What Kind of Coach Do LA Lakers Need After Mike D'Antoni?March 13, 2014
NBA coaches are rarely ever safe—least of all Los Angeles Lakers head honcho Mike D'Antoni.
On a scale of New York Knicks head coach Mike Woodson to an infant car-surfing on the German Autobahn, D'Antoni's job security falls somewhere in between.
Citing an anonymous source, Stephen A. Smith, speaking on ESPN's First Take, flat-out indicated D'Antoni won't be coaching the Lakers next season.
"I had a source tell me last night [that] Mike D’Antoni is gone at the end of the season," Smith said (h/t Lakers Nation's Corey Hansford). "He won’t be there [...] I’m just telling you, that’s the word coming out of L.A."
The writing on the wall has never been easier to read.
And Kobe Bryant's displeasure has never been easier to hear.
Speaking during a press conference on the heels of our own Kevin Ding reporting he was done for the season, Bryant was, as usual, an open book.
From ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin:
You got to start with Jim. You got to start with Jim and Jeanie and how that relationship plays out. It starts there and having a clear direction and clear authority. And then it goes down to the coaching staff and what Mike (D'Antoni) is going to do, what they're going to do with Mike and it goes from there. It's got to start at the top.
Well, that's awkward.
Shamelessly questioning the stability of your current head coach during the season isn't standard practice. Not even if you're not playing, and not even if you're Bryant.
But there Bryant was, demanding change, wondering aloud if that included alterations on the sideline.
Or was he playing a different angle, not necessarily "wondering," but pleading?
According to Sporting News' Sean Deveney, Bryant has "no interest" in playing for D'Antoni next season. If true, D'Antoni should just pack his bags now. In Los Angeles, Bryant's desires are treated as mandates. If he wants D'Antoni gone, then he's gone.
Assuming all of our intel is accurate, the decision has been made by or for the Lakers: D'Antoni isn't coming back. Their biggest issue now is finding his replacement.
Finding that successor isn't going to be easy for any number of reasons. Chief among them is Bryant—the ever-impatient, sadistically competitive Bryant.
"No. No. Nope," he said when asked if he had enough patience to wait until 2015 for the Lakers to build a contender, per the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan. "Not one lick."
Pleasing Bryant is still the Lakers' first priority and most difficult task. They need to find a coach he respects. Someone like, you know, Phil Jackson.
"You know how I feel about Phil," Bryant opined, via McMenamin. "I have so much admiration for him and respect and I have a great relationship with him."
Winning five championships under a coach has that type of effect. But the days of Jackson and Bryant winning titles together are over.
The Zen Master is doing whatever it is he's going to do in New York. Even if he was available, he wouldn't be open to coaching. He's been there, mastered that.
Duplicating the adulation Bryant has for Jackson is also impossible. The Lakers aren't going to poach a coach from another team or pluck one from the unemployment ranks who leaves Bryant absolutely smitten. Not like he is with Jackson.
Ensuring he vets any potential candidate is a must, though, since they cannot afford another two years of Bryant questioning their decisions.
There's also the system to consider, which is something Bryant—sensing a pattern here?—clearly isn't happy with at the moment.
"I think we have to start at the top in terms of the culture of our team," Bryant explained, according to McMenamin. "What kind of culture do we want to have? What kind of system do we want to have?"
Not D'Antoni's, apparently.
Five or six years ago, when Bryant wasn't on the wrong side of 30 and attempting to come back from a pair of serious injuries, maybe D'Antoni's run-and-gun offense would've suited the shooting guard. Though that's hardly a guarantee, if Magic Mike was able to convince Bryant to play like he did last season—more off the ball with a semblance of pace—then all might have been fine.
Last year is last year—forever ago. When Bryant returns next season, he will be 36 and unable to play in an uptempo offensive system.
Since Bryant entered the league in 1996, the Lakers never used more than 95.6 possessions per 48 minutes before this season. They're burning through 98.2 this year, which isn't going to fly with a ball-dominant-inclined, aging and potentially hobbled Bryant.
