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Why Lakers Should Hire a Rookie Head Coach Amid Russell Westbrook Trade Rumors

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMay 17, 2022

Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook (0) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns, Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Plenty of criticism was given to the Los Angeles Lakers' decision to acquire Russell Westbrook last offseason. Not only was the 33-year-old an expensive player—he carried a cap hit of $44.2 million last season—but he was a questionable fit for the Lakers' roster and system.

Ultimately, Westbrook proved to be a poor fit, and that's putting it mildly. Los Angeles stumbled to a 33-49 record, and there was a clear disconnect between coach Frank Vogel and Westbrook.

"I think it's unfortunate, to be honest, because I've never had an issue with any of my coaches before," Westbrook said, per ESPN's Dave McMenamin. "I'm not sure what his issue was with me or I'm not sure why, but I can't really give you an answer to why we really never connected."

Vogel was fired at the end of the season, and it was fair to assume that Westbrook might be shown the door next. However, recent buzz seems to indicate that the Lakers would prefer to make things work with the nine-time All-Star.

Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times even recently hinted that coaching advisor Phil Jackson would prefer to trade LeBron James over Westbrook.

"I've heard that Phil would like LeBron traded," Plaschke told The Doug Gottlieb Show (h/t Jacob Rude of Silver Screen and Roll). "I've just heard that, but I've got nothing to back that up. No on-the-record stuff to back that up. I do know that Phil would like to keep Westbrook and try to make that work with him."

While trading James probably isn't in the cards—The Athletic's Sam Amick reported earlier this month that president Jeanie Buss is content to keep James whether or not he signs an extension—retaining Westbrook could be.

According to Amick, the Lakers are looking for a Vogel replacement who will work with Westbrook moving forward:

"Despite the widely held belief that the Lakers would find a way to trade Westbrook before the start of next season, sources say their coaching candidates have been asked to discuss how they would use him in their system during interviews. The takeaway for candidates, it seems, is that maximizing Westbrook's presence after his disastrous 2021-22 season is considered an important part of this job."

While hiring an experienced head coach used to handling prolific players like Westbrook, James and Anthony Davis would make some sense, L.A.'s desire to keep Westbrook makes a rookie coach the right hire.

While veteran coaches like Vogel come in with an established and often proven system, they may be reluctant to adapt to the players at their disposal. This seemed to be the biggest issue between Vogel and Westbrook, and it was apparent early.

"When I first got here, the ability to be able to do what I'm able to do for a team and an organization wasn't given a fair chance," Westbrook said, per McMenamin.

What Westbrook has traditionally done well is bring the offense up the court, distribute the ball and score in quick transition. In Vogel's system—as in many modern NBA offenses—any player could take the ball up the court. This was reportedly a point of contention early, and the player-coach relationship never improved.

"From that point on, in training camp, it was a wrap, 'cause now Russ is a fish out of water. He doesn't know what to do. That's how that started," one Lakers staff member told Dan Woike and Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times.

In a first-time head coach, the Lakers might find someone willing to adapt to his players' strengths and their input rather than trying to force the proverbial square peg into a round hole. And if the Lakers are going to find success with James, Davis and Westbrook as their Big Three, that's what it's going to take.

The caveat, of course, is that L.A. can't simply hire a yes man who will allow the players to run the show. The Lakers need a coach who will work with their players and not for them. At least they seem to recognize this while diving into less-experienced candidates.

"Several of the first-year candidates they've been linked to are former players that are known to command respect," Jovan Buha of The Athletic wrote.

Buha mentioned Milwaukee Bucks assistant Darvin Ham and former Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts as the two candidates "closest" to being front-runners at this point in the process. Ham, an eight-year NBA veteran, fits the mold of a former player who can hold the respect of his team.

Eric Nehm of The Athletic mentioned Bucks assistant Charles Lee as a candidate who would make sense.

"He is a former Division I basketball player and his personality is quite infectious," Nehm said. "He knows the game and gets along well with players. Put all of that together and you have one of the brightest young coaches in the league."

Neither Ham nor Lee have NBA head coaching experience, but both appear well-suited for the current incarnation of the Lakers. Whether one of them lands the job remains to be seen, but the Lakers would be wise to strongly consider up-and-coming assistants of their ilk.

James, Davis and Westbrook still make for an extremely talented trio, but it's going to take a few new ideas to maximize their collective skills. A rookie coach will be in a much better position to provide a fresh approach than a veteran retread.

And anyone who believes a rookie coach can't guide a veteran Lakers team should consider this: Ime Udoka is a former player and first-time head coach who has the Boston Celtics playing in the Eastern Conference Finals.

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