LA Lakers: Pat Riley & 10 Dark Horse Candidates to Replace Phil Jackson

Howard Ruben@howardrubenContributor IMay 11, 2011

LA Lakers: Pat Riley & 10 Dark Horse Candidates to Replace Phil Jackson

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    With a lockout looming and the Lakers suddenly out of the playoffs, the most interesting story for the time being is the coaching change that’s about to take place now that Phil Jackson has apparently coached his last game for the team.

    By halftime of Sunday’s “Debacle in Dallas”, sports writers, broadcasters, extended family members and Joe at the post office all seemed to be chirping about who might replace the Zen Master now that his time as Lakers head coach was about to expire.

    We’ve all read about the logical candidates; Brian Shaw, Byron Scott and Kurt Rambis quickly come to mind.  If management thinks the Triangle Offense needs to stay in place, then Shaw, who has sat by Phil’s side for six years and has the respect and endorsement of Kobe Bryant, would seem the logical pick to be handed the keys to the team’s practice facilities.

    But, what about picking a dark horse candidate?  Let’s face it; no one thought Animal Kingdom, at 20-1 odds, was going to win the Kentucky Derby.  How many of you even knew who this horse was?  I don’t see a lot of hands out there.

    What’s fun about picking a dark horse as Phil’s successor is that it’s a win-win scenario for me, the opinionated guy with a keyboard and a forum.  If someone from this list ends up with the job, I’ll look like the second coming of Carnac the Magnificent (those of you under 35 might need to Google this one). 

    If none of these names are announced at a Mitch Kupchak press conference in late June, well then, who will really care?  They were dark horse candidates after all and the odds were stacked against them.

    Let’s take a look at 10 names that you might not have thought about before.  Some of the candidates for this plum job may surprise you—or even make you laugh. 

    Magic Johnson wants to "blow up" the Lakers.  Picking a dark horse as coach could be the best way to light the fuse.

10. Tom Izzo: Michigan State Head Coach

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    This would be an intriguing option for the Lakers. 

    Tom Izzo annually fields calls from interested NBA teams and why not? 

    He’s one of the most successful collegiate coaches of the past 15 years, having led the Spartans to six Big Ten championships, one NCAA title, six Final Four appearances and 13 straight NCAA tournaments. 

    Izzo is a four time national coach of the year and has compiled a superb record of 364-146.  His teams have produced 12 All Americans and six first-round NBA draft picks. 

    Eighty-four percent of his eligible players have graduated with a degree from the university.

    Izzo might be the perfect choice to further develop some of the younger players on the Lakers as the team begins the slow process of trying to get younger while maintaining their veteran leadership that’s resulted in three straight Finals appearances prior to this season.

    He’s a long shot but you have to think Dr. Buss would at least consider the option.  And it doesn’t hurt that Izzo and Magic Johnson have East Lansing in common.

9. Mike Krzyzewski: Duke Head Coach

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    It’s well known that Kobe Bryant always respected Coach K and would have welcomed him into the Purple and Gold family had the Duke head coach said yes back in 2005.

    Mike Krzyzewski is a long shot because he’s repeatedly said that he’s happy being the coach of Duke and loves the college game too much to leave. 

    The Lakers are not the only team that has coveted this extraordinary coach who has built a remarkable 827-225 record in his 30 years at Duke, a 900-284 mark when you count the five years he spent as Army’s head coach prior to that.

    Coach K is just three wins away from breaking Bob Knight’s NCAA record for victories, and so the chances of him leaving Chapel Hill for Los Angeles seem remote at best.

    Still, the lure of coaching some of the game’s top players (especially Kobe) on the pro level may be enticing enough for Krzyzewski to at least listen to the Lakers management. 

    Bryant got the chance to play for Coach K, when Team USA (“The Redeem Team”) won the Gold Medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.  

     It was a perfect 8-0 experience and there’s no question he wouldn’t mind one bit if Coach K took over for Phil in the fall.

    Given the fact that there may be a lockout and that Coach K is 64 years old, the odds of him making the jump to the NBA are slim.  But, never say never.

8. Avery Johnson: New Jersey Nets Head Coach

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    You can’t blame a guy for dreaming: Avery Johnson and Deron Williams come to Los Angeles at the same time this summer; the former as new head coach and the latter as the Lakers answer to their point guard issues.

    I’m jumping ahead here because this is supposed to be about the head coaching position, so more on the All-Star Williams later. 

    First and foremost, Avery Johnson is a winner.  He would be a great fit as the next Lakers coach after spending the past year trying to steer the rudderless Nets and doing a pretty good job without much talent.

    Under Johnson, the Nets improved 12 games from their dismal 2009-10 season that saw them win just 12 games. 

