The Los Angeles Lakers are a ship without a captain.
The team no longer has a coach after announcing the resignation of Mike D'Antoni on Wednesday evening. The genius behind the Phoenix Suns' "Seven Seconds or Less" teams of the 2000s could not duplicate that magic in Los Angeles, as the Lakers went 67-87 in his two years in L.A. He finished with worst winning percentage of any Lakers coach with at least 100 games.
Now, it isn't exactly rare to see a lottery team without a coach this time of year. The Utah Jazz and New York Knicks both fired their coaches the first Monday after the end of the regular season, and haven't named a replacement yet.
But these are The Lakers—the most successful major North American sports franchise over the past three decades. With the Lakers, everything is a big deal.
The first 24 hours of the post-D'Antoni era have been rife with rumors about the next Lakers' head coach. The team has even asked the Chicago Bulls permission to speak to defensive mastermind Tom Thibodeau, per the Chicago Tribune. Until they select D'Antoni's successor, the Lakers will be linked to every single big-name head coach still drawing breath.
And why shouldn't it be this way? They have tradition, they have drawing power, they have a high pick in the 2014 draft. Most importantly, they still employ one of the 10 greatest players in NBA history in shooting guard Kobe Bryant. Any coach worth his salt should consider himself lucky to helm this franchise.
But ESPN Radio host Ryen Russillo has heard differently. According to his source, not only are the Lakers a poor option for a marquee coach, but Bryant himself is the reason why:
Just talked to Western Conf GM. "Kobe makes the Lakers job less desirable."— Russillo (@ryenarussillo) May 2, 2014
Premise that the Lakers can't do much this off-season, all about loading up for 14-15. "He's going to hate the coach, hate losing and youll-— Russillo (@ryenarussillo) May 2, 2014
Have to deal with it all season. Probably go for a younger coach, that won't solve anything but a vet coach won't want to deal w/ it"— Russillo (@ryenarussillo) May 2, 2014
Is this general manager correct: Could the presence of Bryant actually hinder the search for a coach? And will Kobe turn into a headache if things do not go well right out of the gate?
This was not a good season for Bryant or his Lakers. The former league MVP missed the first 19 games of the season as he rehabbed from a torn Achilles suffered at the end of the previous season. The club actually overachieved during that time, posting a 10-9 record.
But that optimism was short lived. Bryant returned in December, but played in only six games before sustaining a lateral tibial plateau fracture in his left knee on Dec. 17. He would not play another game this season, and the club ended with their worst record since moving to Los Angeles in 1960.
Before his December return, however, the front office made the shocking move of handing him a two-year, $48 million extension that will keep Bryant in place as the league's highest-paid player through the end of his age-37 season.
That is an astonishing figure for the salary-cap era, where even the league's best teams struggle to figure out how to balance multiple big-money players with the need to fill out the roster with quality role players.
The Lakers sent a clear message with the extension: This is Kobe's team.
But this same front office angered Bryant later in the season when they failed to offer a job to former head coach Phil Jackson, who became president of basketball operations for the NewYork Knicks.
Bryant vented his frustration in public, per ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin:
You know how I feel about Phil. I have so much admiration for him and respect and I have a great relationship with him. Personally, it would be hard for me to understand that happening twice. It would be tough. I don't really get it.
"Happening twice" refers to the front office passing over Jackson for a job after he interviewed for L.A.'s coaching vacancy after Mike Brown was fired in November 2012 and the team went with D'Antoni instead.
Bryant even went so far as to call out owners Jim and Jeanie Buss by name in his diatribe, per McMenamin:
I think we have to start at the top in terms of the culture of our team...What kind of culture do we want to have? What kind of system do we want to have? How do we want to play? It starts there and from there, you can start building out your team accordingly...
You got to start with Jim. You got to start with Jim and Jeanie and how that relationship plays out. It starts there and having a clear direction and clear authority. And then it goes down to the coaching staff and what Mike (D'Antoni) is going to do, what they're going to do with Mike and it goes from there. It's got to start at the top.
D'Antoni may be gone, but the Buss family still has to deal with a strong-willed superstar with a clear idea about what he expects from the organization. And it appears his ideas do not match the front office. If the Buss family and general manager Mitch Kupchak make a hire that Bryant doesn't agree with, how long before he makes his opinions public, as he did with D'Antoni?
The New (Old) Kobe?
In his book "The Last Season," Jackson described the ordeal of coaching a young Bryant during the 2003-04 season (via Sports Illustrated):
I understand why the Lakers treat Kobe as their most valuable asset. The kid will be twenty-six in August. His ability to take over a game, to make an impossible play, is unmatched. Yet it needs to be remembered that Kobe is still an employee, and that he needs direction and guidance in a way that helps him mature into the kind of adult we hope he can be.
The Lakers would trade Bryant's teammate-slash-nemesis Shaquille O'Neal, and Jackson would leave for a season before making his triumphant return to help Bryant win two more titles.
Bryant will be 36 this August. He is no longer that immature kid he once was, and will be much easier to coach than he was during Jackson's first tenure.
The problem is that he's also not the athlete he once was, either. The ability to take over a game, to make an impossible play, is no longer unmatched. He was excellent in his last full season, but he wasn't quite the two-way force of nature of his earlier years. And that was two major leg injuries ago.
The next Lakers coach will be saddled with a player who is past his prime and isn't likely to accept a rebuild. He has unmatched clout with the fans, the league's biggest cap number dangling over his head and a long history of calling out authority figures.
Kobe Bryant can (and likely will) be a great player in 2014-15. But will he be the kind of player on which a successful coach is willing to hang his reputation and career? Not likely.