All Ball Sports: Lakers Coaching Candidates – And then there were three

Laker coach Frank Vogel during Laker Media Day in Oct. 2019, looking skeptical, when Anthony Davis arrived at the Lakers El Segundo training facility. Photo by Ray Vidal

By Paul Teetor                

Help Wanted: seeking miracle worker for impossible job! Must be able to work with divas, slackers, ego-maniacs and incompetent upper management. Born scapegoats welcomed.       

D-Day for the Lakers coaching search is looming ever closer, so let’s start with the good news for Lakers fans: ex-Warriors Coach and current basketball analyst Mark Jackson has been eliminated from consideration as the next Lakers coach.

That means they won’t have to listen day after day to his pandora’s box of tired cliches: big-time play, high-level execution, on-point pass, grown-man move and (drum roll) Mama, there goes that man again!

Still not sure what that creepy last one means – he long ago made it his signature shout-out for an amazing play and still uses it to this day – but it reeks of a desperate attempt to give himself street cred.

The bad news: if Lakers fans want to watch NBA games televised on ABC, they will still have to listen to those verbal tics for at least a few more years as Jackson, presumably, will continue in his role as color analyst on ABC’s top hoops broadcasting team alongside play-by-play announcer Mike Breen and co-analyst Jeff Van Gundy.

The word on the street is that when LeBron James heard that Jackson was interviewing for the Lakers job, he immediately put the kibosh on it. He knew from friends on the Warriors what a self-righteous, sanctimonious bore Jackson had been as their coach, and he knew that the team went from good to great as soon as Jackson was replaced by Steve Kerr back in 2014.

Jackson has been unable to get a coaching job ever since, despite being mentioned as a candidate for virtually every head coaching job that came open in the last eight years. There are only 30 of those jobs, so even the bad ones – like Sacramento – are swamped with eager candidates as soon as they become vacant.

Indeed, the Lakers last scapegoat before Frank Vogel was fired last month – that would be Manhattan Beach’s own Luke Walton – was hired by the Sacramento Kings less than a week after being fired by the Lakers three years ago. 

The NBA coaching carousel keeps going round and round, so naturally Walton was fired by Sacramento early this past season. That means he is not a candidate for the Lakers job this time around and his once high-flying coaching career is now on life support after leaving the best organization in the NBA – the Golden State Warriors – for two of the most dysfunctional teams in all of pro sports in the Lakers and the Kings.           

One key thing to understand as the Lakers get closer to announcing their newest designated scapegoat – sorry, head coach — is that the NBA is like high school on steroids.

In other words, there are no secrets that stay secret for more than a couple of days, everybody knows everybody else’s business faster than you can say Tik-Tok, and the gossip usually turns out to be true — or at least to have a kernel of truth.

The Lakers, of course, have made no official comments on their month-long coaching search, but coaches talk to other coaches, players talk to other players, and media members talk to coaches, players and other media members. And Twitter is the unofficial NBA bulletin board.

Thus, according to reliable sources, the Lakers search is down to three finalists: Milwaukee Bucks Assistant Coach Darvin Ham, Golden State Assistant Coach Kenny Atkinson, and former Portland Trail Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts.

Before we get into the merits of who would make the best Lakers head coach, let’s share some more bad news for Lakers fans. One other piece of professional gossip that has emerged in NBA circles is that the preliminary interviewing team of General Manager Rob Pelinka, senior advisor Kurt Rambis and family members Joey and Jesse Buss has pressed each candidate on how they would be able to make Russell Westbrook a better fit alongside LeBron and Anthony Davis.

The goal, they told all the applicants, is to find a way to re-make Westbrook into a productive, happy, cooperative player rather than the radioactive malcontent who has lost his single biggest asset – his athleticism – can’t shoot beyond five feet, takes crazy chances on defense and single-handedly destroyed the Lakers chemistry last season.

He has a $47 million player option for next season that he is positively, absolutely, no-doubt-about-it going to exercise this summer, thus putting all the pressure on the Lakers to find a way out of their latest mess without any help from him. There will be no buy-out settlement, no 50-cents-on-the dollar deal that would allow Westbrook to walk away with $23.5 million and the freedom to sign with any team he wants to.

