NBA Coach Hot Seat Watch: Will Saunders firing begin a cascade?

Ryan Saunders has been the odds-on favorite to be the first NBA coach fired for some time now, and the shoe dropped on Sunday night after his Minnesota Timberwolves lost 103-99 to the New York Knicks.

Thus began the unofficial NBA Coach Hot Seat season, where a handful of coaches are known to be at risk to be dismissed at any time, and more coaches than you might think are sitting hot. In the NBA, a coach is hired to be fired, and sometimes one coach getting fired seems to cause all the other general managers to experience the same itchy trigger finger.

Will Ryan Saunders’ firing begin a cascade of fired NBA head coaches?

We needn’t look too far back to see an example of this phenomenon. Last season the New York Knicks fired David Fizdale early in the season, and the second firing didn’t come until the Brooklyn Nets relieved Kenny Atkinson of his duties in a surprise move in March.

Less than two weeks later, the NBA season was suspended, and the assumption was that in our new COVID reality, owners would probably want to save some money and avoid having multiple coaches on payroll. Surely teams would circle the wagon and not hold disappointing NBA bubble performances against their coaches.

In fact, it even appeared that the pandemic and its fallout would lead at least one team, the Indiana Pacers, to tepidly endorse their coach, Nate McMillan, with a short one-year extension.

Well, never underestimate an NBA team’s ability or willingness to fire its coach, because we had a real bloodbath on our hands in the bubble, and it started with McMillan.

After the Pacers were swept out of the playoffs by the Miami Heat (who would go on to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals), McMillan was swiftly fired. Then Brett Brown was fired after the Philadelphia 76ers disappointed and were swept by the Boston Celtics. The New Orleans Pelicans fired Alvin Gentry, the Chicago Bulls (a non-bubble team) fired Jim Boylen, and after blowing a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets, the LA Clippers fired Doc Rivers.

The OKC Thunder and Billy Donovan mutually parted ways after the Thunder decided it was time to rebuild, and Mike D’Antoni’s contract with the Houston Rockets expired and he simply went on his way to his next job, assisting Steve Nash with the Brooklyn Nets.

Last season there were some clear candidates to get the boot. Boylen was a dead man walking after the Bulls hired Arturis Karnisovas to run the front office, and it seemed like Gentry was on his last legs for some time before the final blow came. This season is less clear, largely because roughly one-quarter of the NBA’s teams have new coaches.

All that means is that there are roughly 20 coaches either on notice or about to be, if not sooner then certainly later.

This doesn’t appear to be a cascade-beginning firing, but Nate McMillan’s firing didn’t look like one that would start the torrent this past summer either.