    Until they landed Williams in a trade from Utah this past February, the team had very little to work with and it’s widely been rumored that the former Jazz star will not sign an extension with the Nets unless they dramatically improve the team and do it soon.  He underwent successful wrist surgery in April.

    An undrafted journeyman who managed to play 16 years in the NBA, Johnson is best remembered for hitting the championship winning shot for the San Antonio Spurs against the New York Knicks in Game of the 1999 season. 

    His coaching career has been equally impressive—Johnson coached the Dallas Mavericks from 2005-08 and was an instant success in his first stint at the head job, taking the team to a record 66 wins in 2005-06 and then to the NBA Finals for the first time the following year. 

    The team lost to Miami after winning the first two games and dropping the next four, but Johnson had proven himself as a top flight coach. 

    He may stay in New Jersey where the new owners are trying to build a contender.  Or, he just may be lured into taking the Lakers job.

7. Patrick Ewing: Orlando Magic Assistant Coach

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    Considering as how the Lakers most likely will hold onto their 23-year-old talented center Andrew Bynum, picking Patrick Ewing as their next coach might not be so farfetched an idea.

    If he stays healthy, Bynum may become the cornerstone of the future for Los Angeles, despite his bush league flagrant foul in Game 4 against JJ Barea and his subsequent slap in the face of the franchise when he took off his Lakers jersey before exiting after being ejected from the game.

    Ewing could be that stabilizing presence that someone like Bynum, Dereck Character and Ebanks could all use as they progress throughout their careers.  Now an assistant coach with Orlando, Ewing has the right pedigree to be a head coach of a winning franchise such as the Lakers.

    Inducated into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2008, Ewing had a stellar professional career as a player for the New York Knicks, Seattle and Orlando. 

    His many honors from college and the pros include: Rookie of the Year (1986), All-NBA First Team (1990), All-NBA Second Team (1988, '89, '91, '92, '93, '97), NBA All-Defensive Second Team (1988, '89, '92), 11-time All-Star; one of 50 Greatest Players in NBA History (1996); two-time Olympic gold medalist (1984, '92); NCAA Basketball Tournament Most Outstanding Player (1984); and Naismith College Player of the Year in (1985).

    The Lakers would respect and play for Ewing.  He was a defensive stalwart as a player and could help Bynum improve that aspect of his game and take it to another level. 

    When Ewing’s former NBA rival Alonzo Mourning was diagnosed with a kidney ailment in 2000, Ewing said that if he ever needed a transplant, he would donate one of his kidneys. 

    He later learned he wasn’t a match for Mourning, but, hey, this is the type of guy you’d want leading a team into battle.

6. Jeff Van Gundy: ESPN Basketball Broadcast Analyst

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    This NBA analyst for ESPN was a pretty darn good basketball coach in his previous life and he’s expressed an interest to come back to the job after being away the past four years.

    Many people remember him for the 1998 NBA Playoffs series between the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat, when, during a violent, bench clearing brawl, the 5’9”, 150 pound Van Gundy tried to break up the fight and literally fell to the floor clinging to the Heat’s 6'10", 240-pound center Alonzo Mourning.

    But Van Gundy can coach.  He has a proven track record of success with the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks.  He led the Knicks to the playoffs six times, including a memorable run to the NBA Finals in 1999. 

    Van Gundy coached the Rockets from 2003-07 and was unceremoniously fired after the team lost a tough seven game first round playoff series to the Utah Jazz.  He’s been with ESPN ever since.

    Van Gundy is a dark horse because he’s been out of the coache's corner for four years.  But his experience as a broadcaster has allowed him to see the game from all angles and he’d probably make an even better coach now.

    Van Gundy has called many of the Lakers postseason games the past few years and so he’s extremely familiar with most of the players. 

    He has a great respect for the game, something Lakers management prides itself on and demands of its players and coaches.

5. Pat Riley: President of the Miami Heat

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    This is about as dark horse as you can get. 

    Riley is President of the Miami Heat and there’s been widespread speculation for the past year that if the team failed to win in the playoffs this year, he might consider coming down from his perch to coach that team and fire Erik Spoelstra in the process.

    Coming back to Los Angeles to coach the Lakers is probably not something most observers would consider for the former Lakers coach and player. 

    But stranger things have happened and there is a very strong connection between Riley and the entire organization.

    Pat Riley had his greatest success as a coach with the Lakers.  A former player for the team, Riley first turned to broadcasting and was the team’s color analyst alongside Chick Hearn. 

    Almost by default, Riley was handed the heading coaching job when Jerry West refused to take the reins during a press conference at the beginning of the 1981-82 season.  Owner Jerry Buss gave the team to Riley and he never looked back.

    There’s no doubt that Riley can coach—he’s one of the game’s best ever.  He led the Lakers to four world championships and Miami to one in 2006 before stepping down to become the team’s President. 

