The 2021-22 NBA season tips off Tuesday, Oct. 19, when the odds-on favorites Brooklyn Nets meet the defending champions Milwaukee Bucks. As much as any season is about the teams contending for a title, it’s also about organizations trying to show progress towards reaching championship status. For many, that means having the right coaches and players in place to get to that goal.
For these head coaches, it’s time to show they are the right person for the job. Here are the people manning the sidelines under the microscope to begin the 2021-22 season, calibrated against the expectations of their team and previous performances.
Luke Walton, Sacramento Kings
This is the easiest one on the list to know. Walton enters his third season as the head coach of the Kings, sporting identical 31-41 records in his first two years. The Kings have missed the playoffs for a whopping 15 seasons in a row. That streak has to be stopped at some point and Sacramento believes this is the core to get the job done. There will be little things to track, like progress from De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley and Tyrese Haliburton. The ultimate goal is to make the playoffs. If Walton falls short of that goal, there’s a chance he’s shown the door.
Doc Rivers, Philadelphia 76ers
Rivers is widely regarded as a great coach in NBA circles. However, he’s the master for performing below expectations. In 17 playoff appearances, he has reached the conference finals only three times. He has blown a 3-1 lead three times, with two different teams. And most recently, his team lost a Game 7 at home as the No. 1 overall seed. If the 76ers can’t get to at least the conference finals, Rivers could be out.
Frank Vogel, Los Angeles Lakers
It’s easy to read the room any time you have a coach on a one-year contract. Vogel led the Lakers to a title in the 2020 Orlando bubble and will likely be in the hunt for a championship again this year. LeBron James holds significant power in this decision and if he thinks the team can perform better with Vogel gone, the results almost don’t matter. It’s championship or bust for the Lakers, and that might mean Vogel’s job is on the line.
James Borrego, Charlotte Hornets
Borrego made history when he was hired as the first Hispanic head coach in league history back in 2018-19. The Hornets saw franchise player Kemba Walker leave before undergoing a rebuild and eventually landing LaMelo Ball. Charlotte has an interesting mix of players around Ball and it’ll be up to Borrego to make the combination work. If he can’t make the playoffs, it could be the end of the coach’s tenure with the Hornets.
Taylor Jenkins, Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies have an exciting young core with Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Dillon Brooks. However, it only takes a few years and one big contract for “exciting” to turn into “underwhelming”. Jenkins enters his third season coming off a playoff appearance but fans are expecting a big leap from Morant and Jackson. The West is always a tough conference and if those players don’t take a step forward, it could be curtains for Jenkins in Memphis.
Names to watch
- Mike Malone is entering his seventh season as the head coach of the Denver Nuggets and had a run to the conference finals in the 2020 Orlando bubble coming back from a 3-1 deficit. He also has reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and Most Improved Player favorite Michael Porter Jr., meaning this is a big season for the coach. The Nuggets should get star guard Jamal Murray back in time for the playoffs and need a deep run to show this group is worth keeping together.
- Quin Snyder is in a similar boat entering the 2021-22 season. The Utah Jazz have quietly built one of the league’s best rosters but tend to underwhelm in the playoffs. There were some unfortunate injuries last year which prevented Utah from going to the Finals. This year, the expectation is for Utah to get to the final series of the season. If Snyder can’t deliver, there will be questions about his future.
- The Chicago Bulls have churned the entire roster over and look like a team capable of making noise in the playoffs. Billy Donovan enters his second season in the Windy City with a talented roster possessing upside. Zach LaVine is in a contract season and will have a voice in the team’s coach. If Chicago gets off to a rocky start, management doesn’t have many options regarding player movement. Moving on from Donovan is probably the only big change it can make going forward.