Newcomers: A Look at Outside Coaching Candidates

The Lakers' ignominious fall from the playoffs has left lasting questions as to the direction of the franchise, made all the more acute by the departure of Phil Jackson, to whom Brian Shaw still appears to be the apparent favorite as his successor. That said, as C.A. elucidated yesterday, hiring Shaw raises as many questions as it does answers; for instance, is the continuity that Shaw represents actually what this Laker squad needs? Laker management appears to be giving that question its undivided attention, as the Lakers have spread a wide net in their coaching search, understandably including figures such as recent Houston Rockets coach Rick Adelman, and bizarrely, former Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy.

As C.A. covered what hiring Shaw entails in more detail than I could possibly go into, I'll cover the list of outside candidates the Lakers are, or could be considering and how their systems or personalities fit with this Laker team.

Before we jump into the individual coaches, let's review the undignified mess that was the Lakers' '10-'11 season. Over the past year, the words "coasting," "flipping the switch," and "looking at the playoffs" have become practically synonymous with the Lakers, only for the team to prove practically every prognosticator wrong by spectacularly flaming out in the playoffs with a terrible performance against the Mavericks. With the brief exception of a glorious start to the season in which Pau Gasol looked like an MVP candidate and the "Killer Bees" actually were living up to their name, the offense looked painfully bad, execution was terrible on both ends, and motivation looked pretty hard to come by.

Moreover, the coaching staff, on some level, was complicit in this downturn. Fatigue, physical and mental, was certainly an issue along with structural problems such as a lack of ball handlers or three-point shooters, but the degree to which basically the same squad was able to overcome these issues during the '10 playoffs indicates a failure to get that same message across this time. I think it's fair to say that last year's team, after surviving Steve Nash for an entire series, could have dealt with the Mavs' comparatively simple pick-and-roll game that somehow got a shooter or driving lane open at every opportunity.

Now, the shock of getting evicted from the playoffs in such a fashion could have jolted the team and provided new motivation. That's one possibility and a compelling argument for the Shaw supporters who feel that bringing more of the same implies a return to that championship form. Shaw, who wouldn't have the problem of a new coach in gaining the respect of the locker room, would reemphasize the triangle and (presumably) Person's defensive scheme, and the team would move on nicely. Conversely, if the motivation issue is endemic, management has only succeeded in perpetuating the problem by hiring Shaw, who doesn't have Phil's unimpeachable job security or long history to fall back on if the situation sours.

Finally, in regards to management, much ado has been made about Jerry Buss' desire to get back to the Showtime era style offense. That said, unless Derek Fisher, Ron Artest, and Andrew Bynum are magically turned into Steve Nash and Dwight Howard and Mike D'Antoni gets fired, this team is going to continue its heavy post-up diet and its rather plodding style of play due to the lack of decent transition players outside of Odom and occasionally Blake and Brown.

From this we can derive a few things: 1) the new coach that comes in needs to get the Lakers, at the very least, executing his offense, which is probably the principal concern given how dismal the Lakers were at this aspect all year 2) that offense must correspond to the Lakers' personnel 3) the coach must be able to effectively convey his message and gain the respect of the locker room. If it appears that I'm ignoring defense, it's largely because I lack knowledge of the particulars of most of the schemes that these coaches run, and also due to the fact that it's likely that most of those defenses, with some exceptions, would end up looking system-wise much like our current ones.

Anyhow, on to outside candidates, ranking them by order of preference:

5) Mike Dunleavy

Record: 613-716 (LAL/MIL/POR/LAC)

Dunleavy's inclusion in this list is, as I indicated above, bizarre. It's not only for the fact that he is a former Clippers coach or the continued butt of Bill Simmons' jokes and snide remarks, but for the fact that I doubt that he's been actively considered for any other opening in the league. ESPN's Ramona Shelburne attributes the interest to Dunleavy's relationship with the Buss family, which I suppose gets you put on the "short list" by default, but really, he doesn't have a whole lot of business being here.

