In life, we all have placeholders. You apply for "safety schools" senior year in case your first choice doesn't accept you. You stick with a job you hate and work under incompetent management to pay rent while sending in applications elsewhere. You hang on for months in a doomed relationship because, hey, it's a hell of a lot easier to be miserable together than alone.
The Los Angeles Lakers wanted Mike D'Antoni to be their placeholder.
They wanted him to come back next season without a contract extension or even a guarantee of his 2015-16 option while general manager Mitch Kupchak and company constructed a plan about his intentional replacement. The Lakers were satisfied walking into training camp with D'Antoni attempting the zero-sum game of repairing toxic relationships with Kobe Bryant and a possibly re-signed Pau Gasol. And if that didn't work, fine—Kupchak could just fire D'Antoni by Christmas, toss an interim tag an assistant's way and go about enacting the franchise's plan.
We all know how that went. D'Antoni had no plans of being anyone's placeholder. Knowing exactly what was going on, D'Antoni pressured the Lakers behind the scenes to guarantee his option. When they didn't and the team made clear it had no intentions of firing him, D'Antoni had the fortitude to do what few others would.
It's a move that only a select few coaches would have made, and even though the Lakers agreed to pay $2 million of his remaining contract, D'Antoni's resignation puts the team in a difficult spot. No one is ever satisfied with a placeholder—but it's another feeling entirely when your placeholder drops you.
Kupchak has said there is no timetable for finding a replacement, and if the Lakers plan on interviewing everyone who has been linked to the job, an indefinite timetable might be for the best.
Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times linked George Karl, Jeff Van Gundy, Byron Scott and Kurt Rambis to the vacancy, along with UConn's Kevin Ollie and Connecticut's John Calipari. North Carolina's Roy Williams, who declined the Lakers' overtures a decade ago, is expected to receive a call. That's to say nothing of the former coaches who have outright pandered for an interview publicly.
Make no mistake: Even after one of the worst seasons in franchise history, the Lakers coaching job remains one of the most coveted positions in sports. But where the Lakers wind up going with their decision may say more about their future than most realize.
Like it or loathe it, Bryant will be back next season and the one after. His two-year, $48.5 million extension was an instantly regrettable legacy deal the second the ink dried and only looks worse now after a season in which Bryant played six games. Bryant's and Steve Nash's contracts alone will prohibit the Lakers from signing any more than one maximum contract each of the next two summers.
More distressingly, it gives Bryant autonomy to make LakerLand a living hell should he so choose. Sean Deveney of the Sporting news reported that Bryant was trying to push D'Antoni out the in March, and while he did not succeed the way he had planned, No. 24 undoubtedly played a role in his resignation.
For the record, Bryant was largely kept out of the loop on the Mike Brown and D'Antoni hires, and Kupchak has indicated the same policy will be in place going forward.
"He'll be fine. He's got no choice," Kupchak told USA Today's Sam Amick before D'Antoni's resignation. "When we lose, he'll rant and rave and be upset and be hot and won't talk to anybody, but that's the way it is. You've got to take the good with the bad."
That all seems quaint, until you realize with whom you are dealing. Bryant might not have any say in who coaches the Lakers, but his presence plays a factor. The only two coaches Bryant has respected throughout his career are Phil Jackson and Mike Krzyzewski—the former only earning it after years of bitter back-and-forths. Neither man is walking through that door.
Every coach tangentially linked to the Lakers job knows this. They know that Bryant is notoriously hard to work with and, considering that injuries may have wiped away whatever was left of his prime, that he expects instant results. They know this because Bryant has made it abundantly clear he has no interest in losing again next season.
"No," Bryant told reporters in March when asked if he had any patience for a rebuild. "Not one lick...Oh, lets just go into next year and suck. Nope."
Put it all together, and you can understand why the Lakers were leaning toward keeping D'Antoni. Bryant would have been upset, but if the team struggled out of the gate next season, an easy scapegoat was already in place. It would have allowed the franchise to press the reset button in 2015 when it really wanted. (D'Antoni also knew this, because duh.)
Now, the only way to untangle the web the Lakers have weaved for themselves is to follow a blueprint set by their fiercest rivals. The Lakers aren't going to trade Bryant the way the Boston Celtics did Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce. They'd struggle to find a trade partner even if that were the direction they wanted to go. (It's not.)
The front office can send the same message about building to the future with its coaching hire. When the Celtics allowed Doc Rivers to gallivant his way to Los Angeles, they shocked basketball of the professional and collegiate variety by hiring Brad Stevens. The most surprising detail of the move was the six-year, $22 million contract Danny Ainge laid at Stevens' feet.
Ainge found the coach he wanted and committed. A six-year deal is almost unprecedented in today's coaching circles, but Ainge knew that the only way to lure Stevens from his post at Butler was to give him security that the hammer wasn't coming down at the first sign of struggle.
The Lakers need to send a similar message. Hiring older retreads or an aging college coach doesn't make sense. Guys such as Rambis and Scott haven't proven themselves capable NBA coaches. Neither Phil nor Coach K are walking through that door. The answer lies with pursuing Ollie or a young assistant such as J.B. Bickerstaff and making a clear and decided look to the future.
The Lakers are going to struggle finding a star-level free agent this summer. It's no guarantee that LeBron James, Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade even hits the open market. Dirk Nowitzki is a free agent on paper only. Carmelo Anthony seems like a possibility until you realize he'd be giving up $30 million to leave for a situation arguably worse than the one he's currently in.
The Lakers might be able to lure a Lance Stephenson or Kyle Lowry type to Los Angeles. But that's not nearly enough to shift the power balance to make this a playoff team—the Western Conference is just way too good.
Barring something unforeseen, the Lakers are going to be bad next year—not nearly as hopeless and dreadful as 2013-14, but somewhere in the murky middle of mediocrity. A core of a healthy Bryant, a top-tier lottery pick, a mid-level free agent and other flotsam can be semi-competitive—just not playoff competitive. That probably won't be nearly good enough for Bryant, who, based on all his recent statements, expects a return to glory.
This summer continues what should be a three- or four-year process that began when Dwight Howard turned down a cool $30 million to bolt to Houston. The only way to begin that process and send a message to Bryant is to hire a coach he knows is guaranteed to be around much longer than he will be.
The Lakers wanted to send that message next summer. D'Antoni just wasn't satisfied playing the placeholder.
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