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Lakers coach Frank Vogel and the hottest seats around the NBA

·12 min read
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As we hit the quarter mark of the 2021-22 NBA season, now is as good a time as any to take a look around the league and determine which players, coaches, executives and even team owners are on the hottest seats.

Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta

The Rockets are walking a tightrope, as the healthy benching of 31-year-old five-time All-Star point guard John Wall borders on a violation of NBA rules against tanking. The NBA fined Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban $600,000 for a misstep on that tightrope in 2018, when he admitted to tanking for Luka Doncic.

That could be the least of Fertitta's financial worries. Less than two years after he laid off 40,000 employees in March 2020 — roughly 70% of his restaurant and casino empire's staff — Forbes estimates his net worth could double to more than $8 billion this month. That includes a $2.5 billion valuation of Fertitta's Rockets. However, his wealth is built on a foundation of debt, industry woes and complicated business dealings to escape said debt that has him facing one class-action lawsuit, possibly another and more legal obstacles.

Meanwhile, Fertitta has stripped the Rockets to the bone year by year since he purchased them in 2017. Houston pushed the juggernaut Golden State Warriors to the brink in the 2018 Western Conference finals in Fertitta's first season as team owner. He then let two rotational players from a 65-win team walk in free agency, among other cost-cutting moves that helped him avoid a luxury tax that he called "a horrible hindrance."

In 2019, when his Rockets blew their chance to force the Warriors to another Game 7, Fertitta pushed for the disastrous swap of Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook. That deal has since devolved into a healthy Wall sitting on the bench in Houston. In between, the Rockets again avoid the luxury tax, trading talented center Clint Capela for journeyman wing Robert Covington. General manager Daryl Morey left, replaced by Rafael Stone, who essentially turned Covington into Christian Wood, now reportedly on the trade market.

The mess led to Westbrook and fellow one-time MVP James Harden requesting trades — for reasons reportedly linked to Fertitta's politics — that were ultimately granted. Rather than acquire established young players Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert in the Harden deal, Houston preferred an extra late first-round draft pick and Victor Oladipo's expiring contract. There is nothing to show in the rotation for Harden but savings.

The Athletic's David Aldridge and Kelly Iko reported in November 2020 that Fertitta "is hellbent on reducing payroll." Inside of a year, the Rockets have fallen from owning the league's longest active playoff streak and a top-10 payroll to one of the worst teams in the league and a bottom-10 payroll. Only the Detroit Pistons have more projected cap space in 2023, when Wall, Wood and Eric Gordon's deals all come off the books.

That is a fine strategy to employ if the goal is to rebuild a championship contender. Except, Fertitta has shown an aversion to keeping such a team together in favor of the philosophy he shared with Forbes for the magazine's annual cover story on the 400 richest Americans: "Everything, to me, has to make money."

What happens if nobody wants to join the Rockets in 2023 for the same reasons Harden and Westbrook wanted out? Houston fans have abandoned the team in their leanest years, and attendance is already dwindling from pre-pandemic sellouts fueled by Harden. A yearslong tanking strategy could lead to financial losses or close to them in the near future. What fun, then, would it be to own the Rockets?

Lakers coach Frank Vogel could be a convenient scapegoat. (Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)
Lakers coach Frank Vogel could be a convenient scapegoat. (Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images)

Los Angeles Lakers coach Frank Vogel

By little fault of his own, Vogel finds himself on the hot seat, amid "rising buzz in coaching circles about the pressure mounting on" the steward of a middling Lakers team, according to veteran NBA scribe Marc Stein.

We are 14 months removed from Vogel leading the Lakers to a title with an elite defense around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka has since lost Alex Caruso to a lowball free-agency offer and traded three more of their top-seven rotational players from the title team, plus the 2020 Sixth Man of the Year, all of whom are thriving on playoff teams. All Pelinka has to show for it is Westbrook, one of the oldest rosters in NBA history, a below-average defense and an even worse offense.

Making matters worse, James has missed more than half of their games. An abdominal strain cost him more than two weeks. He entered the NBA's health and safety protocols on Nov. 30, but was cleared to return Thursday. L.A. is currently sixth in the Western Conference, but only one game up on 10th place.

Lineups featuring Davis at center with James and Westbrook at his side are outscoring opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions over a small sample size, and that may be enough for the Lakers to remain hopeful. But any trend toward a second straight play-in tournament bid could make Vogel's seat hotter, if only because the Westbrook deal is irreversible at this point and Pelinka will be in need of a scapegoat.

James Harden's hamstring

Harden's production is trending upward. He is averaging a 21-8-9 on 60% true shooting. Not quite peak Harden, but impressive nonetheless. Only, he has underwhelmed against quality defenses, most recently in a 4-for-15 shooting effort against the Phoenix Suns that featured seven turnovers. The Brooklyn crowd's boos were more reflective of his performance this season than the triple-double he posted that night.

Harden said recently the hamstring injury he suffered last season that lingered into November is no longer bothering him, but he is clearly not in top physical condition. Without Kyrie Irving to spell the offense in his absence, Harden is playing more minutes than anyone on the Nets and all but 18 players league-wide.

The Nets have yet to rest Harden, once one of the most reliable superstars in the league. His games missed due to injury had gone from just four absences at age 29 in his 2018-19 campaign to 14 a year later and 28 last season. Time will tell if playing his way into game shape is the best approach for the now 32-year-old.

