Ranking LA Lakers Rumored Coaching Candidates

David MurphyFeatured ColumnistMay 30, 2014

Ranking LA Lakers Rumored Coaching Candidates

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    Danny Johnston/Associated Press

    Nearly a month after Mike D’Antoni stepped down as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, the search for his replacement is picking up steam.

    So far, the Lakers have met with Mike Dunleavy, Byron Scott, Kurt Rambis, Alvin Gentry and Lionel Hollins, according to Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner for the Los Angeles Times.

    More meetings will take place over the coming days and weeks, with Lakers executives Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss running point and team governor Jeanie Buss adding input. Once the field has been narrowed and refined, a recommendation will be presented to the other four Buss siblings—Joey, Jesse, Johnny Bus and Janie Buss Drexel.

    The team is casting an unusually wide net this time around—mindful of finding a coach who will maximize the effectiveness of aging superstar Kobe Bryant as he heads into a two-year contract extension that will likely wrap up his career.

    According to Bresnahan in a separate Times article earlier this month, Kupchak emphasized Bryant’s importance during a conference call with reporters:

    We have a player on our team right now who's proven in this league offensively who can score. That certainly is a consideration. We have to make sure that whoever we hire as a coach can really get the most productivity out of him, whether it's scoring the ball or playmaking or the threat that he may score. That's probably of primary importance right now.

    From prospective new coaching faces to grizzled pros, the Hollywood screen tests have begun.

9. Luke Walton

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    Luke Walton, who recently turned 34, is part of the new transitional youth movement in the NBA's coaching ranks.

    He also has a lengthy history with the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Walton was drafted by Los Angeles in 2003 as its No. 32 pick. He wore the Purple and Gold for nine seasons, winning two rings as a pass-first small forward with superb court vision. While dealing with recurring back problems, he also acted as an unofficial assistant coach under Phil Jackson, tracking plays on a clipboard and sitting in on coaching meetings.

    During the NBA lockout of 2011, Walton worked with the University of Memphis as an assistant coach. He was subsequently traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers where he finished his career as a player.

    This past season, Walton was a player development coach for the Lakers D-League team, the D-Fenders. He also works as an analyst for the Lakers’ Time Warner Cable channel.

    The son of the legendary Bill Walton, Luke has been immersed in basketball for his entire life. It would not be a stretch to see him as a head coach in the NBA—someday. For now, however, running the Lakers seems to be a long shot.

    There may be an open chair for Walton on the Lakers’ sidelines this coming season—as an assistant coach, getting more seasoning and preparing for the future.

8. Alvin Gentry

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    Alvin Gentry, one of the latest Lakers coaching possibilities to emerge, falls squarely into the category of "seasoned veteran."

    Gentry has been an assistant college coach for Baylor and Colorado, an assistant NBA coach for the San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat. Detroit Pistons, Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers and a head coach for the Heat, Pistons, Clippers and Suns.

    Per Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times, Gentry recently spoke with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak by phone and followed up with an in-person interview with Kupchak and executive vice president Jim Buss:

    The Lakers became more interested in talking with Gentry after speaking with several coaches and executives who raved about Gentry’s offensive philosophy, according to one executive. Gentry, the offensive coach for the Clippers, was credited with helping the Clippers become the top-scoring team in the NBA during the regular season.

    Gentry is generally seen around the league as a steadying influence. He is also currently speaking with the Cleveland Cavaliers about their head coaching vacancy.

    While this is all well and good, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the right choice for the Lakers at this point. Gentry tends to be an advocate of a fast-paced, high-scoring game, and the last guy who tried that with the Lakers was Mike D’Antoni.

    There’s no need to belabor D’Antoni’s run-and-gun record in Los Angeles. Suffice to say that Kobe Bryant would be better served by a deliberate, structured system of basketball that places a premium on half-court sets.

    The Gentry interview feels more like a team doing its due diligence than a burning desire to get right back to a high-octane style of play.

7. Quin Snyder

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    Quin Snyder is an absolute wild card. He may deserve better than the No. 7 ranking, but in truth, he’s an intriguing long shot who probably won’t make the final cut.

    As the starting point guard at Duke, Snyder made it to the Final Four three times under Mike Krzyzewski. As a grad student, Snyder spent a season as an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Clippers before returning to the Blue Devils as an assistant and then associate head coach for Coach K.

    Snyder, who is detail-driven and highly intelligent, was once seen as a rising star. He spent seven years as head coach for Missouri before allegations of NCAA violations brought everything tumbling down. He wound up coaching the Austin Toros in the D-League, was an assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers, the Los Angeles Lakers (under Mike Brown) and most recently the Atlanta Hawks.

