Following a 2012-13 season full of turmoil, in-fighting and injuries, the Los Angeles Lakers were more than due for a bit of a reprieve heading into this season. Needless to say, while most of the drama was kept to a minimum, a 55-loss season (worst in the history of the organization) isn’t going to leave anyone involved with the purple and gold feeling warm and fuzzy inside. In failing to qualify for the postseason, the 2013-14 roster becomes just the sixth team to do so in the franchise’s 66-year history. Even through what may seem to be the darkest of times for such a heralded franchise, that bit of perspective is necessary at this point.
While the exploits in record books do little to guarantee or even impact future success, fans of the organization can at least take solace in knowing this is a front office that has embraced the challenge of completely rebuilding in the past. Even still, the process hasn’t been without a few snags along the way. From unceremonious playoff exits followed by questionable coaching hirings, to negated trades and some of the worst luck with injuries any team has seen in recent memory, the past three-plus years certainly haven’t gone quite as smoothly as most associated with the team are accustomed to.
Beyond the obvious void left by the late Dr. Jerry Buss, Jim Buss and GM Mitch Kupchak are also without the luxury of an in-prime Kobe Bryant, as they had in their most recent revamping during the mid 2000’s following Shaquille O’Neal’s exit. For the record, it is precisely that bit of uncertainty that has a great deal of the fanbase so uncomfortable with the current state of affairs. For a group that has been able to at least settle into the fact that Bryant’s impenetrable will and fortitude were all but guaranteed for the better part of the past 20 years, it is an understandably difficult thing to acknowledge his impending mortality.
Stubbornness aside, that doesn’t change the reality of the situation, and while Bryant’s 2014-15 return will be just as anticipated as the one he attempted to make this season, the organization has to see that it is simply no longer something that can be counted upon.
Make no mistake about it, Bryant will approach this challenge in the same borderline maniacal fashion he’s conditioned all of us to simply expect at this point. He is certain to complete his customary ‘take-no-prisoners’ rehab/training process and find a way to squeeze every bit of remaining talent and skill from his frame, but that offers little in terms of guaranteeing a return to the contending form some may be anticipating.
Moving forward, while they’ll still want to make certain Bryant is apprised of plans and goals as he remains the team’s current marquee attraction ($48.5 million over the next two years settled any argument against that), they also cannot afford to significantly derail future plans in an effort to appease any demands in the immediate.
Speculation over a potential change at the coaching position may seem a bit callous to some, but isn’t intended as a slight toward Mike D’Antoni by any stretch. He’s been dealt a terrible hand in terms of some of the injuries and roster limitations over his first two years as head coach in Los Angeles, but it would be naïve to believe the organization hasn’t at least considered some potential alternatives.
With Bryant returning, and the realistic chance that soon-to-be free agent Pau Gasol might ultimately determine L.A. remains his desired living and playing location, the proverbial ‘writing on the wall’ might actually be etched in stone for D’Antoni. Gasol’s exit seemed all but guaranteed just prior to the trade deadline, but it was evident a potential return could be in store once they team decided not to pull the trigger on deals that could have provided some significant luxury tax relief. Whether fair or not, if the organization ultimately sees his presence as a hindrance to signing desired free agents or too much of a potential hit toward the renewal of the league’s most expensive season tickets a Mensa membership isn’t required to figure how that scenario might play out for D’Antoni. We’re going to operate under the presumption a move is made, for the sake of this article.
If the team does decide to move in a different direction, you are almost certain to hear and see just about every available name attached to the position. Given the way things went under Mike Brown and (now) D’Antoni, much like in the case of the 2014 Draft and upcoming free agent classes, the front office is in a position where they really cannot afford to ‘swing-and-miss’ with the next hire.
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Barring anything unforeseen, as in somehow a guy like Tom Thibodeau were to become available, the realistic list of candidates they’ll be picking from might look something like this: Byron Scott, Rick Adelman, George Karl, either Van Gundy brother, and perhaps a college name or two like John Calipari or even Mike Krzyzewski.
Both college coaches would provide the ‘sexy’ name and generate the type of buzz the organization tends to prefer, but neither appear ready to leave their respective (Kentucky, Duke) dream-job scenarios at this point. Further speculation on either of those two seems fruitless, so we won’t waste your time unless there is word of a dramatic breakthrough.
Frankly, while we’re on the subject, SMU’s Larry Brown actually makes more sense than either of those two. Even though his name may not be as relevant in terms of the current coaching landscape, Brown is someone that has shown an ability to rebuild and work with a young roster more effectively than most. If the Lakers were looking for both a stop-gap in the interim that Bryant would likely respect and someone that clearly loves teaching the fundamentals of the game, they could certainly do a lot worse than the 73-year-old Brown.
