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Shaun Powell

Paul Westphal
Ownership has said Paul Westphal's job is safe in Sacramento. Now what?
P.A. Molumby/NBAE via Getty Images

As season wears on, some coaches already feeling the heat


Posted Dec 28 2010 10:11AM

This has actually been a good two months for NBA coaches. Only one left his job, and nobody was released on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

Of course, there's the potential for doom, which makes this like any other season for the profession. Such is life for coaches, who don't necessarily have to win a lot of games to keep their job, just enough to satisfy the expectations of ownership and management and, to an extent, the fandom.

Which means a guy like Byron Scott is safe because everyone knew the Cavaliers would struggle without LeBron James. Besides, this is Scott's first season.

But Paul Westphal in Sacramento? Flip Saunders in Washington? Those teams, bringing up the rear in each conference, should be better than this.

Larry Brown beat everyone to the door with a mutual decision to leave the Bobcats. Those doors will open and close a few more times between now and next summer all over the league.

Here's a look at those coaches most likely to deal with job security issues:

Flip Saunders, Wizards

When he arrived two years ago, the Wizards were built to win. Then, stuff happened, and now the Wiz are in total rebuilding mode. Does that mean Saunders is now a poor fit? Sure looks that way at the moment. This season was supposed to be one where the Wizards would show growth and maybe challenge for one of the final playoff spots in a relatively weak conference. Instead, they're fighting each other outside of nightclubs and sweeping the basement of the East. It hasn't helped that John Wall has missed a handful of games. Saunders, to his credit, is giving Nick Young a chance. But Saunders isn't getting through to oddball Andray Blatche, who signed a long-term deal before the season, while JaVale McGee, Blatche's sparring partner, still looks raw after a promising summer.

John Kuester, Pistons

Everything in Detroit is on hold until the next owner arrives. When that happens, nobody is safe. Not Joe Dumars, the GM, or Kuester, the Pistons' embattled coach who must deal with a disastrous locker room situation. Half the players don't want to be in Detroit, and you might say Detroit doesn't want the other half. It all adds to up what you're seeing now, a team that puts up a fight only once or twice a week, in a building that's half-full and half-alive.

Jim O'Brien, Pacers

Tough job for O'Brien, who essentially is stuck in a holding pattern until the Pacers dump their remaining bad contracts, which happens next summer. Of course, the question then becomes whether O'Brien is the right guy for the new (and improved?) team. It's all up to GM Larry Bird, whose own future is questionable beyond this season.

Jay Triano, Raptors

This is one of the five most difficult coaching spots in the league, only because the truly great players don't want to play in Canada. Toronto couldn't even keep Chris Bosh. The Raptors' only options, then, are to get lucky in the Draft or import some foreign players whose view of Canada is the exact opposite of that held by most American players. If the Raptors grab the final playoff spot in the East, then Triano is safe. If they don't, then look at the bright side: They're positioned to get lucky in the lottery.

Paul Westphal, Kings

The Maloofs came forward to declare Westphal safe for the season, and wisely refused to give any guarantees for the day after the season. Good thing, because Westphal, an old school guy, is having his hands full with the new blood, especially immature rookie DeMarcus Cousins. But you saw that coming. The Kings haven't shown any improvement, and important core players such as Tyreke Evans, Carl Landry and Omri Casspi have all taken steps backward to different degrees. Sadly, ever since Rick Adelman was the picture of stability in Sacramento (eight years), the Kings have had four coaches in five years and seem to be on the verge of another search. That sounds very Donald Sterling-like of the Maloofs.

Vinny Del Negro, Clippers

Speaking of Sterling, would you be surprised if Del Negro was zapped after one season? Even after the Clippers have started showing a pulse? Of course not. Del Negro may have come cheap, but that never stopped the Clippers from making a change. Del Negro is trying to light a fire under Baron Davis and develop a system that would make the Clippers better under Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin, a pair of terrific young players. Lots of NBA folks were taken aback by Del Negro's hiring, considering he wasn't exactly a hot prospect in the wake of his ouster in Chicago. But when did the Clippers ever go by the book? Sterling has always had the hots for Larry Brown, and if losing hasn't given Sterling enough reasons to make a move, he now has one more.

Nate McMillan, Blazers

Of all the coaches under the gun, he's clearly the best. So why, you ask, is McMillan's ouster almost certain? Well, some strange stuff has happened in Portland lately, and the heartless firing of former GM Kevin Pritchard on Draft day was particularly bloody. The Blazers, once considered an up-and-coming contender, are an internal mess, with all the injuries and bloated contracts and simmering unhappiness in the locker room. McMillan has been on the bench five years without going past the first round of the playoffs. Owner Paul Allen never makes his feelings known to the public, but can't be thrilled at what he's seeing from his seat under the basket. Oh, and just a question, but you think McMillan might want a change of scenery himself?

Kurt Rambis, Timberwolves

The word in Minnesota is Rambis is actually gaining power in the organization, not losing . If true, then what a strange development for a coach who might be working on a second-straight 60-plus losing season. The issue for Glen Taylor, the owner, is whether the Timberwolves' lousy state is due to Rambis' coaching and the triangle offense, or GM David Kahn's personnel work. Or both. Whatever, something must be done to convince Kevin Love that it's worth staying in Minnesota beyond his contract in two years.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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