The NBA’s coaching carousel is usually a pretty tame affair. A few teams at the bottom of the standings shuffle out a first-time failure for the new hot assistant. Maybe one contender makes a change after years of sputtering. But typically, the best coaches stay put, and the overall coaching landscape remains largely unchanged.
But the all-in era of NBA roster-building has finally reached a head on the coaching front. Only one team can actually win the championship, and the heavily leveraged teams that don’t suddenly need scapegoats. Therefore, three of the past four coaches to win championships (Nick Nurse, Mike Budenholzer and Frank Vogel) are suddenly available. So is 2008 champion Doc Rivers. His former assistant, 2016 champion Ty Lue, has been featured heavily in the rumor mill. Ime Udoka, a finalist last season, has already landed in Houston.
Suddenly, some of the best jobs in basketball are available, and all of them have multiple champions to choose from. So how is the coaching carousel going to shake out? Here are our predictions for the five current openings.
The early reporting suggests that Philadelphia plans to go big-game hunting with its hire. It makes sense. If the 76ers plan to keep James Harden, they won’t have time to break in a first-time coach. They want a proven winner, and Nurse is the obvious fit among available coaches.
Nurse made his name in the coaching world as the head coach of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, winning the second of his two G-League championships there. Who are the Vipers an affiliate of? The Houston Rockets. Who used to run the Rockets? Daryl Morey. The Rockets used to use the Vipers as a sort of strategic laboratory, and Nurse, one of the most creative coaches in basketball, was more than happy to participate in their experiments. The Vipers took 145 more 3-pointers than any other G-League team during the 2012-13 season on their way to a 35-15 record and a championship.
The 76ers hired Rivers before they hired Morey in 2020. While Morey has employed old-school coaches in the past and has emphasized the intangible elements of coaching publicly, it’s worth noting that his last coaching hire, Mike D’Antoni, was someone who shared his on-court philosophy. Nurse is cut from the same cloth, but with a far stronger defensive track record than D’Antoni. Expect Philadelphia to pursue Nurse aggressively.
The Bucks already have a championship infrastructure. No coach is going to make wholesale changes to the way they play unless the roster changes significantly between now and opening night. What the Bucks are looking for is someone who can make a few tweaks: bring a different energy into the building and adjust their half-court offense with the players they already have in-house.
Williams designed a lethal pick-and-roll attack in Phoenix. The Bucks know that well. It almost beat them in the 2021 Finals. He’s a largely beloved figure around the league and among players (Deandre Ayton notwithstanding), so he’d have instant credibility joining a readymade winner. He’s exactly the sort of coach this Bucks team needs.
That’s right, the 2021 finalists are essentially swapping coaches in this scenario. Ironically, both of them need the things that the other team did well. While Milwaukee needed a half-court designer, the Suns need an overarching structure. Phoenix took 7.3 more mid-range shots per game in the postseason than any other team. They need a coach who can come in and emphasize high-value shots while instituting a high-floor defensive scheme to take advantage of their limited depth.
That is Mike Budenholzer to a tee. His Bucks were almost always among the league-leaders in 3-pointers and rim shots while deterring those same looks with their drop-coverage defense. That is the kind of defense the Suns are going to have to play next season considering how many assets they’ve devoted to Kevin Durant. They can’t expect to add the sort of personnel needed to switch consistently, so a low-risk scheme that only needs reliable rim-protection (which Ayton can provide if he remains on the team) is preferable. Durant and Booker can take care of the late-game shot-creation load themselves. The Suns need a coach who can keep games close until that point. Budenholzer is perfectly suited for that role.
The Raptors tried to hire Budenholzer in 2018. They came just short, as Budenholzer chose the Bucks. That miss turned out just fine, though, as Nick Nurse won them a championship in his first season. The Raptors will likely consider Budenholzer again, but given the superior rosters he could have to choose from, they’re likely to be a runner-up on that front again.
Toronto has considered a number of creative alternatives to the traditional candidates on the market. They interviewed ESPN analyst JJ Redick, for example, as well as Spanish National Team coach Sergio Scariolo. But their last hire worked out so well that the same path has to hold some appeal to the Raptors. Just as Nurse had emerged as the future head coach on Dwayne Casey’s staff, Griffin has become a popular head-coaching candidate under Nurse. Highly regarded by players and now a veteran of five different coaching staffs, Griffin has earned the chance to lead his own franchise.
The lottery was a letdown for Detroit on several levels. They didn’t just lose Victor Wembanyama by slipping from No. 1 to No. 5. They also may have lost their chance to hire the best coaches on the market. Monty Williams, for example, was an obvious candidate in Detroit. He worked with general manager Troy Weaver in Oklahoma City and has a track record of turning a young lottery team into a quick winner. But without Wembanyama, the Pistons just don’t have an attractive enough roster to sway a coach of his caliber.
That leaves them with their three original finalists: Bucks assistant Charles Lee, Pelicans assistant Jarron Collins and former UConn coach Kevin Ollie. Any of the three would be a viable pick here, but Ollie seems to be the front-runner at the moment. He checks a number of boxes for Detroit. Like Williams, he overlapped with Weaver in Oklahoma City. He won a championship at the college level with UConn, but he’s emphasized player-development in his role as the coach of Overtime Elite over the past two seasons. The Pistons have taken their time on this hire, but right now, Ollie appears to have a slight lead.