Ranking Best Available Coaching Candidates for LA Lakers

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistJuly 3, 2014

Ranking Best Available Coaching Candidates for LA Lakers

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    The Lakers were the only team in the NBA without a head coach until Jason Kidd made a sudden detour from the Brooklyn Nets, landing messily with the Milwaukee Bucks.

    This left the Nets without a coach—for about 10 minutes. Per Scott Cacciola of The New York Times, that vacancy has now been filled by the very capable Lionel Hollins, who may well have been the best candidate left for the Lakers.

    But the Lakers continue not to be in any hurry. They’re back to being the only game in town again, albeit with fewer available players.

    Other candidates who had conversations with the Purple and Gold only to exit stage left include Derek Fisher, who joined the New York Knicks as their head coach, and Alvin Gentry, who became Steve Kerr’s associate head coach for the Golden State Warriors.

    And then there were the guys who didn’t actually interview but had solid Lakers connections, such as former Lakers assistant coach Quin Snyder, who was hired as the Utah Jazz’s head coach, and Los Angeles D-Fenders assistant coach Luke Walton, who is finalizing an agreement to become an assistant with Golden State, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.  

    Is anybody left?

    Per Dave McMenamin for ESPN Los Angeles, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak recently mentioned the search during a conversation about free agency: "We may continue to interview, but we have a pretty good feel of what's available and we're comfortable that we can get a good coach, probably in the beginning of July.”

    With the arrival of July, Lakers fans continue to wait and wonder.

Kurt Rambis

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    Kurt Rambis interviewed for the Lakers coaching vacancy in late May, according to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News.

    And according to Marc Berman of the New York Post, Rambis is also in line to become the top assistant under Derek Fisher for the Knicks. That report was in early June.

    Here it is July, and Rambis is still technically an assistant coach for the Purple and Gold. How much longer will this longtime Lakers operative be in a state of limbo?

    UPDATE: According to Ian Begley of ESPN NY on Thursday, Rambis has now agreed to join the Knicks as as assistant coach.

    The former power forward won four rings with the Lakers back in the Showtime era before segueing into a series of organizational roles—executive, interim head coach, assistant coach to Phil Jackson and most recently assistant coach to Mike D’Antoni. He also served two seasons as head coach for the Minnesota Timberwolves, amassing a dismal record of 32-132. Yikes!

    Rambis used the triangle offense with the Timberwolves but it never really jelled.

    Still, he has always been a familiar and popular figure in Los Angeles and has a good relationship with Kobe Bryant—the still reigning superstar of the franchise. Rambis would run the kind of post-centric, half-court system that would appeal to Bryant.

    In other words, he’s a fairly safe veteran presence who shares certain basketball ideologies as well as common history with the other remaining candidates to have interviewed for the job—Byron Scott and Mike Dunleavy.

Mark Jackson

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    Mark Jackson doesn’t have the same breadth of experience as other candidates—he never cut his teeth in the assistant ranks and was head coach of the Golden State Warriors for just three seasons before being fired.

    On the other hand, he was a great motivator with the Warriors, was well-liked by the players and improved their record in each of his three seasons, with playoff appearances in the last two.

    He also preached defense, which hadn’t been the team’s calling card prior to his arrival. Yes, Golden State ran a high-octane run-and-gun offense with a huge emphasis on outside shooting, but that was due to the strengths of the personnel—you’re not going to feature a half-court grind for Stephen Curry.

    So why isn’t Jackson ranked higher when it comes to potential candidates in Los Angeles?

    Quite simply, the team hasn’t met with him, and there has been an obvious lack of buzz about such a possibility. It’s not just the Lakers either—Jackson didn’t land any of the other open coaching jobs, and it’s not at a stretch to wonder if his clashes with Golden State’s front office hurt his reputation across the league.

    Jackson’s results with the Warriors spoke volumes. But he seems like a long shot with the Lakers.

Mike Dunleavy

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    Another coaching candidate with a Western Conference connection is Mike Dunleavy, who took the Lakers to the Finals in 1991 as their head coach, losing to Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls. Most recently, Dunleavy coached the Los Angeles Clippers from 2003 to 2010.

    A former NBA combo guard, he also coached the Milwaukee Bucks and the Portland Trail Blazers. He advanced to the playoffs in all four of his seasons with the Trail Blazers and was also named Coach of the Year in 1999.

    During Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals in 2000, Dunleavy’s Blazers were ahead of the Lakers by 15 points in the fourth quarter. Led by Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers came charging back and won the game in the closing moments. They would go on to win the first of their NBA titles under Jackson.

    Known for having a thick playbook, Dunleavy has often done well with traditional centers and puts a heavy emphasis on defensive stops and rebounds to push the ball back up the floor.

