As I began to organize my thoughts for a post on Brian Shaw, the "prohibitive favorite" to become the next coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, I thought of all the questions that need to be considered in figuring out whether the Shawfather was the best man for the job. Here are some of those questions:
- What is the biggest determining factor in figuring out whether Brian Shaw will be the next head coach? Is it his offensive strategy? Is it his ability to motivate?
- How will Shaw be able to deal with the team when they stray from the Triangle? Does he understand the offense well enough to truly teach it?
- Will Brian Shaw's ability to connect with players transfer into the ability to lead players as a head coach?
- Is Brian Shaw's inexperience as a decision maker considered a positive (because he's hungry) or a negative (because you just never know someone can do something until they've actually done it)?
- Does any of it even matter because Phil Jackson made him the chosen candidate over the course of the season?
- Does Phil Jackson's blessing actually harm Shaw's chances of getting the job?
- Does any of THAT even matter, because the players so uniformly endorse Shaw as the guy they want to be their coach?
- Do the players' endorsements actually harm Shaw's chances of getting the job?
Individually, all of these questions are difficult ones. They deal in the unknown, and therefore can not be answered with any kind of finality. We can surmise things from what we've seen and heard about Brian Shaw as a person, we can piece together the quotes from the players and front office and owners regarding the team's direction, but at the end of the day, this is all just advanced guesswork. If the future were easy to predict, we'd all be rich.
But it is the questions themselves that cause this situation to be so intriguing. Normally, in any coaching search, all that matters is the guesswork towards figuring out the answers to those first few questions. What kind of system does a coach run? Is that system a good fit with our team? Does the coach run that system well? Is the coach an effective motivator? If you know, or think you know, the answers to those questions, then you have the ability to figure out whether a candidate will be a good head coach. But, in the crazy world of the Los Angeles Lakers, we don't even know whether the "right" answers to those questions are good or bad.
Take the offense for an example. We know that, should he be the next Lakers coach, Brian Shaw will run the Triangle offense. We know that the only head coach in NBA history who has successfully run that system is the guy who just retired. We also know that the system has played a key role for more than 50% of the NBA's championships over the past 20 years, and that the system requires a very specific set of players to be run effectively. Nobody, besides Phil Jackson, has ever been successful running the Triangle offense in the NBA. Nobody, besides Phil Jackson, has ever had the opportunity to run it with a team so finely tuned to the offense as the Lakers are. As for Shaw's specific ability to teach the offense, he was as effective an offensive floor general as you can find in the Shaq-Kobe years. His intelligence has been an indirect subject of in depth profiles. I feel confident in stating that there is nobody more qualified than Brian Shaw in continuing the offensive principles that Phil Jackson believed in.
So that's a positive, right? Something that should be listed in the Pros section of Brian Shaw's resume? Perhaps not. As I pointed out in a piece detailing the qualities of Rick Adelman nearly a month ago, continuity of system might not be on the list of priorities with this coaching hire, even if we can all agree that it would be a good idea in the near future.
[D]eep 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
Even though the current Lakers roster damn near requires a system like the Triangle to be run at peak efficiency, we can't even be sure that Shaw's status as the #1 Triangle candidate is even a positive.
What about Shaw's ability as a leader? We know that, as a player, he was always a leader on the court. We've been treated to a steady dose of quotes from the players and from Phil Jackson, about Shaw's unique ability to relate to players as both a peer and a superior. This, more than his ability to coach any specific system, is the reason why Shaw was the presumptive choice to become the next coach prior to the implosion that was this year's playoffs. His leadership is why Phil Jackson chose him as the coach in waiting, what caused Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher and so many other players to give Shaw their endorsement. It is the difference between him and (apologies) someone like Kurt Rambis.
How can such leadership possibly be a bad thing? It can't. No matter what shape or form Brian Shaw's journey to NBA head coach takes, his leadership ability will never be harmful to him. Let's table any notions that said qualities won't translate as the actual head coach and just assume that Shaw will be a good leader. It's true that we'll never know his quality until we see it for sure, true that the transition from teammate to mentor to boss is as tricky as there is in this world, but all signs we have point to Shaw being able to navigate those particular murky waters. So, what's the problem?
The problem may be just how much the former coach and current players endorse Shaw. For all his winning and success, Phil Jackson's relationship with the Buss family (or at least, those members of the Buss family that are making this decision) was never all that strong. His endorsement of Shaw as the next coach might just as well be a black mark on the resume if the front office deems it time to distance themselves from the Phil Jackson mold. And what about all those players who threw their hats in with Shaw? Oh, you mean the players who just exited the playoffs so disgracefully? The ones who couldn't manage the proper cohesion and passion and energy to avoid getting swept two rounds earlier than they advanced the three previous years?
The unspoken truth of this Lakers season is that of the coaching staff failing miserably to get through to the players and make them play the way they should. Maybe the players are the ones who deserve a greater portion of the blame, maybe fatigue from four long seasons caught up with a team already old in the tooth, maybe plain old bad luck had more to do with the early exit than any sort of motivation could have. But the bottom line is that the coaching staff's job is to get players to perform at their peak at the right time, and by that standard, the coaches, Phil Jackson included, deserve as much blame as anybody. Brian Shaw was on the coaching staff. He was one of the guys who failed to reach the players, failed to promote, coerce, or just plain force, the proper energy and execution from the team in their time of need. It is, perhaps, harsh to pin responsibility for the Lakers failure on the back of assistant coach, but it is not something that we should ignore.
But there is something even more important to consider. Should the players' opinions on the next head coach even be considered? These are the same guys who couldn't muster enough pride and energy to prevent a 30 point beat down in their final game of the season, the same guys who disgraced the name across their chest in more ways than one. Should they really be "rewarded" with a coach with whom they are so clearly comfortable? Or should a coach be brought in who will demand of them the type of fire and passion which was so clearly lacking this season?
The bottom line is this: Brian Shaw represents the status quo, in every conceivable way. He runs the same offensive system that Phil Jackson did, has much of the same mentality that Phil Jackson did, and commands the same love from his players that Phil Jackson did. But is the status quo a good thing? If judging on the merits of last season, the answer is a clear and resounding no, but is last season the only important sample size? What if the three years prior is more indicative of the results of the status quo than last season's blip on the radar?
As it is with everything about this coaching search, the answer to every question just brings up more questions. Each individual question isn't so difficult to analyze. It isn't hard to formulate an opinion on Brian Shaw's ability to coach, lead, or motivate. But we don't even know whether the best of his qualities are even considered to be positive aspects of his candidacy, and that is what makes the proposition of hiring the next head coach so dicey for the Lakers organization. At this point, Shaw is the center of the entire coaching search, because the only question that needs to be answered is this:
Do you want Brian Shaw to be the next head coach, or do you want someone else to be the next head coach? There are only two possible answers. Hire Shaw, don't hire Shaw ... I'm not sure which answer is the more risky choice.