Granted, Dunleavy, isn't a terrible coach. There's a big gap between him and say, hiring Vinny Del Negro, who Donald Sterling somehow thought was the right choice over current Mavericks' assistant Dwane Casey last summer. It's simply due to the fact that the Lakers are replacing the best coach of all time, have a championship team, and probably expect someone a bit higher on the coaching totem pole.

Dunleavy's coaching philosophy, which Steve Perrin of our sister site Clips Nation was gracious enough to give us a summary of a few days ago, is something that nominally looks appealing to the Lakers. He emphasizes post-ups and maximizing matchup opportunities, something that the Lakers have in spades every night with Bynum, Kobe, and hopefully after some soul searching in the off-season, Gasol. As Perrin indicates, Dunleavy will milk that matchup until the opponent adjusts to it, something every Laker fan screaming for the ball to go into the post during the playoffs can appreciate. He prepares extensively for opponents and designs defenses and sets to counter opposing personnel.

The flip side of this preparedness, however, and most perhaps most damaging to Dunleavy's prospects, is that he insists on calling every single play on both ends. Now, I'm not privy to every single one of Phil's timeouts, but he's freely admitted in the past that specific Xs and Os were not his strengths, and I'd wager in most cases, his admonitions were general comments on ball movement, rebounding or man movement. The triangle is a read and react system and you can run the start the same set in two different plays and come out with a different result due to how the defense reacts. And while Dunleavy apparently has a cordial relationship with Kobe, that certainly won't extend to the basketball court once Kobe ignores the called play and starts freelancing, which has been a given in Laker Land for the past decade.

Between this and Dunleavy's rather underwhelming -- with respect to the other possible names on the list -- resume, it's a long shot he'd get the job in any case. SI's Sam Amick cites a source that most of the "interest" may be smoke Dunleavy himself is wafting towards the media, making this largely a moot point.

4) Larry Brown

Record: 1098-904 (DEN/NJN/SAS/LAC/IND/PHI/DET/NYK/CHA)

In the past weeks, we've seen various arguments posted for and against prospective coaches, and perhaps the most inane one has been the "he doesn't have any rings" canard. True, this is a natural reaction of a fanbase who just had the coach who won 11 championships in the past 20 years walk out the door ("Hey, shouldn't our new coach have at least one ring?!?"). Well, there's exactly one coach available on the market that fulfills that criteria: Larry Brown. Brown, as many Laker fans either remember in painful detail or have purged from their memories altogether, took home his only title in '03-'04 as the head of the Pistons as they bested the last vestige of the Kobe/Shaq-era Lakers. Brown's edge in the bling department, however, doesn't give him an inkling of an edge on any of the other choices on this list. Why? Because he's a hyper-controlling maniac.

Famously (and infamously), Brown has insisted that his teams "play the right way," which is a euphemism for him essentially controlling every play, managing completely bizarre rotations with productive players often sitting on the bench in his doghouse for the slightest mistakes, and when paired with GM powers, half the team traded away for players who he thinks can fit into his system, payroll flexibility and draft picks be damned. It's interesting to see teams that actually improve offensively by virtue of Brown not being there, perhaps best seen in the meteoric rise in offensive efficiency from the '04-'05 Pistons (seventeenth), his last year with the team, to the '05-'06 Pistons (fifth), Flip Saunders' first year with the team. Charlotte point guard D.J. Augustin, whom Brown somehow drafted instead of Brook Lopez despite the Bobcats' desperate need for a center and the presence of Raymond Felton, also noticeably improved under interim coach Paul Silas after Brown stepped down.

Now, Brown does bring positives, as he wouldn't have won a ring otherwise or experienced any success in the league for that matter. Nearly all of his teams have been sterling defensive squads, as the players he often trades for are fundamentally sound defensive ones (seeing as if they missed a rotation, they'd be sitting), perhaps best seen in his '09-'10 Bobcats, which led the league in defensive efficiency. And as a guy who has been in the league for so long and has that ever-so important piece of hardware, he'd undoubtedly garner respect in the locker room.