That’s because he’s smart enough to know there isn’t a team in the entire league who wants him to play for them at anything more than the veteran’s minimum of $2.6 million. He’s going to put the onus on the Lakers to find a way out of the disaster they created by caving in to LeBron’s demand that they gut their team last summer to acquire Westbrook in a trade that the Washington Wizards were thrilled to make.

The utter stupidity of that trade is still hard to comprehend: the Lakers knew that he couldn’t make it work with Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, or James Harden in Houston or Bradley Beal in Washington. They also knew the Lakers would be his fourth team in four years, a huge red flag that they just ignored.

Now the believe-it-or-not plan apparently is to keep Westbrook alongside LeBron and AD and find a way to make it all work. Making it work means at the very least making the playoffs in a Western Conference that projects to be significantly stronger than it was this season, when the Lakers finished 11th and didn’t even make the play-in tournament that determines the last two seeds for the real playoffs.

That’s going to take a miracle worker.

Vogel was no miracle worker, but he was a perfectly competent coach, above average on the defensive end and content to let LeBron run the offense on the other end.

That didn’t work on either end, so now it’s time to find someone who will impose his defensive vision, stand up to LeBron and AD and especially Westbrook when they need to be held accountable, and make sure that both LeBron and AD stay healthy as they ramp up for the playoffs – if indeed they are in position to ramp up for the playoffs.

Finding that guy is turning out to be awfully tricky as the Lakers have interviewed more than a dozen candidates already. They even invited Michigan coach Juwan Howard to apply. He smartly turned them down, citing his desire to coach two of his kids that are on his college team. But the reality is that he’s savvy enough to pass on a job that could sink his coaching career.

There’s a good reason the Lakers reached out to Howard, who has never been an NBA head coach. A star with the Wizards and the Heat before he went into college coaching, he fits perfectly into the new profile of a head coach. That’s because in the last decade there’s been a slow-but-steady paradigm shift in the template of a successful NBA head coach.

The old paradigm was established by the Boston Celtics Coach Red Auerbach way back in the 1950s and ‘60s: a short, fat, white guy who acted like a benevolent tyrant, smoked victory cigars on the court even before the game was over, pretended to know far more than his players about basketball, and didn’t take any crap from players, refs or owners. Other examples: Hubie Brown, Mike Fratello and Bill Fitch.

The new paradigm: a former NBA player, usually but not always Black, with the experience and locker room credibility to handle players like Westbrook who will inevitably try to undermine and challenge him. On top of that, they need to be sensitive to the mental health challenges many players face with their demanding travel schedules, too much money too soon, constant threat of career-ending injuries, and public and private pressure to perform at a high level.

Former Clippers Coach Doc Rivers, who now coaches the Philadelphia 76ers, is the modern prototype after a long career as a point guard with Atlanta, New York and the Clippers.

For more relevant and recent examples, just look at the four teams left in the NBA playoffs.

The Dallas Mavericks are coached by Jason Kidd, a Black Hall of Fame point guard who knows the league backwards and forwards and has locker room credibility. The other team in the Western Conference Finals, the Golden State Warriors, is coached by Steve Kerr. He’s a white beach boy from Pacific Palisades, but he has credibility in a league composed of 70% Black players because he was part of championship winning teams with both the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs. Indeed, he hit one of the most memorable shots in NBA history when he took a pass from the great Michael Jordan and drilled a game-winning buzzer beater in the playoffs. 

In the Eastern Conference, Boston Celtics Head Coach Ime Udoka is a Black former guard who played five years in the NBA and then served as an assistant coach with both San Antonio and Brooklyn.

The Celtics turned their season around after he publicly called out his two superstars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, for not passing the ball enough. Rather than sulking and resenting his criticism, they respected it and responded appropriately because they knew he was talking from experience and was just being honest with them. It helps that they are both high-character guys, unlike Westbrook.

The other Eastern Conference Coach, Miami’s Eric Spolestra, is the only one of the four who didn’t play in the NBA. But he did play in college and, more important, he has the rock-solid support of Heat President Pat Riley, who had a long-playing career as a scrappy guard and coached the Showtime Lakers to four NBA titles in the 1980’s.

