The Pool of Candidates to Replace Phil Jackson Just Got Much Stronger

Apologies for looking ahead to offseason developments while the Los Angeles Lakers are just beginning the final ascent to the 2010-2011 season, but the potential search for the next head coach of the Lakers took an unexpected and intriguing turn yesterday.  All signs (and I do mean all signs) point to Phil Jackson really retiring this off-season, and that will leave a very good, very old team without a head coach.  Should this happen, the Lakers will be left in a strange kind of pickle.  On the one hand, they will still have a roster that would make most of the league extremely jealous.  On the other hand, said roster will be filled with aging stars, and thus the team will definitely require a "win now" mentality.  Making the right coaching hire for that situation is not an easy decision, and the specific details facing the Lakers make the decision even more difficult.

Probably the most important aspect of bringing in a new coach to a highly successful roster is the question of system.  Continuity of system certainly seems like the best possible solution.  After all, it's hard to argue with what the Lakers have been doing the past few years, and this is a team specifically tailored to the system that its coach employs, the Triangle offense.  There's just one problem; in the history of the NBA there is exactly one man who has successfully run that system.  He is the greatest head coach the league has ever seen, and he is also the guy who is creating this power vacuum with his imminent retirement.  The list of guys who are even capable of coaching the Triangle is a short, short list.  Of those guys (basically comprising the past and present assistant coaches who have served under PJ), not a single one is a proven head coach.  In fact, most of them are proven in wrong direction.

Which brings us to the second most important aspect of a "win now" coaching hire ... experience.  Handing a team like the Lakers over to a rookie head coach is akin to handing the keys to your Ferrari over to a teenager.  Maybe that teenager is Trevor Bayne and the kid drives your car better than you can ... or maybe your baby ends up wrapped around a telephone pole. 

So the Lakers will be in a bit of a bind if Phil Jackson really does call it quits.  The roster cries out for continuity of system, while the situation cries out for a coach who can command the respect of a star-studded group.  There is no candidate who can provide both.  But, thanks to a rather unexpected turn of events, there is now someone who comes close.  The race to replace Phil Jackson has a new dark horse, except this dark horse might have been the race's favorite if we knew he'd be involved.  His name is Rick Adelman.

Up until yesterday, Rick Adelman was the head coach of the Houston Rockets.   He's served that post for the last four years, his fourth franchise over a 20 year coaching career.  On the surface, his time in Houston hasn't been all that successful.  His crowning achievement in four years has been to take the soon-to-be-champion Los Angeles Lakers to seven games in 2009.  His Rockets have failed to even make the postseason since.  But to paint that particular portrait is monumentally unfair, because the Rockets have been dealt some of the shittiest luck in the league over the past few seasons.  When Adelman came on board, he was expecting to contend with a nucleus of Yao Ming, Tracy Mcgrady, surrounded by one of the best assortments of role players in the league.  In their first season together under Adelman, Ming and Mcgrady missed 47 games combined.  The next season, that number was 52.  In 2010, Ming missed the entire season, and Mcgrady played just six games before the Rockets decided it was time to cut their losses.  This year, Ming played six games before another foot injury forced questions as to whether he'll ever be able to play in the NBA again.

Over that time period, the Rockets have routinely been stronger than they should be.  They've finished over .500 every season.  Take Shaq and Kobe off the early 2000's Lakers, and a .500 record would be a tremendous achievement.  Ming and Mcgrady may not be the players that Shaq and Kobe were at the time, but their impact was no less important.  In fact, Adelman-led teams have finished below .500 only three times in his 20 year career, twice in a two year stint with Golden State that stands out as his only true failure, and in his first interim period with the Portland TrailBlazers.  For what it's worth, he led that same Portland team to the NBA Finals in two of the next three seasons.

So it's clear that Adelman has the pedigree, but what about the system?  If you want the gory detail, read this gem I found from the Houston Chronicle, circa 2007.  If you are lazy, allow me to pull out some of the choice quotes.

It has been called the Princeton offense. But despite some similar backdoor cuts, it is often far different from the offense Pete Carril took from his 29 years at Princeton to Adelman's Kings staff and the Hall of Fame.

 

It has been compared to Phoenix's style, and Adelman similarly will encourage fast-break jump shots if they are open. But there are other aspects starting with interchangeable guards and high-post passing big men — that could not be more different from the Suns' offense.

The term "motion offense" has been tossed around, and there is a lot of motion. But a college motion offense does not go against a 24-second clock that rules everything in the NBA. And Adelman uses far more "two-man game" with more post-ups than any college motion offense.

It is basically a movement-based, read-and-react NBA offense. When run well, Adelman will resist calling plays, instead letting his players determine where the ball goes based on what they see in the defense.

Interchangeable guards?  High-post passing big men?  No play calling?  Read-and-react?  Sounds pretty familiar doesn't it?  But there's more.

There are times, as in the triangle offense Phil Jackson has taken to nine NBA titles, after there is a pass to the post, the two other players on that side clear through. But in Adelman's offense, they as often remain on that side, spotting up at the strong-side 3-point arc.

There are many chances to improvise. "Splits," for example, bring forwards together in position to screen before sending them and the defense in a variety of directions.

