “coaches are hired to be fired,” so who is most likely to follow Luke Walton as the next coach fired this season?
1. Frank Vogel, Los Angeles Lakers (16-16, 6th in the West)
Every coach who has ever worked with LeBron James has been on the hot seat. Somebody is always going to take the blame when LeBron’s teams struggle and it sure ain’t gonna be the ‘King’. Just ask Walton and David Blatt.
Vogel is an excellent defensive coach and it’s not his fault that the team decided to get Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony in the offseason. The personnel changes weren’t optimal to Vogel’s coaching philosophy, but it also exposed his limitations on the offensive side. The Lakers have the league’s 5th worst offense; only the lottery-bound Rockets, Magic, Pistons, and Thunder have been more inefficient.
Injuries have been a factor, with LeBron missing games and Anthony Davis now out for four weeks, but they’ve also had the NBA’s easiest schedule by a mile. It balances out, and being a 0.500 team through 40% of the season is not where a supposedly championship-or-bust team wants to be. If we were to apportion the blame, bulk of it should be placed on the Lakers front office for the way they constructed the roster. But it’s always easier to fire the coach. That’s the nature of the business.
THERMOMETER READING: HOT. Vogel is coaching the league’s most prominent franchise with an aging LeBron. Losing AD for four weeks could be the ultimate deathblow and if they fall below 0.500 by mid-January, Vogel could be a goner.
2. Dwane Casey, Detroit Pistons (5-25, last in the NBA)
It’s difficult to judge a team in the middle of the rebuild, because they’d probably be a bad team regardless of who’s coaching. The Sixers stuck with Brett Brown for the longest time, and OKC looks to be committed to Mark Daigneault. But Brown and Daigneault were first time head coaches when they were asked to oversee a rebuild, whereas Casey was coming off a Coach of the Year campaign with the Raptors when the Pistons hired him.
In fact, the Pistons made the playoffs in Casey’s first season. The team finished 41-41 in 2019, behind the last All-Star caliber season from Blake Griffin. But it’s all been downhill from there, with the Pistons winning a total of 45 games since that playoff appearance. It’s not entirely Casey’s fault that they can’t win games, but the point is he was hired with different goals in mind.
He’s missed the last couple of games due to “personal reasons,” and while it’d be foolhardy to read too much into that, it sort of makes sense if Casey decides no mas. We often talk about ownership and fan bases being tired of losing, but how would a veteran coach with moderate playoff success feel about it? The Pistons are at least three years away from making its way back into the postseason and the question for both Casey and Tom Gores is how much more losing they can endure.
THERMOMETER READING: WARM. Casey doesn’t quite fit the profile of a rebuilding coach, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he and the front office make a mutual decision to pull the plug sooner.
3. Chauncey Billups, Portland Trail Blazers (13-19, 10th in the West)
Billups was brought in to improve the team’s defense, but not only do the Blazers have the 29th-ranked defense, the man responsible for picking Billups, Neil Olshey, has been fired by the team.
The slide in offense (17th in the NBA) is understandable due to injuries to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, but the lack of defensive improvement is inexcusable. It’s so bad that Billups has resorted to publicly calling out his players on multiple occasions. Doing it once seems like a bold strategy, but doing it twice reeks of desperation.
Lillard had openly campaigned for Jason Kidd during the Blazers’ coaching search and there were reports that Lillard wasn’t thrilled about the Billups hire. It’s rare that a first-year coach gets canned this early, but Billups seems to have conjured the perfect storm: a losing record, loss of the hiring GM, and a lack of support from the team’s superstar.
THERMOMETER READING: COOL. There’s not much smoke coming out of Portland that Billups is in danger of losing his job, so he may be safe for the remainder of the season.
4. Jason Kidd, Dallas Mavericks (15-15, 8th in the West)
Kidd has continued where he left off in Milwaukee: at the helm of a 0.500 team. He was fired midway through the 2018 campaign after the Bucks posted a 23–22 record. The Bucks would go on to have the league’s best record in 2019 and 2020 before finally winning the title last July.
The Mavs got off to a decent start, going 9-4, but their peripherals weren’t pretty despite the record. Sure enough, their win-loss record caught up and now reflects what the Mavs actually are: a middling team—they’re 20th in offensive rating and 13th in defensive rating—that is, at best, a tough first round out. Which is precisely what they were the past two seasons.
To be fair, a big part of the Mavs’ struggles is Luka Doncic showing up to camp out of shape. But other coaches have done more with less, and Kidd really has done nothing to quiet criticism that he is a mediocre NBA coach.
THERMOMETER READING: COLD. The seat should be hotter but Mark Cuban is a loyal guy. Unless Doncic demands another coaching change, expect Kidd to be with the Mavs through at least next season.
5. Tom Thibodeau, New York Knicks (14-17, 12th in the East)
If Frank Vogel, who won the NBA’s bubble championship last year, is in the hot seat, why shouldn’t Thibs be? The Knicks made waves last year by making the playoffs for the first time in 7 years and the expectations were that they’d be better this year with the addition of Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker.
But they’ve regressed. Their defense, typically a strong suit of Thibs-coached teams, has been abysmal, ranking 23rd this year after finishing 4th last season. Their offense isn’t any much better (19th), and Thibs has struggled to get the best out of Fournier and Walker—to the point that Walker was taken out of the rotation.
His win-now mentality has stalled the development of RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin, which is eerily similar to what happened with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns during his tenure in Minnesota. The problem is they’re not actually doing a lot of winning. Unlike the hand Vogel was dealt, the roster changes in New York shouldn’t have made the team worse, so the responsibility has to lie squarely with the coach.
THERMOMETER READING: COOL. The Knicks are perhaps the second worst high-pressure coaching gig in the NBA and combined with the expectations coming into this season, it seems logical that Thibs would start feeling the heat. But, like Doc Rivers, Thibs carries an irrational amount of gravitas in NBA circles, which may save his job unless the Knicks fall out of the playoff race.
*Records and stats updated as of December 23, 2021