    Riley was NBA Coach of the Year three times and was named one of the top 10 coaches in NBA history in 1996.

    Pat Riley most likely will remain in Miami – he has nothing left to prove.  But should he get the itch to coach again, the Lakers would surely help him scratch it.

4. John Calipari: Kentucky Wildcats Head Coach

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    There’s no doubting John Calipari’s abilities to motivate his players; he’s won at every college he’s coached at, including Kentucky, Memphis and the University of Massachusetts.   

    He also led the New Jersey Nets to 43 wins and a playoff berth during the 1997-98 NBA season, a high water mark for that dismal franchise during the 1990s.

    Overall, Calipari has a 509-151 college coaching record, a .771 winning percentage.   He is known for his ability to make the best out of the talent he does or does not have.

    In February 2010, Pat Forde, writer of a regular college sports column called "Forde Minutes" for, recalled one of Calipari's great achievements as coach of Massachusetts:

    “Calipari's greatest strength as a coach is his ability to create teams that play together. His 1992 Massachusetts team remains one of the most overachieving units the Minutes has ever seen, featuring a shooting guard with range so limited he made one three-pointer all season (Jim McCoy), a 6'3" power forward (Will Herndon), and a left-handed center who stood all of 6'7" (Harper Williams).

    Somehow, that collection of marginal talent went 30-5 and advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16.”

    Calipari's college teams have always been troubled by NCAA rules violations, though never implicated himself in any wrong doing.  He wouldn't have that issue in the NBA.

    Calipari will coach again in the NBA, no doubt about it.  Will it be the Lakers?  It's another long shot but a possibility.

3. Nate McMillen: Portland Trailblazers Head Coach

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    The head coach of the Trailblazers is a dark horse simply because he’s got a signed contract with Portland and to pry him lose would cost the Lakers money and draft picks.

    McMillan has yet to win any NBA titles but he has shown an outstanding ability to motivate players and calm a team that’s had a long history of disappointment and terrible injuries that have decimated their overall performance. 

    His 2009-10 Portland team won 50 games and McMillan was a steadying influence on such young budding stars as LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, and Rudy Fernandez. 

    Portland finished the season 48-24 and should have taken out the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.  After knotting the series at two games each, Portland lost two straight, including game six at home and the Mavs took them out. 

    Still, McMillan is considered one of the bright young coaches in the league and the Lakers would do well to sign him. 

    It's highly unlikely given the circumstances, but then, so were the odds of getting Shaquille O'Neal from Orlando, Kobe Bryant from Charlotte and Pau Gasol from Memphis.

2. Mike Dunleavy: Former Coach Los Angeles Clippers

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    Mike Dunleavy cut his coaching teeth on the Los Angeles Lakers, taking over for Pat Riley in 1990. 

    He led the Lakers in 1991-92 to the NBA Finals in his first year with the team.  That team eventually lost to the Chicago Bulls in five games, a team that featured one Michael Jordan.

    Dunleavy left Los Angeles for Milwaukee after the 1991-92 season but has always been well regarded by Lakers management as he pursued other NBA jobs with the Bucks, Portland Trailblazers and Los Angeles Clippers.

    Dunleavy has twice held the positions of coach and general manager at the same time, something that would not happen were he to become the Lakers new coach.

    Though his name is not mentioned often for this position, Dunleavy is a good candidate and an excellent coach who has been through the NBA wars and knows what it takes to win.

1. Doc Rivers: Boston Celtics Head Coach

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    When was the last time a Celtics head coach left that team to become coach of their hated rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers?  How about never.

    No time like the present to turn history upside down.  Doc Rivers would be a superb choice to guide the Lakers next season for a number of reasons.

    First, he knows this team almost as well as any coach in the league, having coached against them in two NBA Finals matchups.  He knows their strengths and weaknesses and how to defend against the likes of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.

    Secondly, Rivers knows how to coach veterans.  The Celtics are even older than the Lakers and Rivers found a way to cajole Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce into playing the best team basketball of their long and distinguished careers.  They won a championship, their 17th, in 2007-08 under Rivers.

    Like the Lakers, the Celtics know how to win championships and they know about pride and they know how to play as a team.  Doc Rivers has learned the culture and he could bring that to Los Angeles where the team demands nothing less than perfection.

    Last year, when the Celtics played the Lakers at Staples Center in February 2010, Rivers collected $100 from his players, assistant coaches and team managers and stuffed $2600 into a ceiling tile at the arena. 

    He told his players and colleagues they could get their money back when they came back to Staples Center—which, as it turned out, would be during the NBA Finals in June of last year.

    Rivers managed to hide the money for close to four months until the team came back for the Finals. 

    If he ends up taking the Lakers head coaching job in June of this year, he'll have quite a bit more money coming his way from Staples Center and this time he won't have to hide it.