Right now, there are seven open head coaching jobs in the NBA. The Celtics, Mavericks, Magic, Pacers, Pelicans, Trail Blazers, and Wizards all need to figure out who will captain their respective ships in the coming days and weeks.
Every coaching job is hard. Each has its own quirks, its unexpected pitfalls, and unknown benefits that can be hard to parse from the outside. Some (Boston, Dallas, New Orleans) probably come with more immediate expectations than a job with a rebuilding team like Orlando. That means different coaches might be better fit for one type of job vs. another.
Still, some of these jobs are clearly better than the others and, if the ultimate goal is to win games and be employed for a long time, offer more than others. A possible eighth job — the Bucks job, which could become open if Mike Budenholzer if fired — might even be the best of the bunch. At the very least, it’s a top-two job, so keep that in mind in reading these rankings.
No. 7: Washington Wizards
The Wizards job as it currently exists has real downside and not much upside. Taking the job as it is now means getting to coach Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, but is that pairing going to lead the team in the long-term? Probably not. Westbrook has had injury issues and is probably past his overall peak. Beal is signed for two more years at age 27, but could test free agency or get dealt before then if things break the wrong way. If it all breaks down quickly, the coach is an easy fall guy with the best case scenario being the seventh or eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
No. 6: Portland Trail Blazers
Portland is similar to Washington in that there are clear downsides. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have been a long-standing productive duo, but the roster is largely maxed out for what it is now. Maybe McCollum gets dealt, but if that yields a Kevin Love or Kristaps Porzingis, is that really changing the team’s upside? Plus, Terry Stotts also did as good a job as possible in his tenure.
There’s also a longevity question here. General manager Neil Olshey is heading into the last year of his contract and might be a lame duck general manager, and on top of that, has insisted that the roster wasn’t the issue in this year’s first round exit. If that’s true, and a tear down of some kind happens, what is going to stop the new front office lead from just bringing in their own coach? There are coaches who could probably survive a regime change — Rick Carlisle and David Vanterpool, a former Blazers assistant beloved by Lillard, come to mind — but not many. There’s upside and a possible plucky playoff run to be had here behind a special talent by Lillard, but there are also a number of ways this could go wrong in a hurry.
No. 5: Orlando Magic
The Magic’s roster is lacking. Injury concerns for Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac put a real damper on the young core. Mo Bamba looks like a missed Lottery pick. In a post-Steve Clifford world, this team is really starting from zero.
But that also allows a coach to grow with the roster as its built — think Brett Brown in Philadelphia during the Sam Hinkie era. He took a lot of losses, but got a chance to coach the team when it got to where it was always ended to go. It’s the path the Thunder appear to be going with Mark Daigneault as head coach, too. It’s not the right fit for every coach, but could be a good fit for the right coach willing to operate by the “wins and lessons” mantra.
No. 4: Indiana Pacers
The Pacers are a play for the middle. It’s a franchise that, perhaps to its own fault, never really goes for it fully and hasn’t made a really deep playoff run in a long time. The roster is tricky too — it’s been built around the Domantas Sabonis-Myles Turner frontcourt, but it might not be for much longer. Maybe they’ll get lucky in the Lottery this year and get a chance to shake things up.
But there also feels like potential to make this job lasts. Nate Bjorkgren only made it a year, but that feels to be more about Bjorkgren than it does the Pacers, even if they have some fault on their end too. If the right coach comes in – which might be Carlisle, who coached in Indiana before — they could make this a team that is competitive year in and year out, but needs luck to take a bigger step, which is a very Pacers position to be in.
No.3: New Orleans Pelicans
Is the Pelicans job too low on this list because it isn’t valuing Zion Williamson’s star potential enough? Perhaps. Is it too high because of the expectations that seem to be in place? Also, perhaps. Alongside Zion, Brandon Ingram has also developed in a very good scoring wing with a little bit of playmaking juice and having two players who can carry an offense, even if the fit is clunky, is a great place to start from.
But the rest of the roster is just shaky at the moment. Is Lonzo Ball, a pending restricted free agent, part of the future? Josh Hart is a restricted free agent, too, and rumors indicate he wants a fresh start elsewhere. What about the somewhat dead weight deals of Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe — is it possible to coach around those contracts? There’s immediate pressure to win here in the far better conference and it’s not entirely clear if the rest of the roster is ready to go where Zion is capable of going. Last year, by net rating, this was the the 18th-best team in the league and not significantly behind the ninth and 10th-seeded Warriors and Grizzlies.
But coaching Zion, and being the coach to get Zion to the next level, is a really enticing job. Someone should want to jump at it.
No. 2: Dallas Mavericks
There is definitely downside to the Mavericks job. There’s a new front office coming in. Mark Cuban is a meddlesome owner who is involved in every decision. Outside of Luka Doncic — who is the absolute reason to take this job and not think twice about it — the roster is underwhelming. Maybe there’s a coach who can help revitalize Kristaps Porzingis, but there’s so much work to do there, particularly in making his relationship with Doncic work. And notably, Tim Hardaway Jr. — arguably the team’s second or third-best player this year — is headed into free agency.
But this is a chance to coach Doncic as he heads towards his prime. Having a player of that caliber is the hardest part of any roster building, and even if the pressure is on to win, it’s a lot easier when Doncic has proven he can hang with the league’s best.
No. 1: Boston Celtics
There are tough aspects of the Celtics job. Is Brad Stevens going to be a good president of basketball operations? Who knows! Can the roster be meaningfully improved? It’s hard to see how that happens if Marcus Smart is the big trade piece on the last year of his deal, and while Kemba Walker getting traded for Al Horford helps the frontcourt, the team now lacks a point guard, plus you can argue pretty easily that Walker is better than Horford. Missing on a slew of late first-round picks is rearing its head now, too, as the roster looks thin for a team that has hopes of making a deep playoff push.
But the Celtics also have Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. In those two, they have a pair of All-Star caliber wings to build around. That’s arguably a better starting spot than any other team currently looking for a coach and second only to the Bucks if that job opens up. Tatum alone is worth getting exited about, as he’s among the best young building blocks in the league and there’s a lot reason to believe he’ll still get better. For starter, he struggled for some time due to the after effects of COVID-19 this year, but looked to be back to his normal self in the play-in and playoffs, scoring 50 twice. The right coach could take Tatum and push him and this Celtics team to a whole other level.