"There are a million ways to (defend) the splits, but a million ways to react to the way the splits are (defended,)" said forward Shane Battier. "You can do a dribble handoff, a tight curl around the screen, fake like you're going off the screen and cut backdoor. That's a lot for the defense to try to figure out."

That's just the primary options off those screens. Every set has plenty of alternatives.

Sounds to me a lot like the Triangle with back cuts.  The personnel required for Adelman's offense isn't a perfect fit with what the Lakers currently have, but it's not far off.  If Kobe moves without the ball, Adelman's offense might actually provide easier opportunities for him to score than the Triangle does, because the offense's focus will be on creating space for him much more than the Triangle does.  There are literally no better high-post passing big men in the league than the Lakers tandem of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum's chops as a passer seem to get better every year.  The only guy on the roster that doesn't really fit all that well is Derek Fisher, but let's be serious here, if the Lakers are making a coaching decision based on what's best for Fish, that's just a little bit backwards, isn't it?

And then there's this added aspect ... deep down, Lakers owner Jerry Buss really doesn't like the Triangle all that much.  He respects it, and he respects Phil Jackson, because both coach and offense have proven to be successful.  But Buss dreams at night of the return of Showtime, and craves a high-tempo fastbreak style of offense.  The Lakers don't have anywhere near the personnel to run that kind of offense, so to implement it immediately with the next head coach would be a foolish mistake.  Therein lies the potential genius of Adelman's system.  It has the flexibility to fit in well with the Lakers current personnel, but it can also accommodate a fast paced, transition style (remember it being compared to Phoenix's style?  Or his early success in Sacramento with the extremely entertaining Jason Williams-led Kings?).  I don't know that any other candidate exists which can fill the team's current needs, and the owners future desires, at the same time.   

But what about defense?  Offense and systems are great, but you can't win a title without defense, right?  Well, Adelman's defensive system isn't any kind of revolution, it doesn't go hand in hand with his name like the "Adelman" offense does, but his teams are hardly poor on the defensive end.  Over the course of his career, Adelman's teams have been roughly 1.3 points better per 100 possessions than the league average (his offenses are 2.1 points better).  For context, being 1.3 points per 100 better than league average would place a team just outside the top 10 this year.  However, when Adelman had had truly good teams, defense has been just as much an element of his team's success as offense has.  Check out the table below which details his entire career performance against NBA averages offensively and defensively.  The stars indicate seasons in which his teams progressed past the first round of the playoffs.  Four of the seven times it's happened, the defense has been better (as compared to the league average) than the offense has been.  The point?  When Adelman has the horses to make a deep playoff run, he knows how to get those teams performing well on both sides of the ball.  He may be rightfully known for running a great, adaptive, difficult to defend offense, but we're not talking about Mike D'Antoni here.

 

Year

Team

OR

vs. NBA

DR

vs. NBA

NBA

 

88-89

Portland

109.4

1.6

108

-0.2

107.8

 

89-90

Portland

110.5

2.4

104.4

3.7

108.1

*

90-91

Portland

112.8

4.9

104.3

3.6

107.9

*

91-92

Portland

111.4

3.2

104.2

4

108.2

*

92-93

Portland

108.3

0.3

105.2

2.8

108

 

93-94

Portland

108.1

1.8

105.5

0.8

106.3

 

95-96

GSW

108.4

0.8

109.9

-2.3

107.6

 

96-97

GSW

107.2

0.5

112.2

-5.5

106.7

 

98-99

Sac

102.7

0.5

103.1

-0.9

102.2

 

99-00

Sac

105

0.9

102.1

2

104.1

 

00-01

Sac

105.6

2.6

99.6

3.4

103

 

01-02

Sac

109

4.5

101.1

3.4

104.5

*

02-03

Sac

105.9

2.3

99.1

4.5

103.6

*

03-04

Sac

110.3

7.4

104.9

-2

102.9

*

04-05

Sac

110.5

4.4

108.2

-2.1

106.1

 

05-06

Sac

106.7

0.5

105

1.2

106.2

 

07-08

Hou

106.8

-0.7

101.6

5.9

107.5

 

08-09

Hou

108.4

0.1

104

4.3

108.3

*

09-10

Hou

107.6

0

108

-0.4

107.6

 

10-11

Hou

111.3

4

109

-1.7

107.3

 

Ultimately, the strength of Adelman as a candidate really boils down to one factor:  Would Kobe Bryant be on board?  All the talk of systems, fit, and experience are moot when compared to what Kobe thinks of the man.  On the decision making tree of this coaching search, Kobe is 2nd only to Buss.  That's why the leader in the clubhouse prior to Adelman's availability was Brian Shaw, and the Shawfather may still be the favorite.  Shaw boasts complete continuity of system, familiarity with the teams and players and most importantly, he commands the respect of The Black Mamba (we're told).  By all accounts, it seems likely that Shaw will be a successful head coach.  But he is still an unknown.  We don't know for sure how strong his decision making will be, how well he will command his team in times of stress, whether he'll be able to manage the egos of the Laker locker room as effectively without the Greatest Coach Ever to back him up.  Personally, I wouldn't be upset if Shaw was the choice, but the Lakers could certainly do a lot worse than Rick Adelman.  Any of those former members of Showtime, for example ...

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