Getting fired is a way of life for NBA coaches. Just ask George Karl.
As the story goes, Karl was let go as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers with a 25-42 record in March 1986. There was no Twitter, or even a working Internet to break the news. So Karl moseyed over to his favorite postgame haunt near suburban Richfield Coliseum, “Whitey’s Booze ‘N Burgers,” and broke the news to Whitey himself.
"I can remember my dad yelling, 'Holy hell!' and running around the kitchen," owner John Bigadza, son of the late Whitey, once told me in an interview. "And George said, 'But the good news is, I won't be shoveling snow anymore. I'm going to California!”
Richfield Coliseum was imploded long ago and turned into a nature preserve, but Whitey’s remains in business. So does Karl – in California, as a matter of fact, as the coach of the Sacramento Kings.
Which is a fun and roundabout way of transitioning to another rite of passage on the NBA calendar: The annual list of coaches who are in danger of being fired. Those in the coaching business who are cynical enough might say, “All 30 of them.” But let’s exclude the ones that just got hired a few months ago (Billy Donovan, Fred Hoiberg, Alvin Gentry, Scott Skiles and Michael Malone) and those who’ve built at least some semblance of job security (you know, like that loveable old crank in San Antonio).
So with that, here are five coaches on the hot seat -- in no particular order -- based on conversations with executives and people involved in the coaching business:
George Karl, Kings : There were four in-season coaching changes last season, and the Kings made half of them. So the seat in Sacramento in 2015 doesn’t appear to be any more stable than the one Karl vacated in Cleveland three decades ago. The Kings are the fifth team that Karl has coached since then, but this might be the most challenging job. He’s had well-publicized difficulty connecting with his franchise player, DeMarcus Cousins, and the talented but combustible Rajon Rondo has joined the mix. Owner Vivek Ranadive has proved to be as impatient as he is inventive. But as challenging as the task is for Karl, the toughest job in Sacramento might belong to Vlade Divac, who has been tasked with making sure everyone can just get along. How successful Divac is in bridging those personality gaps will be one of the fascinating storylines during the first two months of the NBA season.
Randy Wittman, Wizards: The list of coaches who share my alma mater -- Indiana University -- has dwindled to one, which isn’t really a list. Wittman got a three-year extension in 2014, and has improved Washington’s record every year he’s served as head coach. But with success comes heightened expectations, and the clock is ticking on this current Wizards group to break through in the East. Though Washington lost postseason freak of nature Paul Pierce, the additions of Jared Dudley, Alan Anderson and Gary Neal should space the floor nicely for John Wall and Bradley Beal. But if Washington gets off to a poor start, Wittman could take the fall.
Dwane Casey, Raptors: Like Wittman, Casey has improved the Raptors’ record every season he’s been on the job, and like Wittman, he received a three-year extension in 2014. Also like Wittman, Casey now faces the expectations that come with success. For the Raptors, that means getting out of the first round, where they were in disarray last season in a 4-0 loss to the Wizards. And while Raptors president Masai Ujiri extended Casey’s contract, he didn’t hire him in the first place – though their relationship and communication are both said to be solid. Casey has instilled a winning environment and defensive backbone in Toronto, but when will a first-round exit no longer be good enough?
Jeff Hornacek, Suns: Phoenix surprisingly made it to the final lap in the pursuit of free agent LaMarcus Aldridge, a move that would’ve completely altered the trajectory of the franchise. They added Tyson Chandler, who raises the defensive level of every team he joins (if healthy, of course) and alienated Markieff Morris by trading his twin brother, Marcus, to the Pistons. After missing the playoffs despite winning 48 games in 2013-14, the Suns took a step back last season. Hornacek has one year plus an option left, and sources say owner Robert Sarver is getting antsy for a return to the postseason.
David Blatt, Cavaliers : It wouldn’t be a “coaches on the hot seat” list without the hottest seat in the NBA. Having LeBron James on your team turns up the temperature considerably. The Cavs are just about a consensus pick to not only make it to the Finals, but win the whole thing. So there, Coach Blatt, all you have to do is win a championship and you’re good. Those 17 other championships he’s won won’t mean a thing if James doesn’t get another ring.