Three-Man Weave: Which coach will be on the NBA's hottest seat in 2015-16?
With the draft and the bulk of free agency now behind us, it's time to start taking stock of what's transpired this summer and how it all figures to impact the upcoming NBA campaign.
This week, we discuss: Which coach will be on the NBA's hottest seat in 2015-16?
Dan Devine: Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors. Which, to be honest, feels kind of nuts.
After winning just one division title in their first 18 years of NBA existence, the Raptors have won back-to-back Atlantic Division crowns under Casey. Toronto followed up its 2013-14 coming-out party — a franchise-record 48 wins, a return to the postseason, top-10 finishes in both offensive and defensive efficiency, raucous crowds at Air Canada Centre, the unveiling of "We The North," etc. — by setting a new franchise record last season with 49 wins. The Raps also finished third in the NBA in points scored per possession, landed point guard Kyle Lowry in the starting lineup for the 2015 Eastern Conference All-Star team, and made a second straight playoff appearance for the first time since the 2006-07 and '07-'08 seasons.
The Raptors will again enter the season as favorites to win the Atlantic and host Game 1 of a playoff series; that's not the sort of thing that gets coaches fired. And yet, it's really tough to shake the memory of how Casey's crew has finished these franchise-record-setting seasons.
All the good will of the 14-win improvement in 2013-14 ended in a final-seconds Game 7 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on the Raptors' home floor. And after looking to wipe that bad taste out by racing out to a 24-8 mark through the first three months of the 2014-15 season, Toronto limped home, playing .500 ball after Jan. 1 struggling with slow starts while posting the NBA's seventh-worst defense after the All-Star break, and ultimately getting dismantled in Round 1 by Bane of Canada Paul Pierce and the Washington Wizards in a four-game sweep that prompted the following summation from our Kelly Dwyer: "The Raptors should be embarrassed. The team’s long-suffering fans, after years of dealing with this nonsense, should be livid."
General manager Masai Ujiri — who didn't hire Casey (that was predecessor Bryan Colangelo) but did give him a three-year extension in May of 2014 — has worked to address the Raptors' defensive deficiencies. He used the 20th pick in the 2015 NBA draft on Utah guard (and BDL contributor) Delon Wright, a 6-foot-6 wing whose defensive instincts, anticipation and physical tools were widely praised before the draft. He moved on from a pair of backcourt designated hitters, reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams and backup point guard Greivis Vasquez. He spent $60 million on swing-spot stalwart DeMarre Carroll to lead a culture change, and signed D-first former first-rounders Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo in an attempt to build a smaller, quicker, more versatile and hopefully stouter defensive squad. He also gave center Jonas Valanciunas, a player with whom Casey has never seemed entirely comfortable, a new four-year, $64 million extension.
The current roster might not yet look exactly like what Ujiri has in mind for the Raptors' finished product. (Masai does love to tinker.) But after taking steps to shore up the leaky defense while still allowing Toronto to build around its All-Star backcourt of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and crafting a roster capable of keeping that top-flight offense humming with more frequent sojourns into the sort of small-ball with which the Wizards killed the Raps in April, Ujiri's message to Casey seems clear: if we don't get better and go farther now, or if we start the season as sluggishly as we finished it, there might not be another vote of confidence coming your way.
Kelly Dwyer: A triptych that probably has a 95 percent chance of making it all the way through 2015-16 with a gig. All three have very good reasons to keep their jobs.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: David Blatt’s job is always going to be on the line. LeBron James could send out endless cheery Instagrams …
… he can drape his arm around Blatt in front of national TV cameras and the Cavaliers could settle into their typical East-leading, 60-win havin’ ways, but Blatt will be on the hook until James and company finally take that title. Notice that I wrote “James and company,” because Blatt will never get the credit should Cleveland win it all, and unless one of his three stars turns in a botched performance for the ages in a losing series (or if one or two stars go down with injury, as happened last season), he’ll always take the blame should his team fall.
Such is life in living with championship expectations. It genuinely has nothing to do with Blatt as a head coach.