Unlikely a coincidence, but you can count on the type of hard-nosed, no-nonsense approach this current team is sorely lacking with either of the Van Gundy brothers. Jeff Van Gundy’s teams were generally tough, defended well, and tended to play at a slower pace on offense. He’s been away from coaching since 2007, and while he is very good and apparently comfortable in the announcer’s booth, the elder Van Gundy could still be intrigued by what would be quite the challenge in Los Angeles.
Stan Van Gundy’s teams generally play at a faster pace than his younger brother’s, but his preferred style lends itself to having a dynamic offensive weapon manning the post. If Gasol were to return, in particular, his ability to find open teammates for both open shots and slashing opportunities make him a prime candidate to operate very effectively in Stan’s “four-out/one-in” offensive approach.
Rick Adelman was actually considered the frontrunner during their 2011 coaching search following Phil Jackson’s retirement, before the team ultimately opted for Brown. Although you can add Adelman’s name to the very long and crowded list of talented NBA coaches never to have won a title based in large part to the fact that they had the misfortune of having the bulk of their careers aligned with Philip Douglas Jackson, don’t forget all of the relative success Adelman did have along the way. Already a successful coach during his years in Portland, his mastery and adaptation of longtime assistant Pete Carril’s ‘Princeton Offense’ led to some very exciting teams in both Sacramento and Houston. Adelman is eighth all-time in total wins as a head coach just ahead of longtime rival Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. Adelman is under contract through next year, but there’s speculation that he could step away due to personal reasons. Consider him a long shot.
George Karl would be another name that could make a great deal of sense if certain things break accordingly this summer for the Lakers. Say, hypothetically, they were to land somewhere near the third or fourth pick in the draft and decided to select Duke’s Jabari Parker. An even relatively healthy Kobe Bryant returning alongside a suddenly recommitted Gasol with an offensively gifted prospect to harden and mold might seem pretty enticing to a longtime veteran coach like Karl. As a competitor, and someone that might understandably have a need for some personal redemption following what was a bit of an unceremonious firing by Denver after a first-round exit in 2012-13, the next team that hires Karl may get him at his very sharpest.
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Byron Scott returned to his (seemingly) rightful place as a fixture within the organization just prior to the year, and has been seen throughout the season during Time Warner Cable Sportsnet’s coverage. Some may scoff at the notion of Scott being a natural frontrunner based solely upon his most recent results with the Cavaliers, but they should probably take the realities of post-LeBron Cleveland into consideration before automatically judging the former NBA Coach of the Year (2007-08) too harshly.
The NBA, regardless of how much a good coach brings to the table (individually), is still all about the right combinations of skill, talent and the good fortune some refer to as flat-out luck. Anomalies and miracle seasons aside, playoff teams generally share the common traits of the better combinations of talent and relative team health throughout the NBA’s marathon 82-game season. When Scott’s had talent to work with, he’s been very successful in the past. Outside of the ‘top coach’ nod he earned while leading a (56-26) squad that featured a young phenom in Chris Paul during just his sophomore campaign, there were those back-to-back Eastern Conference Champion Nets teams he coached as well.
Not only has Scott proven his ability to produce a winner when granted the necessary tools, but the fact that he has a longtime relationship with Bryant could conceivably factor in if the team were to truly consider him as their next choice. Their mutual respect dates back to when Scott was one of Bryant’s veteran mentors back during the 1996-97 season. It was Bryant’s rookie year, and turned out to be Scott’s final season in the NBA, but the two of them have spoken highly of one another in the years since.
Beyond being qualified, Scott might also have a better initial grasp of exactly what this head coaching position means than other candidates, as he understands what it means to be a Laker. You can hear it in his voice when providing analysis. Not only do you get a true sense of the organizational pride that courses his veins, but there’s also an actual acknowledgement of a shared responsibility or duty to return the team to respectability.
Although moves should not be anticipated in any dramatic form or immediately following Wednesday’s season finale in San Antonio as some of the more rabid amongst a very loyal but irritable fanbase have called for, it is clear the organization is likely to explore all options while evaluating the roster and overall philosophy.
If they do ultimately make the decision to go in another direction , then Scott could not only bridge the past with the present in terms of gracefully transitioning from the Bryant years into what will be the next generation, but as a fan of the team you’d have to hope he could also find a way to reestablish the type of organizational pride that helped lead to so many years of success.
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