The Los Angeles Lakers transformed the roster in the offseason. They brought in Steve Nash and pulled off a coup by trading Andrew Bynum as part of a package to acquire Dwight Howard while also retaining Pau Gasol.
With this cast supporting Kobe Bryant, expectations were sky high for the Lakers, and many tabbed them to reach the NBA Finals (especially after last year's Western Conference champs, the Oklahoma City Thunder, traded away James Harden).
But the Lakers went 0-8 in exhibition play and began the regular season just 1-4. As ESPN and the sports-talk universe discussed whether coach Mike Brown was on the hot seat, it seemed to be just more premature speculation in a super-saturated news cycle.
After all, it's a marathon, not a sprint.
Then, on Friday morning, the Lakers announced that they had fired Mike Brown...after five games. Brown was in the second year of a four-year deal and will receive an $11 million buyout (per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports).
It was the earliest the Lakers had fired a head coach in franchise history (per ESPN LA's Arash Markazi on Twitter). And it made Brown only the third coach in league history to be fired after five games or fewer (per ESPN Stats & Info on Twitter).
In fact, firing Brown after five games is equivalent to axing an NFL head coach with 88 seconds remaining in the first game (via ESPN researcher Paul Carr).
So, what lies ahead for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers?
For the time being, assistant Bernie Bickerstaff has been named the interim head coach. But the search for a true head coach has begun.
ESPN LA columnist Dave McMenamin tweeted that according to GM Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers could get player input on the next coaching hire:
Mitch says there will "maybe" be some player input in the hiring process, hinting Kobe and Nash will have a say—Dave McMenamin (@mcten) November 9, 2012
This is particularly interesting, considering that Mike Brown was not a popular choice to replace Phil Jackson. The favorites were considered to be either longtime Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw or veteran head coach Rick Adelman.
But Jim Buss (son of owner Jerry Buss) was keen to put his stamp on the team after taking the reins from his father. He reportedly did not consult with Kobe on the coaching search and deliberately chose Brown as a departure from Phil Jackson (per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports).
Brown decided to install his "Princeton" offense with the Lakers. It de-emphasizes positional play, and instead relies on keeping players in motion to exploit mismatches. It primarily utilizes passing, picks and backdoor cuts.
This was a drastic departure from the "triangle" offense employed with such success by Phil Jackson and assistant coach Tex Winter. The strategy, which relies on spacing and isolation, delivered two separate three-peats for Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls and five championship rings for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.
Jackson took over head-coaching duties in 1999-00, Bryant's fourth season. The Lakers won the NBA title in each of the next three seasons. Due to inner strife with the team, Phil Jackson stepped down in 2004.
Rudy Tomjanovich took over but was forced to resign midseason due to health issues, and assistant coach Frank Hamblen replaced him. The Lakers missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993-94, and Bryant averaged 43.3 percent shooting, the worst mark of his career as a starter to that point.
In Brown's Princeton offense last season, Bryant averaged 43 percent shooting from the field, the worst mark of his career since 1997-98, when he was still coming off the bench.
Kobe did not appear to be keen on the offense that Brown had installed, and the team never found its rhythm, eventually getting eliminated from the playoffs by OKC in the second round. Then came Kobe's death stare.
Obviously, the Lakers decided they needed to go in a different direction with their new roster, especially with the sun setting on Kobe. But why wait until five games into the season, especially considering that point guard Steve Nash has played in only two games due to injury?
Regardless, the search for a new head coach has begun in earnest. The two leading candidates from last May's coaching search—Adelman and Shaw—are currently employed elsewhere.
Phil Jackson is available, but he is also 67 years old, and it remains to be seen if Jim Buss would hire him for the same reason he did not hire Brian Shaw in 2011.
Mike D'Antoni has also been tabbed as a possibility (per ESPN's Dave McMenamin). He coached Steve Nash with the Phoenix Suns for many years. And, bizarrely, D'Antoni was one of Kobe Bryant's idols growing up in Italy.
Of course, as all New York Knicks fans know, D'Antoni does not coach defense, but Howard and Bryant play enough D to make that a moot point.
Nevertheless, NBA analyst Ric Bucher tweeted that D'Antoni just underwent knee-replacement surgery and will be unable to coach for six weeks. That would force the Lakers to go with an interim head coach well into the season.
Other candidates include longtime Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, Nate McMillan and Mike Dunleavy. Sloan is eminently qualified and McMillan was an assistant coach on the 2008 Olympic gold-medal team with Bryant.
Kobe has two gold medals in the Olympics and is Team USA's all-time leading scorer, proving that he can succeed with a coach other than Jackson.
Ultimately, the question is which coach can win a championship with this team. Steve Nash is 38 and Kobe is 34, and each has 16 NBA seasons to his credit.
Bryant is securely placed in almost any list of the top 20 players of all time, but is he capable of winning an NBA title under a coach other than Phil Jackson?
Michael Jordan won six championships, but each came under Phil Jackson's reign. Great coaches often have long tenures with great players, but Larry Bird and Magic Johnson both won titles under multiple coaches.
Ultimately, Kobe Bryant is certainly talented enough to win a title under a head coach other than Phil Jackson, but winning championships is easier said than done.
Bryant needs to be in a system that caters to his game and gives him quality looks, while also diversifying the offense to such a degree that the defense can't just key in on the team's best scorer.
This is precisely what the triangle offense seeks to accomplish, spacing the floor to prevent the defense from focusing on the best offensive player.
So, who's next and what system can unlock the key to another title for Kobe?
D'Antoni's fast-paced offense would suit these Lakers, but he lacks a pedigree of success in the playoffs, which is the paramount qualification. The same could be said of Jerry Sloan, though he was thwarted in the NBA Finals twice by Jackson and Jordan's Bulls.
Mike Dunleavy led the Lakers to the finals in 1991, and they also fell to Jackson and the Bulls. Playoff success has eluded him since. Brian Shaw knows the triangle offense well, but he's currently an assistant coach with the Indiana Pacers.
There doesn't appear to be any clear choice at the moment—other than Phil Jackson.
In the end, Mike Brown was probably not the best fit for Kobe and the Lakers. Magic Johnson himself tweeted as much. But Brown never had a chance to get something going with this new roster.
Now, it will be up to Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak to select the right head coach to succeed with this immensely talented roster.
One would have to imagine that the team had someone clearly in mind when they decided to terminate their head coach a week into the season.
The worry is that Howard is on an expiring contract (and recovering from back surgery) and time is ticking for Bryant and Nash, so success will need to come swiftly.
That's the only justification for the ridiculously quick hook used on Mike Brown. Time is not on the Lakers' side. Or Kobe's.
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