As soon as the NBA’s regular season concluded last Wednesday, the premeditated firings of head coaches began: First the New York Knicks, then the Orlando Magic, and then, surprisingly, the Atlanta Hawks give permission for their head coach to interview for the vacant Phoenix Suns job. The Suns fired their coach after only three games (all losses) at the start of the season in November. An interim coach finished out the season.
There are 30 NBA teams. Six of them started off the 2017-18 season with Black head coaches. Two of the six were fired—Earl Watson, the Phoenix head coach, and David Fitzdale, formerly of the Memphis Grizzlies, also fired in November. Fitzdale is on the Knicks’ short list of coaches to be interviewed for the vacant Knicks job.
The four coaches that remain are Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors; Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Nate McMillan of the Indiana Pacers and Alvin Gentry of the New Orleans Pelicans.
All four are in the playoffs that began over the weekend. Casey’s team is the 1-seed in the Eastern Conference. Toronto topped the conference with the second-best record in the NBA, 59 wins, 23 losses, this season.
Casey turned 61 Tuesday. He’s coached Toronto since being hired there in 2011. Casey began coaching after leaving college in 1979. He started with Kentucky, the school he attended, and has also coached extensively in Japan.
Casey began with the NBA in 1994 as an assistant with the Seattle SuperSonics. He’s had a head coaching position with the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2005 to 2007. He’s won three championships—two as a player with Kentucky, an NIT and an NCAA, and one as an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks.
Lue, turning 41 next month, not only played in college but also played with multiple pro teams from 1998 to 2009 after being drafted by the Denver Nuggets, and then traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, winning two championships there.
Lue began coaching with the Boston Celtics in 2011. He joined the Cavs in 2014 after a year with the Los Angeles Clippers and became their head coach during the 2016-17 season, the year they won their first chip.
Lue led Cleveland to the Finals again last year, losing to the Golden State Warriors in five games. They entered this year’s playoffs as a 4-seed.
Nate McMillan, 53, another former player turned coach, played his entire career with the Seattle SuperSonics from 1986 to 1998. They retired his number. He became an assistant with the team immediately after retiring, and then head coach after one year from 2000 to 2005. McMillan then coached the Portland Trailblazers from 2005 until being fired in 2012. He became an assistant in 2013 with the Pacers, and their head coach in 2016. McMillan, from Raleigh, N.C., has also coached USA Basketball under Mike Krzyzewski (Duke University).
At 63, Alvin Gentry, the head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, is the elder statesman of Black head coaches. Also from North Carolina, Gentry has coached professionally since 1980, starting as an assistant at Baylor University, and then at Colorado and Kansas. He was first hired as an NBA assistant by the San Antonio Spurs in 1989, followed by coaching jobs with the Los Angeles Clippers and the Miami Heat, where he received his first opportunity to be a head coach, an interim position.
Over the years, Gentry has also been the head coach of the Detroit Pistons, Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns. Before taking over the Pelicans, Gentry was an assistant with the Golden State Warriors, during the 2014-15 season, the beginning of their three consecutive years in the NBA Finals.
Despite an injury to his big man in January, DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins, Gentry’s Pelican team is a Western Conference 6-seed. With a 48-34 record this season, 14 more wins than last year, he’s succeeded with a nucleus of 6-foot-10 power forward Anthony Davis and point guards Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday. Davis dropped 35 points and had 14 rebounds with 4 blocks. Rondo added 17 assists, 6 points and 8 rebounds alongside Holiday’s 21 points and 7 rebounds, holding on to defeat the Portland Trailblazers, the higher 3-seed, on the road 97-95 in Game 1, Davis’ first playoff win as a pro.
“They always say, ‘The series doesn’t start until you win one on the road,’” said Gentry. “Our mentality has been that way all season. We’re one of the few teams that has as good a road record as we do at home.”
The Pelicans have won the first two in Rip City, taking the second game in Portland 111 to 102 Tuesday night. The series moves to New Orleans to play the next two in the Big Easy, tonight (Thursday) and Saturday.