    He was also the lead assistant to Ettore Messina for CSKA Moscow for one season—the two met while working with the Lakers under Brown.

    Kevin Ding for Bleacher Report writes about an individual with a curious but practical nature who formed a connection with Kobe Bryant during his season as a Lakers assistant coach:

    If the Lakers aren't going to be able to reload for Bryant in 2014 free agency, it would be nice at least to give him a coach he feels more comfortable with as he resumes his status as the team's centerpiece But beyond that, Snyder's blend of energy and authority to inspire players would give the Lakers the sort of immediate makeover they very much need.

    Snyder’s name isn’t mentioned as often as other Lakers coaching candidates. That doesn’t make the idea any less interesting.

6. Kurt Rambis

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Kurt Rambis is one of the names you’ll often hear mentioned in connection with the Lakers coaching vacancy—he’s been part of the organization for a very long time.

    According to Dave McMenamin of ESPN LA, Rambis was among the pool of initial candidates to interview for the Los Angeles Lakers coaching position last week.

    Whether he’s at the top of the list is debatable, but he certainly has an inside track when it comes to matters of Purple and Gold.

    Rambis joined the Lakers as a free-agent power forward in 1980, won four championship titles during the Showtime era and subsequently segued into a series of roles for the organization as a front office exec, interim head coach, assistant coach under Phil Jackson and most recently assistant coach under Mike D’Antoni.

    Rambis was also the head coach for the Minnesota Timberwolves for two seasons, installing the triangle offense to less than stellar results.

    Given his long relationship with Phil Jackson, it’s not surprising that Rambis is also being mentioned as a candidate for the still open head coaching position with the New York Knicks.

    The longtime inside player is also close with Lakers ownership—Kurt’s wife, Linda, is one of Jeanie Buss’ closest friends as well as manager of special projects for the team.

    Rambis would be one of the smoothest transitions of any of these candidates. The question of course is whether he’s truly the right leader to take the Lakers through a challenging rebuild process and back to championship contention.

    He’s a safe choice but not the best one.

5. Mike Dunleavy

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    Mike Dunleavy may not hold the same intrigue as some of the fresh new voices being mentioned for head coaching roles these days. Yet, he may be one of the most practical choices for the Lakers.

    Speaking on 710 ESPN’s Max & Marcellus, Dunleavy pointed out the differences between his style of coaching and that of Mike D’Antoni, especially in regard to Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman: “For me, I play a power game. It’s an advantage. I love to play that way. I thought Kaman and Gasol were a great fit.”

    Dunleavy would also appeal to Bryant by putting him into his favored post-up and wing spots and generally running an offensive system that’s geared toward half-court sets.

    In many ways, the veteran coach is a traditionalist—preaching defensive stops and rebounds to push the ball up the floor and maximizing the skill sets of players through specific play-calling.

    Dunleavy hasn’t coached in the NBA since the 2009-10 season with the Los Angeles Clippers. And while he’s never won an NBA championship, he’s had his chances. In 1991, he was the Lakers’ head coach and lost to Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls in the Finals.

    Dunleavy also had a shot with the Portland Trail Blazers—a volatile and powerful team. In 2000, at Staples Center for Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, Portland was ahead by 15 points with 10 minutes to go. Powered by Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers came roaring back—winning the game in the closing moments.

    The Lakers would go on to win their first championship under Phil Jackson, beating the Indiana Pacers in seven games. Dunleavy’s consolation prize was being named NBA Coach of the Year.

4. Derek Fisher

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    Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

    Derek Fisher, who won five NBA championships as a player with the Los Angeles Lakers, has recently emerged as a leading candidate to be their next head coach.

    The chief issue, however, is that he has no actual coaching experience. In fact, he’s still trying to win one more ring as a player with the Oklahoma City Thunder who are currently locked into a dogfight with the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.

    Once OKC’s playoffs come to completion, Fisher will address the next phase of his career. He has been mentioned in connection with either a coaching or front office job with the New York Knicks as well.

    Adrian Wojnarowski for Yahoo Sports, recently wrote that the Lakers’ former point guard could regenerate the team's culture as its new sidelines leader: "Once the Oklahoma City Thunder’s season ends, Fisher will have a willingness to listen to coaching, front office and broadcasting possibilities. As for the Lakers' coaching job, it holds tremendous appeal to him, sources with knowledge of his thinking told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday night."

    Fisher would have a lot of support from fans as well as from friend and former teammate Kobe Bryant. But is he truly coveted by the front office and ownership?

    Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding recently appeared on The Dan Patrick Show and offered this interesting observation: “I was told yesterday by two people not to expect Fish to be the Lakers coach. He’s never had that warm fuzzy relationship with the Buss family, so, it’s not necessarily as logical as people may think.”

