The Los Angeles Lakers will face a big test this offseason in filling the head coach position vacated by Mike D'Antoni. Does the franchise still carry enough weight to recruit the very best coach possible?
That might be what finding a replacement for D'Antoni will boil down to.
In the past, it may have been more about who the Lakers want, as they've always had their pick of the litter when it comes to available coaches. But now, with no reliable players in place thanks to Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash's age and injury troubles, different leadership at the top after the passing of Jerry Buss and a little less shine attached to the Lakers name after the last two seasons, the question has changed.
The Lakers may want one of the league's very best coaches, like Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, but will he want them back?
Here's Adrian Wojnarowski at Yahoo! Sports with more:
The Lakers have lost talent, lost stability, lost what separates winning and losing franchises. Bryant won't pick the next coach, the way he had no input into Mike Brown and little into D'Antoni. Bryant will wish for Tom Thibodeau to free himself from Chicago. He loves Jeff Van Gundy, and shares management's affinity for Euro legend Ettore Messina, who spent a season on Mike Brown's staff.
One of the positives about having an early opening is that the Lakers will be able to play the field quite a bit. With that in mind, it's no surprise that Thibodeau's name has come up, particularly since the Bulls just bowed out unceremoniously in the first-round of the playoffs.
Will that be enough for Thibodeau to see if the grass is greener elsewhere? On its own, probably not, but the relationship between Thibodeau and the Bulls front office has never appeared to be on very solid ground. Here's Royce Young at CBSSports:
Thibodeau and the Bulls have had a bit of a tense relationship at times, with issues with the front office about his assistant coaching staff. Thibodeau is obviously a brilliant coaching mind that can make the most of a depleted roster, but would be in for a completely new challenge in Los Angeles with the rebuilding Lakers.
It's pretty obvious the Lakers' search with be expansive, as they look all over for Mike D'Antoni's replacement. They will likely take their time, waiting until free agency to make a final decision, but if Thibodeau is interested, the Lakers may have their home run hire right in front of them already.
Going from D'Antoni to Thibodeau would be a night and day type change. D'Antoni's offenses, even with limited talent, usually found ways to produce and be among the league's best. His defenses, however, were routinely among the league's worst.
The exact reverse of that is true for Thibodeau. The Bulls have been a dominant defensive team even with all types of personnel under his watch, and the Boston Celtics won a ring largely because of his influence as an assistant. Offensively, however, Thibodeau's struggles with his teams are almost as pronounced as D'Antoni's are defensively.
That being said, you'll hear little arguments about who is the superior coach. Establishing a strong defensive system is the number one priority for a head coach in the NBA, and Thibodeau has done that every single year. His teams routinely buy in, and his ability to insert new parts immediately into his system and make it work shouldn't be understated.
And he's been working through some serious adversity in Chicago. The Bulls bench has been depleted over the years, Carlos Boozer sapped up all the cap space for a surprisingly thrifty franchise and we all know about Derrick Rose's injury troubles. Even through all that, Thibodeau has been the one constant.
Thibodeau would undoubtedly be a tremendous hire for the Lakers, as he's widely considered a top-five coach, if not the best coach in the league behind Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.
Any concerns of "fit" should really be put to bed, as Thibodeau is so superior to most of his peers that it doesn't really matter what type of situation he's walking into. He demands a lot from his players, of course, but the Lakers are working with a relatively clean slate, save for Bryant's massive contract.
There's good news on that front, as well. Thibodeau and Bryant seem to share a long history dating back to Bryant being worked out by Thibodeau as a high school player, as Mark Strotman at CSNChicago.com details here:
Bryant was an exceptional offensive threat, but he remembers well that Thibodeau wasn’t the run-of-the-mill coach who let him shoot whenever he wanted.
“I had a good time, it was fun,” Bryant said of his time with Thibodeau. “He put me through way more offensive drills than he did defensive drills. And it was fun, though.”
Thibodeau, now an assistant with the U.S. Olympic team, said he’ll certainly have talks with Bryant about returning for Team USA. Bryant said this offseason that he doesn’t foresee himself playing in 2016, but Thibodeau joked that he’s certainly open to asking the future Hall-of-Famer one last time.
“I’ll always try to talk him into it,” Thibodeau said laughing.
Added Kobe: “He can try all he wants. I love Thibs, we go way back, so the conversation would be more than welcome.”
While appeasing Bryant with a hire hasn't been the priority in the past (Mike Brown, D'Antoni) and likely won't be in the future, it doesn't hurt to have the star your franchise is attached to share a mutual admiration for his coach.
Of course, it's important to remember that getting Thibodeau away from the Bulls might not be all that easy. While there's a chance both sides want to part, it's certainly no guarantee that it will happen. Thibodeau is still on contract, so if Chicago wants to use him as a trade asset similar to how the Boston Celtics did with Doc Rivers this past offseason, that's certainly a possibility.
There's always the chance that Chicago's front office balks at that as well. There's still a great core in place in Chicago, and with the chance to potentially attract a free agent such as Carmelo Anthony, Thibodeau might be leaving a title-contending team for one that doesn't appear to have a realistic chance of competing for a ring before 2015-16, at the earliest.
Considering the success and relationships he's built with guys like Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson over the years, it's certainly not a given that Thibodeau would want out, either. Just because the Lakers front office wants something, that doesn't mean they'll get it. That point was driven home when Dwight Howard left money on the table to play elsewhere.
Undoubtedly, though, Thibodeau would be an incredible hire and great first step in restoring the Lakers as one of the league's premier franchises. If the plan is to wait until 2015 to recruit a big time free agent, acquiring a highly regarded coach this offseason could be the best thing the Lakers will be capable of, aside from selecting a future star in this year's draft.
There will be other options than Thibodeau out there for the Lakers to explore, but it's hard to say the Lakers can do any better. Thibodeau is the cream of the crop, and the Lakers shouldn't hesitate to put on the full-court press in an attempt to lure him out of Chicago.