Just like that, earlier than most expected, the Los Angeles Lakers have fired head coach Mike Brown after a 1-4 start. Tasked with the difficult job of melding different personalities and talents, Brown failed to produce immediate results. The fact that he was given only five games to do so might say more about the franchise than him, but it still shows that he was the wrong man for this particular job.
Adrian Wojnarowski has detailed the decision process, and Kelly Dwyer has noted the folly of hiring Brown in the first place. But there's another factor in judging the quality of this decision: the identity of Brown's replacement. Because, while someone might not be a good fit for a particular job, he's usually only worth firing if the next coach is a fundamentally better choice. But who will that choice be?
The first name on everyone's mind, as is usually the case when it comes to high-profile openings in the NBA, was 11-time title-winning coach Phil Jackson. He last sat on an NBA sideline in 2011, when the Lakers were swept by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round of the playoffs. It wasn't a glorious exit by any measure, but it also seemed like time for Jackson to go. His health and mobility were getting worse, and he arguably wasn't up to the rigors of a full NBA season. On top of that, that particular incarnation of the Lakers had clearly reached its limit with him in charge.
This Lakers team is very different, of course, and it's possible that Jackson could guide them to a great deal of success. Over his long coaching career, Jackson has proven adept at juggling varied personalities and skillsets, getting players to sacrifice for the good of the team and making everyone happy. Also, while Brown and Eddie Jordan's much-maligned Princeton offense wasn't necessarily the problem His triangle offense also could be a good fit for much of this roster — Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are well versed in its details, and Dwight Howard could play a role similar to that of Shaquille O'Neal in the late '90s and early '00s, if he's willing. For a team that never seemed to warm to Brown's tactics and style, the simple fact that Jackson and the triangle have a proven track record could get everyone on the same page. Statistically, the Lakers have struggled much more on defense than on offense, but this is one case where solving a problem of perception could make players more amenable to changes in many areas of the game.
Of course, the triangle is also famous for minimizing the role of its point guards. The Lakers, as you may have heard, just signed Steve Nash — who, up until this season, controlled the ball more than any point guard in the NBA — to a three-year contract. While Jackson could adjust the offense to allow for more freelancing from Nash, the triangle's principles would require him to take on a smaller role than he had even in Brown and Jordan's offense. On top of that, Jackson's defensive systems regularly produced career-best performances from opposing point guards, a problem which Nash (a notoriously poor defender) would likely exacerbate. These issues wouldn't necessarily doom Nash to irrelevance in a Jackson regime, but they do suggest that the transition wouldn't be seemless.
On the bright side, I'd really love to see which book Jackson would give Dwight Howard as part of his famous practice of handing players something to read on long road trips. My vote is for Judy Blume's "Superfudge."
The second major name mentioned in connection to an open Lakers job has been retired Utah Jazz legend Jerry Sloan. Two days ago, Alex Kennedy of Hoopsworld reported that Sloan could be the coach by December 1, although that timeline would obviously need to be moved up given the latest news. On the surface, Sloan would be a good choice. He's a certifiable legend who demands respect from all players, and his attention to detail could get the Lakers to shore up their defensive issues. Plus, his historical reliance on pick-and-roll plays could be a terrific fit for the offensive abilities of Nash, Howard, and Gasol while not minimizing Kobe's role in a seriously meaningful way. In terms of tactics, Sloan could be the best man to lead the Lakers for the next few seasons while not cutting too much into their ability to contend for a title in 2012-13.
Unfortunately, Sloan could be a horrible fit for the unique challenge of coaching the league's most glamorous franchise. Sloan resigned from his job with the Jazz after 23 seasons in large part because he couldn't get along with point guard Deron Williams, a thoroughly modern superstar who nonetheless is far from the most difficult player to handle around the league. The idea of Sloan — a gruff, no-nonsense man who decided owning 70 tractors was too opulent — dealing with several complicated personalities in the locker room, pleasing the demanding Buss family, and finding no issue with the glitz of the Lakers borders on the comical. It could work, but it's a bizarre marriage with potential pitfalls in every aspect of the relationship.
Other options exist, none of whom carry the potential of Jackson and Sloan. Mike D'Antoni has the offensive pedigree and history with Nash, but he seems ill-suited to fixing the Lakers' defensive problems and might not be ready to enter another difficult work environment after his experience with the Knicks. Brian Shaw has the trust of the Lakers organization after years as a player and assistant coach, but the Indiana Pacers are unlikely to let him out of his current role of associate head coach with so many games left to play in this season. Nate McMillan has had fairly recent success with the Portland Trail Blazers, but he's a defense-oriented coach with superficial similarities to Brown.
Additionally, no matter who takes the job, there will need to significant overhaul of the assistant coaching staff. Eddie Jordan was brought into the fold this offseason specifically to implement the Princeton offense, a role that now seems unnecessary. If Jackson takes over, he'll need to add experts in the triangle. Sloan might demand that longtime lieutenant Phil Johnson join him on the bench. This isn't just an issue of bringing in a new head coach — it requires hiring a totally different team to lead the franchise for several seasons.
The idea here is quite simple. Brown is gone, but the challenge of coaching the Lakers hasn't changed. This is a massively talented team capable of historic achievements. From the minute Mitch Kupchak traded for Dwight Howard, they've also had a lot of problems to solve. The new coach, whoever he is, will have the opportunity to try his own solutions. He'll need a lot more than five games to implement them.
Or, you know, the Lakers can just hire this guy. He seems to understand the franchise really well.
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