The Kings have no such expectations, but they remain such a truly daffy organization that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see George Karl get the axe less than one calendar year into his term. Karl signed a four-year deal in February, but he stands as yet another mistimed coaching overlap on a franchise with a nasty recent history of them (former Kings owners hiring Reggie Theus over their GM’s wishes, current Kings owners hiring Michael Malone ahead of hiring a general manager).
He and personnel chief Vlade Divac have already reportedly clashed over what to do with star big man DeMarcus Cousins, and though Karl will do whatever it takes to hang on long enough to break the NBA’s record for all-time coaching wins (he’s 193 wins short of Don Nelson’s mark), it’s hard to get a read on this tempestuous organization.
Byron Scott won’t be fired this year unless something truly nasty goes down, as we’ve already established that the Lakers don’t mind punting another year as the franchise approaches a clean and possibly Kobe-free start in 2016. The Lakers should improve, too, because if Kobe keeps his shots in check (ha!) he’ll be an improvement in the backcourt, Lou Williams can help ease some scoring pressure and Roy Hibbert provides competence up front.
The issue here is moving forward. Do the Lakers really want to trust a guy with a recent track record like Scott’s to run the show in 2016 and beyond? If the Lakers get lucky in the lottery and keep their pick (if it falls out of the top three they’ll have to send it to Philadelphia) they’ll feature three draft studs and tons of cap space along with the allure of Los Angeles – which, make no mistake, hasn’t gone anywhere – to build upon. How deep is the team’s commitment to past history, which Byron Scott is part of, and saving money? Scott’s four year contract has a team option for the final year, but the 2016-17 portion of it is fully guaranteed.
Eric Freeman: David Blatt, Cleveland Cavaliers.
A coach who took an undermanned squad to within two wins of the franchise's first NBA title should not necessarily fear for his job, but this offseason's mass exodus of embattled coaches and Randy Wittmann's ongoing battle with imminent death syndrome mean that Blatt will receive a great deal of attention as a coach who needs to prove himself to both the public and his organization.
By "organization," we mostly mean LeBron James, who joined the Cavaliers in July 2014 after Blatt had been hired to guide a problematic young team to a mere playoff berth. Their relationship in their first season was troubled, full of reports of discord and on-court incidents that weren't great for optics even if they didn't signal outright animosity. These stories followed the Cavs deep into the postseason as they achieved all they reasonably could given high-profile injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, so it's fair to assume they will hang around until Blatt proves he can be the head coach of a title-winning group.
Yet the fact that Blatt's first season in the NBA wasn't "a breeze" doesn't mean that it didn't go well. The vast majority of new NBA head coaches do not have the luck of coaching the best player of his generation, two other All-Stars, and a bevy of capable role players. For that matter, Blatt wasn't a mere steward of talent — he was involved in some excellent defensive game plans throughout the postseason and didn't just sit idly by as the Golden State Warriors adjusted to the Cavs' style over the course of the finals. Blatt may be under more pressure than most head coaches in the league, but he also hasn't fallen flat on his face.
Nevertheless, there is an expectation that 2015-16 must go more smoothly. If last season held challenges — integrating Kevin Love as a third option, bringing new players into the fold in midseason, convincing LeBron, etc. — then this one should theoretically see improved relationships and more sophisticated (or at least more effective) systems on the court. While it's very easy to imagine Blatt holding onto his job if the Cavs don't progress beyond what most assume will be a second-straight conference title, the better metric for success could be how the Cavaliers look rather than where they finish. Whereas the 2014-15 team often looked to be in search of its best self, this one needs to proceed with a certain amount of confidence in its identity, particularly after an offseason that has seen virtually every key player return on a long-term deal.
In a way, Blatt's seat is warm if only because the metrics he will be judged by are so nebulous. Unless the team experiences an outright postseason failure, Blatt will be judged on how well he works with LeBron, whether Love looks like more than a superior version of Channing Frye on offense, and the extent to which this loaded roster develops into a destructive force. Anything shy of greatness could cost him his job.
Previously, on the Weave:
Which young player will make the biggest leap to stardom?
Which Eastern Conference contender will make it up to No. 2?