(NOTE: Below is my column on the Lakers and their just-beginning search for a new coach, written for SheridanHoops.com…)
A fairly inclusive list of potential replacements for Mike D’Antoni, following his resignation as head coach of the Lakers earlier this week: John Calipari, Kevin Ollie, Byron Scott, Jeff Van Gundy, Stan Van Gundy, Derek Fisher, George Karl, Mike Dunleavy, Kurt Rambis, Lionel Hollins, Tom Thibodeau, Mark Jackson, Steve Kerr, Ettore Messina…
Plenty of impressive names, but hardly reflective of some grand organizational philosophy on playing style or priorities beyond, as has been reported, to “make a splash.”
It’s an expression that ought to make Lakers fans nervous, because it implies one big mission is to cleanse the fanbase’s collective palate after two failed coaching hires since Phil Jackson’s departure, and the bitter taste of the previous two seasons. As opposed to, you know, finding the best candidate for doing the job. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but the emphasis ought to be entirely on the latter, with the former as a byproduct.
Which gets to the big challenge facing Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak entering what will likely be a long process: It’s very difficult to match a coach to a team when there’s really no team to match him with. The Lakers have three guys under contract next season, one of whom may not actually be able to play (Steve Nash), another coming off two major injuries at age 36 and a six-game 2013-14 season (Kobe Bryant) and the third who is Robert Sacre (Robert Sacre).
While it would obviously be less surprising to see the Lakers reconstruct a high-end roster this summer than say, Milwaukee, odds favor next season’s team looking a lot like this year’s talent-thin polyglot of short term contracts designed to maintain maximum cap space going forward. So the squad Future Coach gets in his first year is likely to be vastly different than the one he has in 2015-16, and probably again in 2016-17.
And each of those teams will could have a vastly different mix of superstar ego and skill set. It’s perfectly reasonable to believe the first three seasons for L.A.’s next coach could play out something like this:
-Year 1, bad team orbiting around Kobe, cultivating a critically important #1 pick.
-Year 2, a better team orbiting around Kobe and The Team’s Next Star Acquisition, someone who may or may not mesh well with Bryant.
-Year 3, a still growing team, now without Bryant but folding in still more new players, and perhaps a second new superstar, who may or may not mesh perfectly with the one imported the year before.
I’ve long maintained the star L.A.’s next coach has to best mesh with isn’t currently on the roster. That doesn’t mean Kobe Bryant won’t present a massive challenge to D’Antoni’s successor. (After all, why should he get off easier?) There will be pressure, not just because of anything Kobe might say or do but the enormous capital he has among fans and his place in local basketball culture, to, if not conform to Kobe’s preferences on the floor, at the very least look like it. To some degree, you gotta kiss the ring.
(One line of thinking: You don’t give a player $48 million for two years and not tailor things to him. The other: You give a guy $48 million precisely so you don’t have to.)
Whoever coaches the Lakers next will obviously need the strength to work effectively with Kobe, handle the L.A. media and a very edgy legion of fans, and navigate what is likely to be a tough first season (this time without the lure of a guaranteed lottery pick at the end of the rainbow). From there, he’ll have to fold in new stars with new egos and skill sets, but with no way to effectively anticipate who those stars might be, because the NBA doesn’t work that way.
The team’s system could easily have to change three times in three years.
Everyone has an wish list for the next coach of the Lakers. Better defense, a system more tailored to Bryant’s skill set, savvier communication with the media and better communication in the locker room, cache potentially drawing free agents, and so on. But while all those things matter, the timing of D’Antoni’s resignation combined with the current state of the franchise mean the most important quality for the Lakers’ new sideline guru will be flexibility and a gift for reinvention.
There is no shortage of quality options, to be sure. But after botching their last two hires, even if they prioritize the right things, there’s no guarantee they’ll come up with the right fit, in part because anticipating what he’ll fit into is so difficult.