The Heat players learned this lesson the hard way when LeBron tried to get Spolestra fired shortly after he took his talents to South Beach in 2010. Riley told LeBron to pound sand, Coach Spo stayed in the job, and the Heat went on to win two titles in LeBron’s four years in Florida. But that early clash of two strong-willed men used to getting their way – Riley and LeBron — was a factor when LeBron shocked everybody, especially Riley and LeBron’s supposed BFF Dwayne Wade, by leaving Miami and going back to Cleveland in 2014. 

Of the three finalists, only Darvin Ham fits the modern paradigm. As an NBA player, he was an over-achieving power forward who stuck around in the league for a few years because he was willing to get down in the trenches and rebound, play fierce defense, take offensive charges and do all the dirty work that the stars don’t want to waste their precious energy on.

Equally important, Ham is an imposing physical presence quick to challenge someone not doing his job and ready to throw down if anyone wants to talk back or even fight him. Most important of all, LeBron’s media minions have let it be known that, of the three finalists, Ham is his choice.

LeBron wants nothing to do with Atkinson, who is a throwback to the bad old days: a short, white, hard-nosed, my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy who never played in the NBA. He made his rep developing young players while coach of the Brooklyn Nets a few years ago, but he was fired when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving signed up in Brooklyn as free agents.

Nets management was smart enough to realize that they needed someone more sensitive, more battle tested as a player, more attuned to the challenges faced by superstars, to handle the knuckle-headed Irving and, to a lesser extent, Durant, who admitted on a recent podcast that he smokes pot every day as a stress reliever. So they recruited Manhattan Beach’s own Steve Nash, who had never coached before. He has spent the last two years trying to handle the chaos generated by Kyrie and looked exhausted after the Nets were swept by the Celtics in the first round.

That leaves Stotts, a tall, white guy who coached the Portland Trail Blazers for nine years when he had both the great Damian Lillard and the almost-as-great C. J. McCallum on the team. They made the playoffs all nine years but reached the Western Conference Finals only once and never made it to the NBA Finals.

He has let it be known through friends that he is eager to return to NBA coaching but will not settle for an assistant’s job. Which means he would take the Lakers job in a heartbeat if it is offered, even though he is savvy enough to know he’s probably stepping into coaching quicksand.

So, based on the merits, Ham is the obvious choice if the Lakers want to keep LeBron happy and, equally important, hire a coach who will be able to command the locker room from day one.

Stotts is the second choice by default, and it says here that Atkinson has no chance simply because he is not a good fit with LeBron and AD and Westbrook.

But of course since the Lakers have made no official comment on their coach search there is no guarantee it will be one of the three alleged finalists. There’s also speculation that Doc Rivers could take the job despite being under contract for three more years in Philadelphia. Or even that Quinn Snyder could leave the Utah Jazz and come to LA.

But both of those guys are the longest of long shots. The only thing anyone connected with the Lakers has said about the savior search is when Pelinka told a post-season press conference that the team would like to have a new coach named by the day of the NBA draft, which this year is Thursday June 23.

Draft day is always a big occasion for the NBA, with lots of trades and tons of optimism all around that a team may have just gotten the next superstar with their draft pick. 

Which makes it pretty ironic for draft day to be the Lakers target day. They don’t even have a first-round draft pick this year. It went to the New Orleans Pelicans in the 2019 Anthony Davis trade, with three more Lakers first round picks going to the Pelicans in the next few years.

The draft lottery was held this week, and the Pelicans drew the eighth pick. That means the Lakers could have gotten a very young, very talented player – exactly what the new coach needs – to start their inevitable rebuild. Instead he will be joining former Laker Brandon Ingram – already an All-Star – and future All-Star Zion Williamson as the core of the Pelicans for the next decade.

The Lakers? They don’t have a single first round draft pick until 2027. They traded away their future for the brittle, injury prone Davis because LeBron told them to or else he would leave.

Well, now the future is here.

Good night and good luck to the next Lakers coach, whoever it is.

He’s going to need it.                   


Follow: @paulteetor


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