    D-Fish’s Lakers ranking may just have taken a hit.

3. Byron Scott

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    When it comes to obvious names for the current Lakers coaching search, none is more front and center than that of Byron Scott.

    He has the Lakers pedigree from his years as a Showtime player and all that goes with it—three championship rings and a longstanding relationship with general manager Mitch Kupchak and the Buss family.

    There is also a special relationship with Kobe Bryant.  In the last season of Scott’s NBA playing career, he returned to the Lakers and mentored Bryant as a young rookie. It feels like a case of bookends now—the possibility of one former champion coming back to guide another, who is now also in his twilight years.

    Scott, who currently works as an analyst for the Lakers’ Time Warner Cable channel, was one of the first to formally interview for the open position and has been publicly making his case ever since.

    During a phone interview with Sam Amick for USA Today Sports, Scott drilled down hard on the Bryant angle:

    I think the Kobe relationship is going to play a big part. Again, I think I've got a hand up on (the job) because of our relationship. We get along extremely well. Kobe knows all about me and what I'm about. He knows that I'm an old-school coach who's very demanding on the defensive end and knows that defense and rebounding wins championships, so I think from that point of view we see eye to eye.

    Despite all his confidence, however, a simple question remains—is Scott truly the best man for the job?

    His sideline career has been marked by both highs and lows—he took the New Jersey Nets to the Finals twice, was a Coach of the Year with the New Orleans Hornets and most recently failed to make the playoffs during three seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    Scott’s lifetime coaching record of .444 isn’t a particularly strong endorsement.

    Yet, he’s got the Lakers history and the friendship with Bryant, and there may be no other candidate who is pushing as hard for the job. Time will tell if he’s successful.

2. Jeff Van Gundy

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    Jeff Van Gundy is nothing if not elusive when it comes to discussions about rejoining the NBA coaching ranks.  As a popular analyst for ESPN television, he’ll venture an opinion on almost anything—except his own future prospects.

    Typically, the notoriously quirky Van Gundy will deflect all such queries, citing his wish to respect whomever may currently hold a particular job—even if the position is absolutely vacant.

    That’s part of the allure and intrigue—the constant speculation about if and when he’s going to make his long-awaited return. Van Gundy seems to be on all of the media mentions for the Lakers head coaching position, yet there has been no acknowledgement from him that such a thing could be a possibility.

    Van Gundy was both an assistant and head coach with the New York Knicks for over a decade, advancing to the Finals in 1999 before losing to the San Antonio Spurs. More recently, he coached the Houston Rockets for four seasons, ending in 2007.

    And, he only missed the playoffs once in 10 full seasons as a head coach in the NBA.

    The younger of the Van Gundy brothers, Jeff has always had a defensive mindset with the ability to get the most out of individual players, especially within the context of melding unique talents to a team-first approach.

    Despite never having won a ring, he is iconoclastic in a way that few active head coaches are these days. Would he take the Lakers on a fun ride? Absolutely. He’ll have to agree to an interview first, however.

1. Lionel Hollins

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    USA TODAY Sports

    So here we are finally—Lionel Hollins earns the top ranking for this list of nine.

    He's not the fresh face of Fisher or Walton, the inside candidacy of Rambis, the intrigue of Snyder, the intellect of Van Gundy or the pure craving of Scott.

    Nope, Hollins is the guy. He’s not a Lakers lifer, but that’s OK—there’s no rule that says a new hire has to be tied to the past. This is about moving forward.

    It’s also about a straightforward approach. Hollins preaches defense and accountability and puts his players before front office politics or numerical trends.

    He is also an example of the waning importance of actual coaching in some quarters.

    Hollins led the Memphis Grizzlies to their first ever Western Conference Finals last season—losing to the San Antonio Spurs. As a reward, his contract wasn’t renewed.

    What went wrong? To oversimplify, he ran afoul of analytics and management interference.

    There’s more to it than that, of course, and it’s fair to ask whether Hollins’ dedication to the sanctity of the team and a stubborn adherence to old school fundamentals might once again cause problems.

    Then again, Lakers management could see him as a relative picnic when compared to 11 seasons with Phil Jackson—an imperial sideline presence who ruled his domain in no uncertain terms.

    How would Kobe Bryant react? Hollins’ no-nonsense approach would probably suit him just fine—Bryant has always been about the work and commitment.

    Hollins began his career as a point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers, playing alongside Bill Walton during the team’s 1977 championship season. A 10-year journeyman career as a player led to a string of assistant and head coaching positions, from college to minor league basketball to the NBA. He’s a guy who’s done and seen a lot yet doesn’t belong to the realm of graybeards.

    Hollins could be a smart, practical choice and could bring a sense of accountability and discipline back to the Purple and Gold.