The regular season is in its final week and the playoffs are just around the corner, which means we're nearing the point of the NBA schedule where coaches are under the biggest microscope. Teams headed toward the playoffs are looking at their coaches to see if they're the right fit to lead their franchise going forward, while other teams already eliminated from playoff contention are wondering if a change is needed to turn things around.
Back in February we examined the coaches on the hot seat around the league after the Minnesota Timberwolves parted ways with then-head coach Ryan Saunders. Several names on that initial list are still here this time around, with a couple new ones who have faltered to expectations. So let's survey the coaching landscape around the league and look at some coaches who may be on their way out in the very near future.
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Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers have been nothing if not consistent during Terry Stotts' nearly nine-year tenure as head coach, but consistency is only rewarded for so long when major progress isn't being made. Despite posting only two losing seasons as Portland's head coach, the team has failed to take significant steps forward in becoming a title contender under Stotts. While the pairing of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum has been electric, it hasn't amounted to much success past just getting into the postseason.
After unexpectedly making a Western Conference finals appearance in 2019, the team failed to build off that momentum. Part of that isn't Stotts' fault; Portland has been hampered with significant injuries in each of the last three seasons. However, that hasn't stopped reports circulating that this season could potentially be the last for Stotts in Portland barring a championship run. As solid as Stotts has been for the Blazers, the focus in Portland is trying to capitalize on the final three seasons left on Lillard's contract before their franchise superstar becomes an unrestricted free agent, or chooses to opt out of his final year in 2024.
Portland is playing well at the moment -- winners of four straight and pushing for the West's No. 5 seed -- but if it does decide at the end of this season that moving on from Stotts is the best way forward, the franchise wants to sign a "big name, high-dollar coach" to take over, per The Athletic's Shams Charania and Sam Amick. Jason Kidd, Nate McMillan, Dave Joerger, Chauncey Billups and Brent Barry are all names that have been floating around.
Nate Bjorkgren, Indiana Pacers
The last few weeks have not been kind to the Indiana Pacers and first-year head coach Nate Bjorkgren. After being hired to take over for Nate McMillan, who was let go at the end of last season, Bjorkgren's first season in Indiana has not gone according to plan. Following a season in which the Pacers finished fourth in the Eastern Conference, they currently sit ninth with a 33-36 record and the possibility of missing the playoffs if they fail to succeed in the play-in tournament.
Aside from the lack of success on the court in his first year, reports have surfaced detailing how Bjorkgren hasn't meshed with the players, coaches or other people within the Pacers organization. It's led to the speculation that his future with the franchise is uncertain, mainly because of his relationships with key players in the locker room. Most notably, when Bjorkgren was announced to be the next head coach, Pacers forward T.J. Warren reportedly requested a trade from the team, and then chose to have season-ending surgery this year to avoid playing for him. There was also the case of longtime assistant coach Bill Bayno choosing to resign earlier this season, which was reportedly viewed as him not wanting to work with Bjorkgren anymore.
It's safe to say it's not all good vibes in Indiana right now, but while the Pacers have struggled this season, part of that could also be attributed to injuries. Myles Turner has missed 18 of the team's last 19 games with a toe injury, Malcolm Brogdon has been out of the lineup for almost two weeks and franchise centerpiece Domantas Sabonis has missed time here and there with various ailments. Then there was the blockbuster trade that sent Victor Oladipo to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Caris LeVert as part of a three-team deal involving the Brooklyn Nets.
There have been so many changes and injuries over the course of this season for the Pacers, so it's difficult to completely fault Bjorkgren for Indiana's shortcomings. However, if he doesn't have the trust of the players, and solid relationships with the coaches and support staff within the organization, then giving him the benefit of the doubt in Year 1 might be irrelevant in this case. Perhaps things can be smoothed out and Bjorkgren will make it past his first year, but it sounds like there's a lot of fences that need mending in Indiana.
Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
Despite the fact that Mike Budenholzer has a .713 win percentage (159-64), and the Bucks are a top-three seed in the Eastern Conference with the playoffs just around the corner, his job security in Milwaukee is still in question. The threat of Giannis Antetokounmpo leaving is no longer a dark cloud hanging over the entire city of Milwaukee, but the goal of winning a championship is still something Budenholzer hasn't been able to deliver yet.
If the Bucks don't make a deep run in the postseason, Budenholzer is "likely gone," per Charania and Amick. That's a strong ultimatum for a coach who only has two losing seasons to his name, none of which came with Milwaukee. However, the sting of last season's second-round playoff exit at the hands of the Miami Heat in five games is still on the minds of the Bucks front office. It's Finals or bust for the Bucks this season, just as it was a year ago, and if Budenholzer can't get them there again Milwaukee may decide a new coach is what this team needs to get them over that hump.
Luke Walton, Sacramento Kings
Walton made the list in February when we did the first iteration of the coaching hot seat for the season. Between that time and now, not much has changed in terms of success on the court for the Kings. Sacramento currently has a 31-38 record, and is on the brink of playoff elimination which would make it 15 years since this franchise has seen the postseason. However, what may save Walton for at least another year is the fact that it would apparently be too expensive to let him go right now.
"The Kings not only owe him a combined $11.5 million after this season but also, according to sources with knowledge of the deal, are unable to stretch those payments out over several years if they fired him. While coaching contracts often include this kind of stretch provision, the sources said Walton's deal that was signed in mid-April 2019 does not. Considering the context here, with the Kings known to have lost approximately $100 million as a result of the pandemic, this will certainly play into the decision-making process. If fired, he would have to be paid in accordance with the original timing of the deal."
If Sacramento is in money-saving mode -- and the decision to not match Bogdan Bogdanovic's four-year, $72 million deal offered by the Atlanta Hawks certainly showed they are -- then Walton may be around for a little longer. Still, though, owner Vivek Ranadive has been known to cycle through coaches at a rapid pace, especially if they aren't meeting his lofty expectations. Walton's seat may be on a simmer right now, but that doesn't mean he should get too comfortable in Sacramento.
Scott Brooks, Washington Wizards
What once looked like another lost season for an underachieving franchise quickly turned around as Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook -- who just broke Oscar Robertson's record for most career triple-doubles -- have put Washington in contention for the play-in tournament. Brooks was entering the season on the final year of his contract, and many thought the Wizards would just decide this was the appropriate time to part ways. After all, he has just a 181-206 record in five years with the Wizards and has not reached the playoffs since the 2017-18 season. Some of that can be seen as not being Brooks' fault, as the Wizards have dealt with an injured roster for the last several seasons. Still, the Wizards have reportedly said that Brooks must make the postseason for job security.
With 10th-seeded Washington surging recently, going 12-4 in their last 15 games, a playoff spot is still within reach, but the Wizards must first survive the play-in tournament to get there. Brooks has the support of many of the players, most notably Beal and Westbrook, as well as the front office, according to Charania and Amick, but being in good graces with the franchise only goes so far when the wins aren't adding up.