In one of the most unpredictable seasons in NBA history, we are all finally about to experience some normalcy — or rather, the normal unpredictability. With one game gone in the finals, the offseason is finally near, a time to rest, relax, and revel in the endless possibilities of next season. It’s also a time to get your affairs in order for the NBA’s 30 franchises. Without the nearly daily grind of games, front offices finally have a chance to breath and review: what worked well, what did not, and who is going to get blamed. Last offseason there were four clubs looking for new head coaches. This season the number is more than double that. Nine teams: the Brooklyn Nets, the Chicago Bulls, the Houston Rockets, the Indiana Pacers, the Los Angeles Clippers, the New Orleans Pelicans, the New York Knicks, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Philadelphia 76ers have all hired a coach this offseason, or currently have a vacancy. As nearly a third of the league, from the contenders to the cellar dwellers, these teams represent a diversity of likelihoods of winning it all. So, without further ado, this season’s job openings, from the contenders, to the pretenders, to the New York Knicks.
These teams are the real deal, at least in their expectations. Making the playoffs is not enough, they need to secure a high seed and make a deep run into the playoffs. Moreover, both the teams in this tier have the resources to pull this off.
The first thing that comes to mind with the Rockets is top-heavy. The team can boast two former MVPs in James Harden and Russell Westbrook, but they lack a third star, and have a thinner bench than some of the other contenders in the Western Conference. There are plenty of reasons to expect success for the next coach of the Rockets. The organization is among the best in the NBA. Daryl Morey is at the top of his field as a General Manager and has built up the analytics department to be among the best in the league. The Rockets also have deep pockets, and the Front Office will be aggressive about making moves in the upcoming year.
However, there are reasonable questions as to how the roster will transition to a new coach’s playstyle. The center rotation is currently 38-year-old Tyson Chandler, 6’7” Robert Covington, and 6’5” PJ Tucker. The team was constructed for Mike D’Antoni to execute a spread-out offense, emphasizing isolations and pick-and-rolls for Harden and Westbrook. The next coach of this team may be forced to embrace an offense scheme that they are not comfortable coaching.
If the NBA Finals were awarded based solely on talent on paper, the Los Angeles Clippers would be practically unbeatable. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are two of the best two-way wings in the league, and Kawhi Leonard is coming off a season in which he averaged a career high 5 assists. Teammates Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrel were both finalists for the Sixth Man of the Year Award.
Their bench is deep and talented but coming off an extremely disappointing second round exit there are major questions. They lack elite playmaking; the top three assist getters, Leonard, George, and Williams all play better next to a true point guard. The point guard rotation is a weak spot, as neither Patrick Beverly nor Reggie Jackson have championship pedigree. This team also has a short timeline, as both Leonard and George can opt out after next season. Whoever fills this position next year is probably looking at a very hot seat, and personally, I would not be surprised if they fired another coach before the end of next season.
These teams have expectations of success, and at least some level of talent to try and meet those expectations. They can feel confident about making the playoffs but are not the top contenders in their conference. Even so, there are reasons to think that any of these teams have the potential to make a deep run next season.
The Nets are as talented as any team on this list, but behind Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, they lack postseason experience, and have yet to prove they can win 50 games in a season. In the same vein, Steve Nash, the newly hired head coach, undoubtedly has talent. A top 10 point guard all time, and the greatest Canadian basketball player of all time, he is also a rookie head coach. The Nets have invested significantly in the rest of their coaching staff, returning interim head coach Jacque Vaughn as the highest paid assistant coach in the league. Along with Vaughn, the General Manager, Sean Marks, is among the best in the league at his position.
This organization is stable and well run, but there are constant questions about the stability of the roster. It has rolled over significantly in the last few years, and the Nets could look to move young pieces for an established third star during the upcoming season. In addition, both of the Nets’ top two players have reputations of regularly being adjacent to locker room turmoil.
Since their establishment in the NBA in 1976 the Pacers have always been a name to mention. They have never won an NBA Finals, despite winning 9 division titles and routinely making the playoffs. The next head coach of this squad will be expected to help the team make the next step, from competitive to contender. Most of the best players on the roster are entering their prime years, including centers Domantas Sabonis (age 24) and Myles Turner (age 24), forwards TJ Warren (age 26) and Victor Oladipo (age 27) and guards Malcom Brogdon (age 27), TJ McConnell (age 27), and Jeremy Lamb (age 27).
The talent on this team is real and deep, spread through both the front court and the back court, and on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. The Pacers are rumored to be interested in Mike D’Antoni, one of the best offensive minds in the league. A new system matched with the talent on the team could be a dangerous combination for the rest of the league.
It is not all peaches and cream for the Pacers though. This team lacks top level talent and Oladipo has missed big stretches of the last two seasons with different injuries. Whoever is hired as the next coach will need to get as much as they can out of every player on the roster to make up for their lack of a top 15 player.
