Which NBA head-coaching opening is the most attractive?
In the NBA, losing tends to bring change. Particularly devastating defeats — like, say, a championship hopeful (or three) seeing its season end prematurely — tend to prompt dramatic, sweeping overhauls. And so it is that, after the Philadelphia 76ers bid Doc Rivers adieu on Tuesday, we now find ourselves with five franchises in need of a new head coach.
Nice round number’s worth of job openings you got there, NBA. Sure would be a shame if someone … ranked them by relative attractiveness on the marketplace.
We begin in the D, where — after a brutal bit of pingpong-ball-related luck on Tuesday evening — it remains so, so cold:
5. Detroit Pistons
The good news: Cade Cunningham showed signs in the second half of his rookie season of being a bona fide offensive initiator with All-Star upside. A healthy return from season-ending shin surgery for the former No. 1 overall pick, along with ongoing growth from All-Rookie Second Team guard Jaden Ivey and the addition of another contributor high in the 2023 NBA draft, would give Detroit a solid young core of perimeter players. (Yahoo Sports NBA draft analyst Krysten Peek has the Pistons taking Overtime Elite wing Ausar Thompson in her first post-lottery mock draft. Thompson’s coach at OTE? Former UConn coach Kevin Ollie, who, as Yahoo Sports senior NBA reporter Jake Fischer notes, “is widely considered the favorite of Detroit general manager Troy Weaver” for the vacant position.)
If the Pistons can combine that with quality interior play cobbled together from a crowded frontcourt rotation — I’m not entirely sure how you play all of James Wiseman, Jalen Duren, Isaiah Stewart and Marvin Bagley III, but there are options, if nothing else — then Detroit might have something to build around. It’s just that … well, the reality of building around Cunningham, Ivey and the No. 5 pick isn’t nearly as cool as the dream of building around Cunningham, Ivey and the No. 1 pick, which Detroit had a 14% chance of landing heading into Tuesday’s draft lottery before falling out of the top four.
The arrival of Victor Wembanyama would’ve provided Dwane Casey’s successor with a clear plausible path to contention. His absence makes finding that path much trickier for an organization that’s never been a high-end free-agent destination and that hasn’t won 45 games in a season in the last 15 years. The pressure to contend in Detroit won’t be nearly as high for the next head coach as it is in these other markets; neither, however, will be the opportunity to do it.
4. Toronto Raptors
In a news conference last month introducing him as the new head coach of the Rockets, Ime Udoka — long rumored to be a person of interest should the Toronto job open up — described the opportunity in Houston as “more attractive than a lot of the mid-level teams that kinda have that ceiling, that 5-seed ceiling.” That’s where the Raptors finished in 2021-22, but they never sniffed even that level of success this season. Toronto was maddeningly below average until a trade-deadline deal for old pal Jakob Poeltl stabilized them enough to finish .500 — just in time to suffer an ignominious play-in loss at the hands of Zach LaVine and Diar DeRozan.
There’s reason to hope for better things in short order. Whoever takes over for Nick Nurse inherits a roster featuring several proven high-quality NBA players under contract — two-time All-Star forward Pascal Siakam, ace defensive wing O.G. Anunoby and former Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes — and with no long-term guaranteed money presently on the books, preserving at least the possibility of some financial flexibility as team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster work to build out and retool the roster.
There’s also a ton of uncertainty to address, though.
A half-dozen Raptors are eligible for extensions this summer. This includes linchpin point guard Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr., both of whom can decline their player options and enter unrestricted free agency this summer, and Siakam and Anunoby, both of whom can hit the unrestricted market next summer. After trading a top-six-protected 2024 first-round pick for Poeltl, you can bet Ujiri and Co. want to keep him; pony up for him while hanging onto VanVleet and Trent, and you’re already flirting with the luxury tax, so how do you go about fixing the abject lack of shooting on a team that finished 28th in 3-point makes per game and 3-point accuracy? There’s also the nettlesome open question of whether any of the youngsters whom Nurse roundly refused to put on the floor might actually be able to play; during his end-of-season media session, Ujiri specifically named Malachi Flynn, Dalano Banton, Precious Achiuwa and Ron Harper Jr. as players who could stand to see more development time and opportunities.
Toronto’s a big-market team with deep-pocketed ownership considered willing to pay into the tax for a winner, with an established recent competitive past and a couple of All-Star-caliber players in the fold — seemingly a strong foundation on which to construct a winner. But as good as Siakam is, there’s no true blue present-tense superstar here, no guarantee that Barnes will turn into one, and a real possibility that paying up to retain the players who might make this team competitive will only lock you into mediocrity in an increasingly tough Eastern Conference. That, combined with a couple of higher-profile gigs coming on the market, might make it tough for the Raptors to sell themselves to prospective coaches as the most desirable destination on the board:
The Raptors are obviously at a different stage than other teams, but having a coaching vacancy at the same time as teams with 1) Durant + Booker; 2) Embiid; 3) Giannis; 4) team with high-lottery pick and Cade Cunningham have a vacancy is sub-optimal.
— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) May 16, 2023
3. Philadelphia 76ers
On one hand, Doc’s replacement will walk into a team headlined by reigning MVP Joel Embiid, coming off the best season of his career and under contract for at least the next three years. (Embiid holds a $58.2 million player option for the 2026-27 season.) That, combined with ascendant (and now extension-eligible) guard Tyrese Maxey and a creative front office led by president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, gives you a better starting point from which to win games, and potentially contend, right off the bat than you’d find in Detroit or Toronto.
Plus, while a delightfully basketball-mad city wants nothing more than to return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2001 and to hoist the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy for the first time since 1983, two decades’ worth of seasons ending before the final eight do provide the incoming head coach some wiggle room. After watching Rivers and Brett Brown combine to fall short in Round 2 five times in six years, the coach who can just make it to the conference finals will likely find himself feted as a conquering hero. Unlike in Phoenix or Milwaukee, where “championship or bust” is now the standard, in Philly there’s one more rung on the ladder to climb that could constitute a successful season, even if you don’t get all the way to the top.
On the other, though … man, whoever comes next has a lot to deal with and sort through. The checklist includes:
Resuscitating the belief of a team that went from six minutes away from the conference finals in Game 6 to completely letting go of the rope by the third quarter of Game 7;
Coming up with a strategy to get Embiid closer to his regular-season dominance against legit postseason competition;
Dealing with the James Harden situation, whether that means “we just lost our starting point guard and the league’s leader in assists to Houston without any real way to replace him” or “we just gave a 33-year-old with more than 40,000 hard-driven miles on his body, and who has missed 17 or more games in each of the last three seasons, like $200 million over the next four years because we had no real way to replace him” — neither of which seems particularly great;
Managing all that while knowing that reinforcements might be tough to come by, since Philly’s already right up against the luxury tax line without a new deal for Harden, bringing back restricted free agent Paul Reed or doing anything else, and can’t trade a first-round pick until the 2029 draft.
As Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice put it after Rivers’ ouster, “It's an attractive job opportunity, but a tough one.” As if, in this city and with this franchise, it could be any other way.
2. Phoenix Suns
The Suns land this high on the list, despite the many challenges they’re going to face in team-building over the next few years, primarily because of the presence of Devin Booker. He’s not as good of a player as Embiid, but he’s two and a half years younger, more durable, with more postseason success — not only making it to the Finals, but hanging 40 twice while he was there — and he’s locked into an about-to-start supermax that’ll keep him in the fold through 2028.
Taking over for the fired Monty Williams means getting Booker and Kevin Durant with an actual training camp, preseason and regular season together — a runway to really try to build a team around them and construct an offense that’s more than just the sum of its parts, as as opposed to the stilted fits-and-starts version that Phoenix got this season due to KD not getting to the Valley until the trade deadline and getting injured almost immediately upon his arrival. They’re extremely versatile talents, providing plenty of opportunity for flexibility in scheme and game-planning, and allowing a coach to build in different ways. Plus, given how aggressive owner Mat Ishbia has been in pushing for championship-level success in his first few months of ownership, you’d walk into the new gig without any questions about how badly ownership wants to compete.
That can cut both ways, though. Stories about how Ishbia was the one pushing the Durant deal, and how he made the decision on letting Williams go but left it to general manager James Jones to actually make the call and do the firing, raise the possibility that the former Michigan State walk-on might be the kind of New Owner Who Badly Wants to Compete that can make the standard function of the franchise a bit messier than it needs to be. (Just ask Nikola Jokić.) And Phoenix doesn’t really need additional mess at this stage — not after trading away Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, four first-round picks and swap rights on a fifth in the Durant deal; and not with only seven players under contract for next season, including Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton, whom they’ll probably need (and maybe want) to trade to try to add more depth to the depleted roster.
The Suns effectively staked their future on the belief that pairing Booker and Durant gave them a real chance to win a championship now. That prospect, and the glimpses of its realization we saw in KD’s first 19 outings with the franchise, likely remain intoxicating enough to lure a top-flight coach to the Footprint Center sidelines — even given all those storm clouds that seem to be gathering overhead.
1. Milwaukee Bucks
Like Phoenix, I feel a little queasy putting the Bucks up at the top of the list, given the metric ton of stuff floating up in the air and hanging over the heads of everyone involved.
There’s the free agency of Brook Lopez, fresh off his best season in ages as a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate and third offensive option, but also now 35 with more than 1,000 games and 31,000 minutes on his NBA odometer. There’s Khris Middleton’s $40.4 million player option — and, if the three-time All-Star opts out to enter the open market, the question of just how far the Bucks should be willing to go for an about-to-be-32-year-old who missed 49 games this season and rarely looked like his customary excellent two-way self. There’s Jrue Holiday, nearly 33 and a year away from his own player option, who capped a season that merited All-NBA consideration by shooting 40% from the field and 28.6% from 3-point range while also getting summarily annihilated by Jimmy Butler in the first-round debacle against Miami.
There’s the ownership shake-up, with Marc Lasry selling his 25% stake in the team to Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, and questions about how willing new governor Wes Edens and the rest of the group will be to foot monster repeater tax bills to keep this aging core together. There’s also the small matter of how the Bucks — whose ghastly record in the draft for most of the past decade has resulted in precious little playable depth on the roster — can refill the rotation using only minimum deals and salary cap exceptions (at least until they pass the second apron, and start losing those, too). Milwaukee can’t trade a first until 2029, and only have a couple of seconds to trade after forking over five for Jae Crowder in a deal that, like, really didn’t work.
And yet: The Bucks own the best record in the NBA over the past five years and were the best team in the NBA this year before things went haywire against the Heat, for one major reason: They’ve got Giannis Antetokounmpo, and nobody else on this list does.
That’s true for at least the next two years. Longer, if Milwaukee can get him to put ink to paper on another extension this summer, though that might be unlikely until Antetokounmpo gets a better sense of the lay of the land post-Mike Budenholzer. And that, I think, represents a better starting point for contention than Embiid, the still-in-larva-stage Booker/Durant partnership, any of the other teams on this list and just about anybody else in the league.
How Jon Horst and the Bucks’ front office maneuvers around Giannis will go a long way toward determining just how attractive this job winds up being. If I’m choosing from a bunch of imperfect options, though, I might just decide to take the one with a couple of guaranteed years of the in-his-prime two-time MVP, and let the rest sort itself out.