The Lakers and head coach searches

While I won’t pretend to have a clear idea of who the Lakers are targeting to be their next head coach, this round of media speculation brought to mind some big-picture thoughts.

When it comes to a head coach search, the fans want some idea of how things are going. If those responsible for the search have kept everything close, there isn’t always a ton of material. Anyone club officials speak to goes onto the radar. The best candidates for the job become the topic of discussion. There’s a reasonable chance – at least a decent chance in comparison to others who might get the job – that they could be in contention, but sometimes many subjects of the speculation never seriously considered the opportunity.

The current search for a new Lakers coach led some to speculate about Larry Brown. While Brown has had success in both the college and professional arenas, he only relatively recently (2012) took the post of head coach at Southern Methodist University.

As reported by the Dallas News, he plans to stay for at least a few more years:

He said he was “blindsided” by recent reports suggesting he could be a candidate for the vacant Los Angeles Lakers job.
“My thing is, SMU gave me this great opportunity and we’ve got a lot of talented kids who are interested in coming here and I want to be here,” Brown told the Dallas Morning News late Tuesday. “They took a risk when they hired me and gave me a wonderful opportunity.”

The team saw success in Brown’s second year against a number of competitive programs, including NCAA tournament winner UConn. The team went 27-10 and took fourth place in American Athletic Conference, behind only three ranked teams. With some good recruiting, SMU has the chance to become a power in The American in the next few years. Unless Brown thinks he can’t make it happen – unlikely for a man of his accomplishments and prestige – it wouldn’t make sense for him to jump ship now. It would essentially defeat the purpose of taking the challenge. More from the Dallas News:

SMU is projected by many to be a preseason top-10 team. They lost only two players from last year and are adding five-star prospect Emmanuel Mudiay and Xavier transfer Justin Martin, who announced his commitment via Twitter on Tuesday. McDonald’s All-American Keith Frazier will be a sophomore.
“I’ve got Emmanuel coming here and we’ve got a lot of the best players in the country interested in coming here,” Brown said. “I’m just thankful to be in this situation.”

So we don’t gain much from all this talk. Potentially speaking to a veteran coach about an opening is so early along the path, it’s barely worth mentioning. But when the search is in as early a stage as this one, the media conversation will tend to such rumors. From NBC Sports:

While [Brown and Scott Skiles] are long shots — neither of those guys fit the Lakers culture — they fit with the Lakers pattern of talking to veteran coaches. So far they have spoken to Scott, Gentry, Kurt Rambis, Mike Dunleavy and Lionel Hollins. The Lakers likely will speak to Derek Fisher as well, but they are not focused on him like Phil Jackson and the Knicks.

ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne adds:

But Larry Brown’s non-interest isn’t the only story here. The most recent Lakers coaches had no small disadvantage. Great success from a predecessor can easily lead to particularly high expectations.

The Lakers have had their share of successful coaches – Hall-of-Famers John Kundla and Pat Riley have long topped the list – and Phil Jackson’s two almost-consecutive stints with the team were yet another period of glory for what is unquestionably one of the NBA’s top franchises.

Mike Brown had a measure of success in the 2011-’12 season as the Lakers won a playoff series, but the Steve Nash and Dwight Howard acquisitions didn’t pay off in the early going of the next season and Brown was fired. Mike D’Antoni, the 2004-’05 coach of the year, was hired to take the vacated post early in the season.

D’Antoni struggled for a while to get the formula right. The Lakers barely qualified for the playoffs, securing the spot at the very end of the season. But it was downhill from there. The team was swept by the Spurs. Howard left for Houston. Kobe Bryant’s injuries kept him off the court for the vast majority of the season. After posting a 27-55 record in 2013-’14 – the franchise’s second-worst mark ever and worst since moving to LA – D’Antoni resigned.

One lesson here is how often expectation dictates more than many coaches can rightly accomplish. Fairly or not, many coaches are pushed out because the plan didn’t pan out quickly enough, or because the situation changed. D’Antoni was apparently not the answer. He only got one offseason to try, though the team’s record was certainly bad enough that not picking up the option on his contract was reasonable. Losing two top players can quickly create a delicate situation. But that’s likely part of why the front office will take longer to decide this time around.

D’Antoni’s offensive preferences were supposed to fit the system. The system was eventually dropped as a number of stars who didn’t necessarily have the right chemistry struggled to work out the details. By the end of the season, they had fought their way into the playoffs. Disgraced after an early exit, though, things didn’t really pan out – for the players or the coach. The squad quickly dismantled, dooming the next year to mediocrity. Yet, I suppose, when you’re a Lakers coach, that never really factors into the evaluation. After all, being head coach of any top professional team is rarely the most risk-averse career choice. Nor is it often without some very nice compensation.

Phil Jackson’s immense success will define the Lakers’ expectations of a head coach for years to come. Kobe Bryant is a phenomenal player and may see a bit more time, but it’s far from reasonable to continue to build the franchise around him in any long-term sense. And the Lakers should know that. Decisions made around Bryant may need to be limited to the next two, maybe three, years.

The bottom line is that whoever fills the vacuum will have quite some work to do.

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