For a job that holds such coveted status in the sports world, the Lakers’ are holding fairly open qualifications surrounding candidates to become their next head coach.
They can be veteran or young coaches. They can boast extensive NBA head-coaching experience, or they can lack it whatsoever. They can be familiar household names or they could have a low profile.
Do not mistake this criteria as a sign the Lakers’ lack vision in who they want to take over for Mike D’Antoni, who resigned Wednesday amid the team’s refusal to assure it would exercise his team option for the 2015-16 season. The Lakers are simply keeping their options open after finishing their worst season in L.A. franchise history. Amid the Lakers’ struggles, the team will not just hire anyone off the street. But who appears to be a favored candidate remains far too early to say namely because the process has barely started.
Yet, whoever they hire, that coach would need to boast most, if not all of these five qualities. These would help the Lakers restore back toward what used to become a common ritual: Winning.
1. The head coach will need to figure out how to bolster the Lakers’ defense. The Lakers offered a pretty good clinic last season on what not to do on defense. Fail to rush back on transition defense. Show little to no discipline on rotating and communication. Provide effort only in spurts. Add all those qualities up, and it should be hardly surprising the Lakers ranked last in nearly every defensive category last season, including 29th in total team defense (109.2 points per game), 24th in defensive field goal percentage (46.8) and 30th in fast-break points allowed (16.7).
For all the criticism D’Antoni has received over this issue during his coaching career, consider these factors. D’Antoni inherited a roster that offered little rim protection from Chris Kaman and Pau Gasol, inconsistent perimeter defense from Wesley Johnson and Nick Young and his most feisty defender in Steve Blake was traded to Golden State midway through the season. Lakers assistant Kurt Rambis, whose principles helped Phil Jackson’s teams become more defensively disciplined, could not bolster this flawed roster despite stressing the need to shrink the floor, improve the pace and sprint back on defense the moment they released a shot. D’Antoni also had little grounds to enforce discipline for defensive miscues when never-ending injuries left him with limited options.
Still, the Lakers could have adapted to this challenge better had they played at a slower tempo to mitigate their defensive issues. Candidates, such as Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, could bolster the team’s defense by implementing a more grind-it-out style. And the Lakers’ front office could acquire better defensive players to put their next coach in a better position to succeed.
2. The head coach will need a productive working relationship with Kobe Bryant. This is no easy task considering Bryant has always tested his head coaches, ranging from Dell Harris, Rambis, Jackson, Rudy Tomjanovich, Mike Brown and D’Antoni. But after once calling D’Antoni an “offensive genius,” Bryant eventually grew weary of D’Antoni’s system that put a high premium on outside shooting and floor spacing at the expense of post play and a slower tempo. After once relishing playing for D’Antoni with two U.S. Olympic teams, Bryant soured on him. The reasons entailed Bryant’s concern that he would not become suited to play at such a fast pace after suffering two major injuries and frustration that D’Antoni resisted post play.
Whoever inherits this roster will need to tap into these concerns both to gain Bryant’s trust and to put him in the best position to succeed after playing in only six games last season amid left Achilles and left knee injuries. Though the relationship will inevitably boast challenges, the coach cannot walk away from possible conflicts and avoid protecting Bryant from himself. Such areas will include limiting Bryant’s minutes, shifting the burden more on his supporting cast and ensuring that he plays a balanced offense. Some candidates have past relationships with Bryant, including former Nets and Hornets coach Byron Scott (mentored Bryant his rookie season), Thibodeau (watched Bryant play at Lower Merion as a Philadelphia 76ers assistant), Ettore Messina (former Lakers consultant who hit it off with his extensive European coaching success) and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Derek Fisher (former Lakers teammates that won all five NBA titles together).
3. The head coach will need to be defined more than just how they handle Bryant.
For all the clout Bryant has in the organization, it would be foolish for the Lakers to hire a coach solely on his needs. Though Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak recently expressed a possibility Bryant could play beyond the two years left on his contract, the Lakers need to rebuild past his era. So that means the Lakers will likely address their needs that satisfy more of their long-term concerns than trying to appease Bryant. The Lakers’ head coach needs to operate with the same principle, putting more value on developing young talent than leaning too heavily on Bryant.
4. The head coach will need to know how to cater his philosophies to his personnel. The biggest criticisms both Brown and D’Antoni received entailed wanting to impose their coaching philosophies instead of adjusting them toward their roster.
For Brown, that entailed two things. Brown held ridiculously long practices and shootarounds despite fielding a veteran-laden group that needed plenty of recovery and rest to remain effective. He also instituted a derivation of the Princeton offense despite having Steve Nash at his disposal to run pick-and-rolls, Bryant to create his shot and Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol in the post.
For D’Antoni, his weakness entailed both imposing a fast-paced system on a veteran-laden team and insisting on not using two big men together (in Gasol and Howard). D’Antoni did not deserve as much of the blame his second season both because he bolstered career numbers for a flurry of role players and inherited too many injuries to count. But the pace at which D’Antoni insisted his team played factored into the Lakers’ defensive deficiencies.
Whether the Lakers continue to endorse D’Antoni’s fast-paced system that has caught on in the NBA or opt for a much different style does not matter. The Lakers just need to hire a coach who will willingly adapt his system toward a roster that remains fluid. It appears likely the Lakers will hire their next coach without much clarity on what kind of roster they will have. The Lakers will have 12 of their 15 players enter the free agent market, have lingering health uncertainties with Bryant (left knee) and Nash (back) and a top first round pick.
5. The head coach will need to know how to handle egos. Both D’Antoni and star players, such as Bryant, Gasol and Howard, never had fruitful relationships. Sometimes the players were at fault for not making sacrifices. Sometimes D’Antoni put too much importance on his system. But the dynamic didn’t help that D’Antoni struggled handling such dominant personalities. He experienced frustration when players complained about their role. D’Antoni sniped back when Bryant’s in-game tweets questioned his strategy (D’Antoni called him a “fan). He rolled his eyes when Howard lamented not receiving enough touches. D’Antoni sarcastically said, “I wanted to win the game” when asked last season why Gasol sat one game in the fourth quarter.
D’Antoni handled such tactics that way, hoping that it would motivate his players. But instead, it alienated them and made them further question his philosophies. If the Lakers’ next head coach establishes more personal relationships with his star players, it’s likely any inevitable conflicts that arise will be handled much more easily.
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