Blake Griffin and Kemba Walker were All-NBA performers just two years ago. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Blake Griffin and Kemba Walker were All-NBA performers just two years ago. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

The careers of Kemba Walker and Blake Griffin

Walker and Griffin both appeared on the All-NBA Third Team in 2019. The pandemic may have slowed time to a crawl, but that was still only two years ago, and yet the past week has seen both players benched.

New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau formally announced Walker's exit from the rotation on Monday. He has missed their last two games, including a loss to Brooklyn. After a pair of healthy scratches on the Nets, Griffin acknowledged his benching that same day, telling reporters, "I didn't necessarily see that coming."

The past two years have told a different story.

Walker, 31, had three surgeries on his left knee from 2015-17, returned to play all but two games over his next two seasons and signed a max contract with the Boston Celtics after his 2019 All-NBA campaign. Three months into that deal, Walker's left knee began flaring up again, and he has not been the same since — to the point the Celtics attached a first-round pick to dump his contract on the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Thunder bought out the remainder of his deal this past summer, and he signed for shorter money with the Knicks through 2023. Within two months of that deal, he is no longer in the rotation for a playoff team.

Griffin, 32, required surgery on his left knee following the 2019 playoffs, and then underwent another in January 2020 — his third procedure on that joint and fourth on both of his knees since entering the league. He played 20 unproductive games for the Detroit Pistons last season before they benched him, failed to find a single trade suitor and ultimately waived him. Griffin joined the Nets on a veteran minimum contract.

He enjoyed a resurgent second half to last season as a role-playing big man who benefited from the space provided by Harden, Irving and Kevin Durant. That resurgence came to an end early this season, when he started 34 of 107 from the field (31.8%) and 9 for 56 from 3-point range (16.1%) through his first 17 games.

New Orleans Pelicans executive David Griffin

It has been weeks since Bleacher Report's Jake Fischer reported Griffin's hot seat, and the Pelicans have responded with an encouraging 5-6 record since their 1-12 start, despite the continued absence of All-Star forward Zion Williamson. A light schedule for the rest of the month should also help cool Griffin's cushion.

However, if the Pelicans were willing to unfairly warm his seat before their best player could take the floor this season, Thursday's news that Williamson suffered a setback in his rehab from offseason foot surgery cannot be welcome. Reports are hopeful the latest setback will only delay Williamson's rehab by a week, but each passing game strips away any chance of New Orleans clawing its way into play-in contention.

This marks Year 3 of Griffin's tenure on the Pelicans. The soreness in Williamson's foot means he will cross the threshold of missing more games in that span than he has played. If the Pelicans want to judge Griffin on the performance of a team that has spent three years trying to get its generational talent healthy, that is their right, but do not expect any potential replacement to magically cure New Orleans' greatest ailment.

Los Angeles Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe

Bledsoe is on his third team in as many seasons, and his trade value hit at an all-time low this summer. He is averaging 9.8 points on 42/28/82 shooting splits and 3.4 assists against 2.2 turnovers. The Los Angeles Clippers (11-11), a team that reached the Western Conference finals last season, have been outscored by 18.8 points per 100 possessions with Bledsoe in the lineup, and yet he has started every game for them.

Clippers coach Ty Lue told reporters a month ago, when Bledsoe's struggles were just beginning, that the team had the "ultimate trust" in him. Since then, he is shooting less and scoring more efficiently, but he continues to dig the Clippers a hole for almost 30 minutes a night. The 10 points per 100 possessions they have outscored opponents when Bledsoe is on the bench has not been enough to overcome his deficit.

The goal of the Clippers this season is to get to the playoffs, when hopefully two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard could return from ACL surgery, but Bledsoe is jeopardizing them a guaranteed spot in the postseason. If ever there was a team with deep enough pockets to gamble on Wall, it is the Clippers and team owner Steve Ballmer, and Bledsoe's $18.1 million salary is a decent start toward finding enough dead salary to match.

Luka Doncic's conditioning

Doncic is a generational talent whose Dallas Mavericks own the West's fourth-best record, despite a negative net rating and subpar performances from the core around him. He has also reported to camp out of shape the last two seasons. His shooting efficiency is the worst of his career. We cannot be sure if the two are tied, but it would be nice to see the 22-year-old preseason MVP favorite enter a season in top form.

This is nitpicking, of course. No player is being used to create offense at a rate as high as Doncic.

The Mavericks' Jeremy Holsopple won last season's Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year honor, and Doncic's personal trainer, Anze Macek, resurrected Goran Dragic's career under the tutelage of Miami Heat culture. But even Macek conceded, "Luka is a young player, so his recovery is very fast. But this will get more difficult as he gets older." The earlier an all-time great can seize control of his career, the better.

Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons

Obviously.

Time is up

Portland Trail Blazers executive Neil Olshey

It has been a month since the Blazers began investigating Olshey for allegations of creating a toxic work environment. As a result, Olshey was fired this week.

Olshey's seat would be hot even if he was not the subject of an investigation. He has been at the head of Portland's front office since 2012, helming eight straight playoff appearances, three 50-win seasons and a run to the the 2019 Western Conference finals.

Five of those playoff appearances have resulted in first-round exits, including the four surrounding the franchise's first trip to the conference finals since 2000. Portland's combined record since the end of the 2018-19 campaign is 88-80, including an 11-11 mark this season. Olshey has constantly tinkered with the team's wings around Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, yielding little to no progress, and he has been unable or unwilling to make the sort of all-in gamble it could take to salvage Lillard's prime years.

Sooner or later, absent packaging McCollum and/or Nurkic for an upgrade, it will come time to deal Lillard, and the Blazers decided Olshey isn't the executive they want pulling the trigger.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach