The Minnesota Timberwolves became the first team to make an in-season coaching change as they fired head coach Ryan Saunders on Sunday night — a move that wasn’t exactly unpredictable. In less than two seasons after replacing a fired Tom Thibodeau in 2019, Saunders has compiled a 43-94 record with a Wolves team that has severely underperformed with Karl-Anthony Towns as its centerpiece.
With Minnesota moving on — it hired Raptors assistant Chris Finch to replace Saunders — and hoping that an offensive-minded head coach can finally make it a competitive team moving forward, we thought it would be a good time to survey the coaching landscape around the league and look at some other coaches who may be on their way out in the near future.
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Similar to Saunders, Walton is another coach who would not be surprising in the slightest if the Kings announced one of these days that they were letting him go. Walton started his coaching career in the league as an assistant on the Warriors bench and was elevated to interim head coach at the start of the 2015-16 season while Steve Kerr dealt with back surgery. Walton led that Warriors team to a 39-4 start, and was praised so much that he landed the Lakers‘ head-coaching gig following that season. After three seasons in Los Angeles, where he amassed just a 98-148 record, the Kings decided that Walton would fit as their next coach after firing Dave Joerger.
In one-and-a-half seasons with the Kings, Walton has gone 43-59, and there has already been turmoil between him and players on the team. Walton and Buddy Hield have gotten into several verbal altercations during games, and before this season started, Hield was reportedly not returning phone calls from the head coach.
Aside from that, though, the Kings just hired a new general manager after Vlade Divac resigned in August, and newcomer Monte McNair may decide to hire his own coach instead of sticking with one who was hired by the old regime. On the somewhat positive side, however, Walton does have the Kings playing well on offense, with the 11th-best offensive rating in the league (112.4). Still, the Kings are currently on a seven-game losing streak and employ the worst defense in the league. It’s only Year 2 on Walton’s four-year deal, but owner Vivek Ranadive has been known to cycle through coaches at a rapid pace.
The Wizards are just in a strange place this season, and what once looked like a year in which this team could contend for the playoffs, a swift trade to send John Wall to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Russell Westbrook quickly changed everything with this organization. However, Westbrook is a former league MVP and a multiple time All-Star, so there was still hope that Washington could make something of this season. Bradley Beal is having a career year, but it’s not amounting to more wins. Unfortunately, the Wizards are just about as bad as they were a season ago, and Washington may decide a change in head coach is needed.
It also doesn’t help that Brooks has gone 159-186 in five seasons with Washington, with wins coming few and far between in the past few years. Since winning 49 games in Brooks’ first season as head coach in Washington, which resulted in a second-round playoff appearance in 2017, the Wizards have won fewer games with each passing season. Some of that isn’t Brooks’ fault; he’s had to make something of a roster without John Wall for the past two seasons, but he’s in the final year of his contract and it may just be easier to not re-up a new deal.
There was already reported concern about the relationship between Pierce and franchise centerpiece Trae Young last season, from Young contradicting his coach’s comments in the media, to looking visibly disinterested in huddles as Pierce drew up plays. It’s also been reported that players on the Hawks reportedly take issue with Pierce’s “perceived lack of accountability in the media,” as he often points to the team for having no energy or “didn’t compete” when they’ve lost games in the past. Back in January when Young and John Collins’ relationship hit a rift, it was also reported that Pierce has “significant pressure” from the front office to lead this team to the playoffs this season.
The offseason acquisitions that Atlanta made in order to position itself as a playoff team certainly are the reason for that perceived pressure, but so far the Hawks are 13-17 and have gone 3-7 in their last 10 games. In Pierce’s three seasons with Atlanta, he’s gone 62-117 with no playoff appearances. When he was hired, he was supposed to lead the Hawks out of a rebuild with Young, and prior to this season stacking up loses was the only thing this team was “building.” There were lofty expectations heading into this season, and to be fair, Atlanta has dealt with significant injuries to its newcomers as Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kris Dunn, Rajon Rondo and Danilo Gallinari have all missed chunks of time this season, in addition to second-year forward De’Andre Hunter who was averaging 17.2 points before suffering a knee injury.
While injuries certainly are at no fault to Pierce, if the relationship between him and his players has already created small issues in the past, the Hawks may decide to bring someone new in to lead this team to the playoffs. He’s in Year 3 of a four-year deal that includes a team option for that fourth year, and securing that final year of his contract may hinge on making the playoffs. There’s still plenty of time for the Hawks to accomplish that, especially as the team gets healthier, but the pressure is on for Pierce and the Hawks for the remainder of the season.
The first three coaches on this list haven’t created winning atmospheres on their respective teams and have had minimal success in their current position, so it may be confusing to see Budenholzer on this list. While he’s led the Bucks to the best regular-season record in the league and two Eastern Conference semifinals appearances in each of his first two seasons in Milwaukee, this team has far greater expectations than just making it to the second round.
Budenholzer’s reputation for being a great regular-season coach and floundering in the postseason followed him from Atlanta to Milwaukee, and after losing to the Miami Heat in just five games last postseason, his seat got a lot hotter entering this year. 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 the third strike is the final straw.
The Bucks have already secured Giannis Antetokounmpo for the next several years, and now they need to figure out if Budenholzer is the coach that can get this team over the hump. It’s similar to the situation in Golden State, where Mark Jackson couldn’t actualize the success of this team, but swapping in Steve Kerr led to a championship in his first season, and two more over the following three years. Although Budenholzer established an identity and foundation for this team, it may take another coach coming in to get this team to the Finals and actually playing for a championship.