That said, even if Brown agreed to come on without GM powers, it's hard to see him reacting well after Kobe starts freelancing, someone fails to box out, or a shooter gets open. In this sense, Brown is essentially the yang to Phil's yin, and while execution does need to improve on both ends, bringing in Brown and all of his baggage isn't the way to solve that.

3) Jerry Sloan

Record: 1221-803 (CHI/UTA)

Sloan's mere presence on a prospective coaching list is a shocking affair, perhaps even more so than his out of the blue exit from Utah this year into what appears to be happy retirement. Among any of the coaches on this list, his cachet probably ranks the highest simply due to the sheer longevity of his time in Utah, which began before I was born. During that over two decade span, his teams failed to post an over .500 record only twice, marking the divide between the illustrious Stockton-Malone era and the drafting of Deron Williams.

In that period, Sloan's offensive and defensive systems have been amazingly consistent; in any given year, a player could likely understand the sets that were being run. Beyond the very basic and incredibly effective Stockton-Malone pick-and-roll and that likely ranks among the best in league history, Sloan runs the flex offense, which emphasizes cuts across the key along with down screens. The general point of the flex is that the positions are interchangeable, so players setting screens, cutting, or passing can be switched, which is often why you see it run at the high school level. I'm not particularly well-versed in what nuances Sloan uses in his version of the flex, but it runs off much of the same idea. Running the offense demands that basically everyone on the floor set solid screens and cut, both of which this current Lakers squad has been woefully bad at. Moreover, the lack of decent ball-handlers is a noticeable problem, as beyond Kobe and Odom, it's difficult to see a consistent P&R game being run after essentially years of the P&R being the item of last resort for Kobe.

Whatever problems stylistically with the offense pales in comparison to Sloan's modus operandi on the defensive end though, which is essentially to foul the crap out of the other team and then foul them some more. It's the logical extension of the "no layup" rule and a fair representation of Sloan's old school mindset, but it often does his team more harm than good. It's possible that such an approach could be beneficial if you're creating an amazing amount of turnovers from all that hacking, but this rarely has been the case in Utah. Now, compare this against the Lakers' defense for the past few years, which has been based on minimizing fouling, solid positional defense, and forcing opponents into tough shots by taking away the paint and the three-point line rather than getting turnovers.

Beyond the basketball issues, it's probably safe to say that Sloan would instantly command the respect of the locker room, although Sloan is definitely a coach that wants a team to run on his terms. How well that would be received by the locker room is an open question, and given the problems scheme-wise with the Lakers personnel, likely not one that we will ever have the opportunity to witness.

2) Jeff Van Gundy

Record: 430-318 (NYK/HOU)

JVG represents the first of the possible candidates that, on paper at any rate, make sense from both a basketball and locker room perspective. His television broadcasting shtick and random ranting during games notwithstanding, JVG is an excellent defensive coach, and his teams in New York and Houston were always superb squads at that end. Every single one of his teams has posted a defensive efficiency mark of sixth or better, which is pretty damn impressive for a coach who has been in the league for a decade. It's telling that whenever he stops complaining about a random rule and looks at a defensive formation, his analysis is usually on the money. Further testament to his acumen is the success that Tom Thibodeau, JVG's long-time assistant with the Knicks and Rockets, has had with the Celtics' and Bulls' defense. With all due respect to the Lakers' various assistant coaches who have developed the Lakers' defense, getting JVG would represent a pretty clear upgrade on whatever previous system was present.

The flip side to the coin is that JVG's teams have usually been average and even sub-standard offensively. It's difficult to say whether this is due to poor personnel for that end, JVG's own failings, or a combination of both, but it's not an especially compelling aspect of his resume. Most of his teams, however, have been slow, grind-out, and heavy post-up teams that took advantage of Ewing and later Yao in the post. Now, on this aspect, the Lakers are perfectly constructed; when the starters are in the game, the pace slows to a crawl -- partially courtesy of how terrible every starter not named Pau is in transition -- and the ball should be going inside at every opportunity. In full honesty, this approach is probably better for the bench as well, as the ball going into the post solves the problem of Shannon Brown or Matt Barnes figuring out what to do on the perimeter while they dribble the clock away. So while from a scheme perspective, this is a nice fit, JVG's personal offensive chops are an open question.