The Lakers didn't invest nearly $50 million in Bryant's next two seasons to pair him with a coach whose system doesn't mesh well with his natural skill set, nor one who's also notorious for running his starters ragged. Whoever they bring in next needs to run an offense and defense dedicated to controlling tempo and catering to Bryant's physical limits.
Oh, and possibly Pau Gasol's, too.
Per Lakers Nation's Serena Winters, Bryant still believes Gasol, a free agent this summer, will be back in Los Angeles next season:
For the Lakers to even make that a reality, D'Antoni and his system need to go, something Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher made absolutely clear in an article on Gasol's future:
There was, however, a second part: “My decision will be based purely on sporting considerations. It couldn’t be any other way. I want to be in a team with a real chance of winning a ring and where I can help compete for it. I would like to win another championship. The financial side comes second at this stage in my career.”
Those “sporting considerations,” a team source says, include who the Lakers head coach is, since much of Gasol’s frustration stems from coach Mike D’Antoni and a system that utilizes Gasol largely away from the basket. At least two other players frustrated with their current roles were told to be patient because the Lakers will have a new head coach next season, sources said, but that could’ve been simply to mollify them for the time being.
Bryant has spent the majority of his career playing next to talented bigs. If the Lakers wish to keep it that way, they need to hire someone who doesn't marginalize centers and traditional power forwards by stretching their offensive range beyond conventional limits.
The "It" Guy
The Lakers need someone with that "it factor."
D'Antoni has always been known as a passively lenient player's coach. Discipline isn't his strong suit, nor does he have the credentials necessary to command the respect one needs to survive in Los Angeles.
This doesn't necessarily mean championships, either.
Magic Mike has exactly zero of those, but when it comes down to it, one doesn't need to be flush with rings—a la Jackson—to be a good fit. Established authority figures or rookie head coaches who are disciples of esteemed sideline roamers such as Gregg Popovich or Jackson himself are applicants the Lakers must be seeking.
Those types of coaches are out there. Off the top of our heads, Jeff Van Gundy, Lionel Hollins, Stan Van Gundy or Steve Kerr are all names to keep eyes on.
Stan is the more eccentric of the Van Gundy brothers, and his off-the-cuff coaching style may be too unorthodox even for the Lakers, who bore witness to years of Jackson doing whatever he wanted, no matter how unusual it seemed. Stan also advised Dwight Howard to leave the Lakers this past summer, according to the Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus, so he might not be perched atop the Buss family's list of preferred candidates.
Hollins is an interesting choice if only because of his strong defensive system. The Memphis Grizzlies transformed into defensive juggernauts under his tutelage. His offensive system is simpler than simple, but he never coached a guy who could create for himself the way Bryant can.
Kerr would be a risky gambit because of his inexperience, but he was mentioned as a potential replacement for Woodson in New York, per the New York Daily News' Frank Isola:
A disciple of Jackson's, Kerr is considered one of the few people out there—along with Denver Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw—capable of running the complicated-bordering-on-mysterious Triangle system. It's a brand of basketball Bryant is familiar with, and given his undying affinity for Jackson and his judgment, anyone the Zen Master would hire could be good enough for the Lakers.
Admittedly, the most intriguing name of these four is the balder of the Van Gundy brothers: Jeff.
During his stint with the Knicks and Houston Rockets, Van Gundy guided a vast array of different talents, some of which—Tracy McGrady—really didn't jell with his traditional, gritty, ground-and-pound style of basketball. But he still generated results in Houston, like he did in New York.
If the Lakers are looking for a savvy veteran who is no stranger to the spotlight, he would be one of their best options.
This is all assuming D'Antoni is out, and it seems like he is.
Anyone who is almost the exact opposite of him would be an upgrade at this point. The lack of faith originating from the franchise and fanbase is unnerving, so bringing in someone Laker Nation actually backs would have a positive impact on their free-agency pitches over the next two years.
"It's hard to really understand where we're coming from and what we're accustomed to, which is playing for championships and everything else is a complete failure," Bryant deadpanned, per McMenamin. "That's just how it is."
That's how it's always going to be, and while a coaching change won't act as a cure-all for the Lakers' current woes, it puts additional distance between themselves and this forsaken season.
Which, more than anything else, is what they need.
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.