There’s three weeks left in the NBA regular season, then the play-in tournament from April 12-15, and the playoffs begin on April 16. It will be tense times for general managers and coaches around the league. A poor performance, and some of these guys could be looking for new jobs by the summer.
Eight of the NBA’s Black head coaches look like they will have their teams in the play-in or playoffs. Of course, that comes with varying degrees of pressure.
Which of these eight men is under the most pressure?
Doc Rivers, Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers are currently the three seed. They have an MVP candidate in Joel Embiid and president of basketball operations pulled off a midseason trade to acquire James Harden from the Brooklyn Nets.
Last season, they entered the playoffs as the one seed and flamed out in the conference semifinals to the Atlanta Hawks. Ben Simmons was seen as the culprit in that loss and he was dealt away for Harden.
It’s only his second year but with Embiid and Harden Sixers’ ownership and front office, expect Doc to take this team to the conference finals at least, if not NBA Finals.
Pressure level: High
Nate McMillan, Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks are in 10th place in the East and likely a play-in team. That’s quite the fall from last season when they entered the playoffs as the four seed and advanced to the conference finals. Coach Nate McMillan didn’t forget how to coach all of a sudden, but the team started the season with poor energy.
Team leader Trae Young said it was hard to find “motivation” to play in the regular season after their conference finals run. That energy set the tone for a disappointing season.
Trae Young on the difficulty of sacrificing early in the season: "I think guys are learning that. We're no longer the hunters. It's regular season. I'm not going to lie, it's a lot more boring than the playoffs. You got to find that motivation to play like the playoffs."
— Chris Kirschner (@ChrisKirschner) November 5, 2021
General manager Travis Schlenk came out and said that maybe it was a bad idea to bring the entire team back this season. You never hear GMs making those kinds of statements unprompted.
It was just reported on Wednesday that forward John Collins will be out indefinitely. While that will hurt the team’s chances of advancing beyond the play-in, it will turn down some of the heat on McMillan.
Pressure level: Low to moderate
Ime Udoka, Boston Celtics
After a slow start to the season, first-year head coach Ime Udoka has the Boston Celtics rolling. They are the number-one ranked defense in the league and are fourth in the East, only two games out of second place.
FiveThirtyEight has the Celtics as the best odds of winning the NBA title. It’s not all smooth sailing for Udoka the rest of the way. If the Celtics flame out early and/or lose badly to a lower seed, questions will arise.
But he’s done an excellent job in his first year.
Pressure level: None to low
J.B. Bickerstaff, Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers O/U win total at the beginning of the season was 26.5. They are 39-30 and sixth in the East.
Though they’ve struggled of late, this team has far exceeded expectations this season. Thanks to Bickerstaff and the play of Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley.
They are dealing with injuries and might fall out of the top six. Even so this is the definition of playing with house money.
Pressure level: None
Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns
The best team in the NBA all season. From start to finish, they have been on a mission to prove that last season’s run to the NBA Finals was no fluke.
Before the season began, the team did not offer a rookie extension to Deandre Ayton. A scathing report was released early in the season about team governor Robert Sarver and the racist and sexist work environment he created in Phoenix.
Either of those incidents could have derailed the team. But they have blocked it all out and are on pace to win 63 games and be the overall number-one seed. That’s a testament to the players and the leadership of Williams.
If they fall short of winning the title people will have questions, but you can’t back up a trip to the finals with an excellent regular season and have any serious doubts about his ability.
Pressure level: Low
Jason Kidd, Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks have the sixth-ranked defense in the league and are tied for fourth in the Western conference. In his first year in Dallas Kidd has implemented a new defensive identity and the team has bought in.
Luka Doncic has been playing like an MVP since the calendar turned to 2022. A team that guards as well as they do with Doncic, who can be the best player in a series, has a chance to win.
Doncic has yet to advance past the first round in his brief career. The arrival of Kidd may be the reason that changes.
Pressure level: Low
Ty Lue, Los Angeles Clippers
Lue might be the best in-game coach in the league. He’s on the short list with the Miami Heat’s Erik Spoelstra and the Toronto Raptors’ Nick Nurse. The fact that the Clippers are .500 and in the play-in is a testament to Lue.
No Paul George for the majority of the year and no Kawhi Leonard all season. Lue should get an extension for this team being competent.
Pressure level: None
Willie Green, New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans are bad, but they’re not as bad as they were the first third of the season. The Zion Williamson situation is weird and nobody’s quite sure what David Griffin and the front office is doing.
But first-year head coach Willie Green is doing a good job with what he’s been given. The Pelicans are in the 10th spot and could overtake the Los Angeles Lakers for ninth.
The Pelicans eliminating the Lakers in the play-in with a chance to make the playoffs would be a tremendous way to finish the season.