The 76ers had the most disappointing last season of any team on this list. They came into the season with serious expectations of challenging for a championship and ended up being swept in the first round by the Celtics. The talent is apparent on this roster, but the fit is among the most questionable in the NBA. The roster is constructed around defense and boasts one of the tallest starting fives in the league. This scheme works on defense but is the cause of their half court struggles on offense. The team lacks spacing, and the packed court means that point forward Ben Simmons’ shooting limitations are exposed. The 76ers lack elite shot creators outside of Simmons, and they relied heavily on rookies Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton last season for shot creating and making.
The next coach that the 76ers hire will be their first post-The Process coach, after five years with Brett Brown. The team has also appointed a new General Manager in the last year, so there is a sense that this could be a turning point for the franchise. There are high expectations in Philadelphia, and a murky roster fit could mean that the 76ers also fire another coach before the year is out.
These are the bubble teams. Talented enough to make the playoffs, but enough problems to miss it (or if you are the Thunder, pivot to a full rebuild). These teams either have a longer timeline than the teams above them, or a vaguer one.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are one of the most unique teams on this list and are in a uniquely crucial moment. Vegas predicted the team to win 31 games last season; they ended up finishing 44-28 in the shortened season, good for fifth in the conference. Behind a resurgent Chris Paul, the Thunder got major contributions from veterans Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, and Dennis Schroder. Young players such as Canadians Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort exceeded expectations, and the Thunder pushed the Houston Rockets to seven games in the first round of the playoffs. The organization is considered among the most professional in the league, and General Manager Sam Presti is among the best in his position.
However, the team reportedly tried to retain head coach Billy Donovan for at least one more season, and he refused their offer to become the coach of the Chicago Bulls. If the Thunder keep the team roster stable, there is no guarantee that they can achieve the same success next year. The veterans of the team will be another year older, and young players usually do not get consistently better every year. The Thunder are sitting on a massive haul of draft picks (15 picks and four swaps from 2020 to 2026), and could pivot to a full rebuild, if not for the difficulty of moving Paul and Gallinari’s large, multi-year contracts. Whichever direction the new coach and the front office choose to head, the Thunder have a bright future, a couple years down the line.
Since Michael Jordan’s second retirement in 1999, the Chicago Bulls have been in purgatory. With a front office that was considered among the most corrupt and mismanaged, and an owner that often seemed more interested in making money than winning, the last 20 years have been bleak. Even Derrick Rose’s electric rookie season, and MVP campaign only two years later, seemed to get sucked into the morass. After three years of debilitating knee injuries, his career was never the same.
But this team has a chance to make all of those dark memories disappear. Owner Jerry Reisendorf has committed to new management in the front office, and the pool of talent Chicago has continued to quietly gather is ready to peak. The team is unproven, but it has a deep rotation of guards led by the electric Zach Levine, and another potential All Star in power forward Lauri Markkanen. Young center Wendell Carter Jr. has flashed excellent potential, and new coach Billy Donovan started his career molding young talent at the University of Florida. But this roster has a history of discontent with previous coaches, both of whom tried to install a college like culture. This team has the potential to make the playoffs but given the last 20 years, if this team underperforms, it could get dark.
New Orleans Pelicans
At the beginning of last season, the Pelicans were tipped as a dark horse candidate to make the playoffs. A year later there are no playoffs, and more questions than answers. Veterans like Jrue Holiday and Derrick Favors who were supposed to step up either regressed or were stagnant. Some of the young talent on the team seems like the real deal. Brandon Ingram made the leap to All-star, and Josh Hart cemented a place in the rotation. But a lot of the potential on this team remains just that, potential. Lonzo Ball failed to prove his college shooting numbers were sustainable over a full season, and blue-chip prospects Jaxson Hayes and Canadian Nickeil Alexander-Walker still need time to mature.
Historically the Pelicans have played second fiddle to the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, who are owned by the same group. The front office has a mediocre reputation around the league, and it remains to be seen if they will make the right moves to take this team to the next level, including who they hire as the next head coach.
The New York Knicks
Unfortunately for the New York Knicks, they are alone down in their own tier. There are few teams as bereft of talent as the Knicks. There are even fewer teams that have as awkward a fit in terms of roster construction. The roster lacks spacing, creativity, and defense. Kevin Knox, the ninth pick of the 2018 draft looks more like a bust than a building block. RJ Barrett, the third overall pick in the 2019 draft (second highest draft position for a Canadian Player) struggled in his rookie season. He shouldered more offensive responsibility compared to his lone season as Duke, and his shooting numbers dipped significantly. Barrett has All-Star potential but needs more help than the current roster provides.
The Knicks are one of the most mismanaged teams in the current NBA season. Coupled with the pressure and expectations of playing in the NBA’s largest media market, the upcoming season will be challenging for new head coach Tom Thibideau. Looking towards the future, the Knicks have as much cap space as any team in the NBA, and a potential centerpiece in RJ. If Thibideau can win a championship in Madison Square Garden, he will be remembered in New York forever.