Every summer, the NBA's coaching carousel spins with a certain sense of urgency.
The Los Angeles Lakers, who have been without a head coach since Mike D'Antoni vacated his post on April 30, definitely feel that urgency. Fresh off one of the worst seasons in franchise history, L.A. enters this summer of question marks with no obvious roads back to relevance.
Settling on a new head coach might seem to illuminate a path to prominence, but the Lakers aren't in the business of settling. They've opted for a deliberate, calculated approach to this marathon search that's far too often viewed from a sprinter's standpoint.
There is no reward for being the first to hire a front man. Potential prizes are only handed out to those fortunate enough to get it right.
For the Lakers, there is no ticking clock surrounding this process. Nothing more than the simple understanding that their next decision could bring ramifications felt by the franchise for years:
That wide coaching net, according to ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin, has already resulted in five formal interviews—Mike Dunleavy, Kurt Rambis, Byron Scott, Alvin Gentry and Lionel Hollins—plus informal discussions with a sixth candidate, George Karl. According to ESPN's Chris Broussard, Scott, who played 11 seasons for the Lakers, has had a pair of meetings with L.A.'s front office.
Sources told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck that Rambis, Gentry and Scott have become the focus of this search. McMenamin has this pegged as a four-person race between Dunleavy, Scott, Gentry and Hollins.
The Lakers, it seems, may not be far enough along in the process to identify a clubhouse leader. Still, they appear to have selected some must-have traits in their next head coach.
All five of the reported interviewees, along with Karl, have head coaching experience at the NBA level. Rambis has the least of all six, but even he's held the prime sideline seat for parts of three seasons.
That common link between the candidates is not a simple coincidence.
"The Lakers have decided they need a coach with previous NBA coaching experience," Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times reported. That decision, as Bresnahan noted, "officially ends their brief thought of interviewing a college coach."
The Lakers' situation may have demanded this decision.
L.A. is looking to rebound from a woeful 27-55 campaign with a roster clouded by uncertainty. The Lakers have just three guaranteed contracts on the books for 2014-15, and two of them belong to a pair of aging stars (the 35-year-old Kobe Bryant and 40-year-old Steve Nash) who played a total of 21 games this season.
They could be buyers in free agency, but there's also the possibility they'll save their financial flexibility for another year.
Barring an unexpected LeBron James sighting on the open market, the Lakers, as Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding reported, "...plan to piece a roster together again next season around Kobe Bryant and save their cap space for 2015."
Bryant, a relentless competitor cut from same cloth as Michael Jordan, will surely give the franchise whatever his body has to offer. Considering his last campaign was cut short by a pair of serious leg injuries (first rehabbing from a torn Achilles, then suffering a fractured knee), it's tough to tell how much the 18-year veteran has left.
The roster should be bolstered with the No. 7 selection in the 2014 draft, which the Lakers could use either on a high-level prospect or in a trade for a proven veteran.
There's hope for an improved cast to break camp in October, but the degree of that improvement remains to be seen. Considering the daunting depth of the Western Conference—where the 48-win Phoenix Suns missed the playoffs—the Lakers would seem to need substantial improvement to avoid missing the postseason in consecutive seasons for just the second time in franchise history.
Despite the obstacles laying in front of them, the next Lakers coach won't be given a free pass. Those don't seem to exist in this market.
"This is a tough place, man," Bryant said during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, via McMenamin. "If you're not winning, you're not going to survive, man."
Experience doesn't necessarily include survival skills, but it should help the next coach better prepare for the challenge ahead.
The Lakers need someone capable of guiding them through a couple transitions.
First, the next coach must strike a balance with Bryant and help lead this team to something of significance over his final years.
If Bryant's body cooperates, he remains one of the premier players in this league. In 2012-13, he led the Lakers with 27.3 points on 46.3 percent shooting, stuffing his stat sheet with 6.0 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals.
If a quick-fix option exists for the Lakers, it starts with maximizing Bryant's production. As general manager Mitch Kupchak noted, via Bresnahan, that potential player-coach relationship will weigh heavily on the coaching search:
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.
The next step is helping usher the franchise into life after Bryant. Maybe there isn't a candidate who shows well under both a short- and a long-term lens, but the Lakers have to find that out for themselves.
Selecting a place-holder would be like putting a Band-Aid on a wound in need of surgical attention. L.A. has to be thinking of both the present and the future, as Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times explained:
Teams in turmoil don't need somebody to keep the coaching seat warm, they need somebody who can build it and shape it and make it shine. The Lakers don't need somebody for two years, they need somebody who could conceivably grow into a champion over the next five to seven years.
The last three permanent Lakers coaches not named Phil Jackson—D'Antoni, Mike Brown and Rudy Tomjanovich—held their respective posts for an average of 89 games. None lasted a full two seasons on the job, and only D'Antoni cleared the 100-game mark.
The Lakers have to find a permanent solution. Someone experienced enough to handle the pressures of coaching such a storied franchise, confident enough to connect with Bryant on a competitive level and sharp enough to shape the organization for years to come.
With so many checklist items to fill, it's no wonder this search has become a timely endeavor.
The urgency to get this right should not be confused with hastiness. There's no need to rush.
As long as the Lakers are moving in some direction, the speed of that movement is not an issue. If they can land a home run hire, no one will care how many pitches they took before sending one into orbit.
Patience isn't simply a virtue, it's a necessity in this case. With heightened stakes in the present and ones that will only grow with time, the Lakers must find someone capable of leading them today and guiding them into tomorrow.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
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