    While discussing the Lakers’ coaching opening on 710 ESPN’s Max & Marcellus, Dunleavy pointed out differences between his style and that of the team’s former sideline leader, Mike D’Antoni: “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.”

    Of the three remaining candidates to have interviewed in person with the Lakers, Dunleavy has the most coaching experience with 17 seasons under his belt. On the other hand, his lifetime winning percentage as a coach of .461 isn’t exactly awe-inspiring.

George Karl

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    Although George Karl hasn’t yet had a formal interview with the Lakers, he did chat with Mitch Kupchak over the phone in early June, according to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News.

    Karl and Kupchak have a longstanding friendship dating back to their days as teammates and roomies at North Carolina.

    There’s a lot to like about Karl as a coach. He’s won more than 1,000 games, has tons of playoff experience and was Coach of the Year in 2013—the last of his nine consecutive seasons with the Denver Nuggets.

    In all, he has coached 25 seasons in the NBA and has also coached overseas with Real Madrid as well as in the CBA for the Montana Golden Nuggets and the Albany Patroons.

    In other words, he knows what he’s doing.

    He is a fiery competitor and a great motivator. However, his style tends toward the open floor, favoring an uptempo pace and pressure defense that forces turnovers and allows his teams to get back quickly in transition. Like D’Antoni, the Lakers’ most recent coach, Karl is also a big proponent of the three-point shot.

    Comparing the two coaches isn’t a particularly good yardstick, however—there are a number of important differences including Karl’s fondness for an aggressive defense. Still, he’s still not particularly enamored of half-court sets, and perhaps most telling of all, he hasn’t yet been granted a sitdown with Jim Buss.

Byron Scott

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    Byron Scott is the obvious front-runner to land the Lakers’ head coaching job. Whether he’s the best candidate is debatable.

    According to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles, “Scott has emerged as the leading candidate for the head-coaching job after impressing in three interviews with the team.”

    His Lakers pedigree is solid, as he won three championship rings as a Showtime player. And he has a special relationship with Kobe Bryant. In the last season of Scott’s NBA playing career, he was invited back by the Lakers in order to mentor Bryant as an 18-year-old rookie.

    Can Scott provide the same kind of guidance and leadership for Bryant at this late stage in his career?

    During an interview with Sam Amick for USA Today, Scott expressed confidence that he could:

    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.

    But is that enough?

    Writing for Forum Blue & Gold, Darius Soriano questions whether Scott’s relationship with Bryant should outweigh certain coaching deficiencies:

    Scott, to me, is a guy who has not shown to be enough of a tactician over the course of his coaching career, often lacking in ability to make adjustments or build schemes that optimize the play of his role players. Sure, Scott seemed to do well enough when Jason Kidd and Chris Paul orchestrated his offenses, but beyond putting the ball in those players’ hands and letting them do what they do best, Scott underwhelmed.

    Ultimately, there’s a question of consistency. Scott has enjoyed highs—including taking the New Jersey Nets to the Finals twice and being named Coach of the Year with the New Orleans Hornets. His most recent stop with the Cleveland Cavaliers, however, resulted in three consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs.

    Is a lifetime career coaching winning percentage of .444 simply a statistical anomaly? And is there anybody else still worth pursuing?

Jeff Van Gundy

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Another candidate is still available, and while he has no prior history with the Lakers, he has experience, a winning record and combines a defensive mindset with the ability to meld players’ unique talents to a team philosophy.

    Jeff Van Gundy is still available as a coach, just has he has been since 2007.

    Maybe he’s having too much fun as an opinionated analyst for ESPN.

    His name is often at the top of coaching wish lists, but he inevitably seems loath to talk about it, citing either respect for other coaches or a discomfort level in discussing such matters.

    Recently, the former coach was approached by Minnesota Timberwolves president Flip Saunders about their vacancy. According to Sid Hartman for the Star Tribune, Van Gundy managed to convince Saunders to return to coaching.

    In the article, Saunders recounts Van Gundy’s reasoning: “He said, ‘The reason I didn’t go to Minnesota was because I felt you were the right guy for the job, not me, and I was uncomfortable.’

    That’s Van Gundy in a nutshell—uncomfortable, notoriously quirky, principled and highly intelligent. He was a head coach twice, leading the New York Knicks to the Finals in 1999 before losing to the San Antonio Spurs and also spending four seasons with the Houston Rockets.

    His career winning percentage as a head coach is .575, and he only missed going to the playoffs once in 10 seasons.

    What would it take to entice Van Gundy back into the coaching fraternity? If the Lakers score big in free agency this summer, will he still resist the temptation?

    That remains to be seen, as the Lakers’ coaching search continues to simmer, seemingly on the back burner.