From the locker room perspective, I don't see any reasons that this wouldn't be an amicable fit. JVG doesn't appear to have his brother's screaming or perfectionist tendencies, and is a fairly well-established coaching personality.

1) Rick Adelman

Record: 945-616 (POR/GSW/SAC/HOU)

The key advantage to Adelman, and why I've ranked him first among all of the possible outside candidates, is that he combines many of the advantages of Shaw as well as those of an outside coach. The similarities between Adelman's "corner" offense and the triangle have been well-documented; C.A. referred to it as "the triangle with back cuts" a few weeks back, which sounds like an apt description. Moreover, if the offense coerces Kobe into playing off the ball and being more integrated into the scheme than "passive," "passing," and "attack" modes, that's a pretty big victory, although one can only wish at this juncture. Primarily, the advantage will be that the ball will end up in Gasol's hands either at the top of the key or in the high post and as we've generally seen, Pau making passes in the offense is always a good thing to have.

Also, Adelman's triangle-esque offense straddles a nice midway point between the triangle itself and an entirely new offensive system. It's a fair assumption that if the team was pushed to learn a new offense, execution would naturally improve (assuming the lockout ends soon enough to give teams a training camp) due to the focus the team would need to exert on that floor to run new sets and get used to new terminology. On the flip side, you don't want an offense that is so foreign to the players that it takes them a while to adjust, especially if it requires personnel that the team simply doesn't have. As Adelman's offense is a read and react system fairly analogous to the triangle, the main learning curve will be simply understanding the new reads, and I imagine that wouldn't be terribly difficult.

Adelman's fit in the locker room seems like a pretty easy case to make, notably due to Adelman's previous success with veteran teams and managing to wring an extra octave of effort out of them. His coaching resume also outstrips practically every candidate on this list save Sloan. His first gig with the Blazers saw him in the Finals twice only to lose to the Bad Boy Pistons in the '90 Finals and the Jordan-led Bulls in '92; his Sacramento teams were a powerhouse in the West during the early part of the decade; and he posted a winning record every year in Houston despite prolific injuries to his best players, constant roster turnover, and a lot of young players. On a more minor note, he's also the last coach to have gotten decent offensive production out of Ron Artest in both Sacramento and Houston, and while Ron has definitely lost some hops since then, it's certainly a plus.

And there you have it. As is plainly obvious, most of the coaches on this list are pretty flawed candidates for the Lakers, either due to their personal faults or the incompatibility with their systems or temperament with this Laker team. It may be unfair to compare these coaches to Phil, but it's a necessity because this is a team that has been deeply engrossed in Phil's mindset and customs, as you can see whenever Odom or Bynum start commenting on "energy" or "flow." In the end, the only "perfect" candidate would be Phil returning, with a close second being if Gregg Popovich quit out of the blue because Duncan retired and Parker was traded to New York or some highly improbable situation like that.

Barring a really out of left field candidate like Real Madrid's Ettore Messina, who has been getting noise as a potential NBA coach and has four Euroleague titles under his belt, it's pretty safe to say that the only legit candidates the Lakers probably should be considering are Shaw, Adelman, JVG, and possibly Person. They make the most sense from a basketball and locker room perspective. All come with question marks, whether it's the notion that bringing Shaw will only continue the team's lackadaisical habits or JVG's offensive flaws. Why I'm pretty firmly in the Adelman camp is that his baggage is the smallest among all the potential candidates, his offense should be fairly simply to integrate, and his penchant for getting the most out of veteran teams implies that he knows how to motivate and push his players and get the necessary execution and production out of them.

At the same time, there's no "wrong" choices among this group. I have full confidence that Shaw would be able to turn the team around, just as Adelman would be a terrific fit or how JVG would represent a tangible upgrade on the defensive end of the floor, which few of the coaches on this list can claim to do. Each of these coaches simply carries an element of risk, and in my opinion, Adelman's is the smallest among all possible candidates.

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