Late last week, I put down a few thoughts following the big day of workouts in El Segundo, talking about what the Lakers might want to do with the pick then tacking a few lingering questions about the coaching search on at the end. I held off on publishing just to make sure it was put together in semi-competent English (the business of self-editing is perilous, and benefits from time between drafts), but got caught up in other stuff, and here we are almost a week later, and the important stuff is totally different.
The Lakers have made it clear, barring a change of heart, they won’t be hiring anyone lacking NBA coaching experience. There are a few potential reasons, some better than others. A first-time coach:
- … wouldn’t be able to handle the pressures of the market.
- … wouldn’t hold the respect of Kobe Bryant, the most conspicuous pressure of the market.
- … wouldn’t be a good lure for potential high-end free agents.
- … isn’t worth the price, at least if Steve Kerr and Derek Fisher even marginally reflect the market for well-sought sideline rooks.
- … isn’t appropriate for the Lakers, because the Lakers aren’t a “starter” gig. Consider it a corollary to the “We don’t rebuild, we reload” ethos. First year coaches are for smaller markets with smaller ambitions.
(There’s also the question of whether L.A.’s preferred newbies have been as amenable to L.A.’s overtures as the team might like. I don’t think the Lakers want to be spurned by a rookie. That’s not inside information, just thinking aloud.)
Throughout the season, long before Mike D’Antoni was fired but assuming he would be, I wondered if the Lakers would have the intestinal fortitude — the balls, if you will — to make a bold hire. Would Jim Buss stick his neck out one more time after Mike Brown’s slightly-more-than-one-and-done, and D’Antoni’s disastrous run? Would the Lakers risk a pouty Kobe and a questioning fan base in the name of identifying and cultivating someone they believe to be the NBA’s next big sideline talent? Will they at least try to think creatively?
Or would they hire Byron Scott, whether conceptually or literally?
The point isn’t that Scott is a bad coach (he’s not), or that experience is worthless (of course it has value). But Brown and D’Antoni both had experience, and look how that went. So many other factors play a role in a coach’s success. Neither “Byron Scott” (the type) nor Byron Scott (the person) are hires with vision. Particularly when removing guys like George Karl and Alvin Gentry, both impractical choices after pushing D’Antoni out, everyone else on the current, and likely future, list is relatively uninspired and safe. Scott’s Laker-ness is a nice bullet point on the press release and satisfy the nostalgia centers in the brains of many fans, but won’t make him more invested or successful than other candidates.
It would be one thing if the Lakers were excluding first-timers while courting truly elite coaches. They’re not. The guys on the list are perfectly respectable, but not titans. The Lakers have talked about being deliberate and casting a wide net, but a willingness to shut out an entire category of candidates shows otherwise. Cutting off a line to potential talent because they don’t tick one box on the long list of important qualities is, frankly, stupid. Particularly for a franchise that has seen two first-timers (Pat Riley and Mike Dunleavy) lead them to the Finals.
And especially when you consider their current context. I’ve mentioned this before, but the most important quality the next coach needs isn’t Kobe’s respect or gravitas with the media – it’s ideological flexibility. Very likely, next year’s roster will be comprised of Kobe, the seventh pick in the Draft, and a bunch of guys on short-term deals. The year following, hopefully they have a second star to join Kobe on his farewell tour. Three years from now, Kobe is probably gone, and maybe they have a couple new elites anchoring the roster. Who knows who the stars will be, or what kind of talent will round those groups out? Point being, over the next three seasons the Lakers could have vastly different rosters requiring very different styles of play, offensively and defensively. Will the next coach have the ability to adjust accordingly, scrapping what might have been effective one season to match what’s available the next? Does he have the capacity for reinvention?
This, as much as anything, is the great gift of Gregg Popovich.
Experience can be a great thing and all things being equal is a quality worth having, but the way it influences a coach isn’t automatically positive. D’Antoni, for example, was rightly criticized for a dogmatic approach to his offense based in part on a strongly felt belief system, but also informed by the success he had doing things in a particular way. Brown’s experience somehow told him staging 17 hour practices with a veteran roster was a good idea. “This is how you put in the work,” it said from under its hard hat, clutching its lunch pail. Sometimes experience narrows perspective, rather than expanding it.
It’s easy to wonder if the Lakers have a coherent vision of their reconstruction. Mitch Kupchak noted during exit interviews how the Lakers would be happy for this thing to be put back together in three seasons. It could take longer, he said. On the other hand, there’s still a strong sense of Kobe Appeasement in the air. Maybe it reflects the way media and fans treat questions of Kobe’s contract, personality, the end of his career, and so on, more than anything the Lakers are doing. But it begs the question, do the Lakers think they can execute a rebuild that will satisfy Kobe’s desire to play on a championship caliber team before he’s done, while also setting themselves up properly for the post-Bryant future? If an opportunity arises potentially addressing one at the expense of the other, which side wins?
I wonder, too, how the Lakers see themselves. If they believe the Lakers are too big for a first-time candidate, or that they don’t have time for a guy to learn on the job (whether because they have to win quickly or because Kobe won’t tolerate it), they’re wrong on both counts. Particularly when next year, barring some Carmelo/LeBron/K-Love deus ex machine, shapes up to be another in which the Lakers struggle to make the playoffs. It’s actually a perfect situation to let a guy get his feet wet. Are they fully embracing the idea of a rebuild and all it entails? Kupchak has sent some signals saying yes, but the vibe isn’t consistent.
Like when you hear they might interview Larry Brown, for example.
The Lakers come off like a rich family forced into belt tightening, but still refusing to lose the maid and the gardener because of what the neighbors might think. Their highest profile attempt to acknowledge new realities in team building and free agent wooing – the Stay Dwight billboards – were instantly ridiculed. Then Howard took off. (Then the Lakers over-reacted and unloaded the Brinks truck on Kobe’s front lawn.) Like the failed post-Phil coaching choices, it feels like the egg on the franchise’s metaphorical face left a mark.
In the end, their patience might pay off. In absolute terms, the Lakers don’t lose much by waiting to see what happens in the early days of free agency. And while this sort of attitude reinforces their lack a strong philosophical vision for their next coach, losing one of their preferred candidates to another team simply means moving down the list another spot. There aren’t enough vacancies around the league to lose them all.
Maybe the experienced candidate turns out to be the best one. Maybe the Lakers do well on Draft day and early in free agency, adding depth and assets in ways we don’t see coming. Maybe they pull one of those purple and gold rabbits out of those purple and gold hats. Maybe there’s a more fully formed roster ultimately benefitting by a more experienced hand, and they’ll hire the right guy for the right reasons. Right now, so much of this is speculation and Spidey Sense, but insofar as the coaching search is concerned, where the Lakers are trying to project calm and thoroughness, I’m just picking up fear and incoherence.