Another outside candidate is coming on strong in the race to become the Lakers' next head coach. This time, it's a name Laker fans of a certain age should remember well: Mike Dunleavy. I believe the first to report that the Lakers had him in their sights was Mark Heisler of the Times, who tweeted the following a few days ago:
ADD LAKER CANDIDATES: Mike Dunleavy. Jim Buss likes him. Mitch almost became his GM w/Bucks. Kobe almost left Lakes to play for him w/Clips
Today Ramona Shelburne of ESPN tells us that Dunleavy is on the Lakers' short list and that he was contacted by the team earlier this week.
Mike D has coached the Lakers once before, from 1990 to 1992. At the tender age of 36, he took over from Pat Riley and led the team to an upset victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals before falling to - hey, guess who - Phil Jackson and the Bulls. Early into the following season, Magic Johnson announced his HIV diagnosis and retirement. Without their franchise godhead, the Lakers won just 43 games and lost in the first round of the playoffs, and Dunleavy accepted a lucrative offer to coach the Milwaukee Bucks. Word is, Laker management wasn't hugely sad to see him go.
His four years in Milwaukee were pretty terrible, as the Bucks averaged about 27 wins a season. After taking the 1996-97 campaign off, Dunleavy's career perked up when he accepted the Blazers' head coaching gig. There he oversaw Portland's rise into the league's upper crust, winning NBA Coach of the Year in the strike-shortened 1998-99 season. In 2000, his Blazers came achingly close to reaching the NBA Finals, and would've been favored to win it all had they got there, but the Shaq-Kobe Lakers (coached by, you guessed it, Phil Jackson) made that historic comeback in the fourth quarter of Game Seven of the conference finals. You know... that comeback.
Dunleavy's most recent coaching job was in the same building where the Blazers' mind-blowing 2000 collapse took place. From 2003 until February 2010, he was the Clippers' head coach, leading them to their only playoff series victory in franchise history. For about a month after stepping down as coach, he stayed on as GM, a position he'd held for about a year, until Donald Sterling banished him from the organization. He and Sterling are currently in a legal tussle over unpaid salary, which is par for the course in Clipperworld.
Would Dunleavy be a good hire for the Lakers? I can't say the idea much appeals to me. The guy's not incompetent. He's had bright moments in his career, but the overall résumé isn't dazzling. He's now left four different teams, all on terms ranging from "chilly" to "call the lawyers." It's hard to talk about him without invoking the label that makes everyone's heart sink: coaching retread.
But it's been a while since I've thought hard about Mike Dunleavy and his curious charms, so to get an expert take, I reached out to someone who's watched Mike D's latest coaching work up close: Steve Perrin of our sister site Clips Nation. Steve was generous enough to share his thoughts about MDSr and his suitability for the Lakers, for which we can't thank him enough. Here's what my man had to say:
MDsr overstayed his welcome by so much with the Clippers, I'm not sure how objective I can be. Not that it was even his fault: Donald Sterling was so averse to eating his remaining salary, he just kept him around long after he should have been gone. The last four seasons under MDsr were pretty rough. Injuries obviously derailed most of those seasons, but the Clippers had needed a change for a long time before it happened.
I think Dunleavy's strengths are coaching defense and preparation. The improvements the team made in the first three seasons under MDsr (from 27 to 28 to 37 to 47 wins) were mostly about improved defense. By 2005-06, the Clippers were a top 10 defensive unit, which they've never been before or since. And they did that with a team that did not feature great individual defenders. His help defense schemes were pretty effective if the team committed to them. He also did a good job of developing schemes specific to opponents. The reason the Clippers were relatively successful in the ‘06 playoffs was at least partly due to MDsr's schemes to beat a Carmelo-centric Denver team and to contain Nash on the Suns. No one was really going to outwork MDsr. He knew every other NBA team's playbook as well as they did.
But that over-preparedness could be a little overwhelming for his players, I think. MDsr called every play from the sideline, and also called out defenses depending on the play call of the opposition. Consequently, there wasn't a lot of spontaneity to MDsr teams (a situation that was exemplified in the conflict between Baron and MDsr). MDsr prefers inside-out basketball, and loves iso's/post-ups, for whomever he feels is the best matchup. So for instance, if Sam Cassell had a small point guard or weak defender on him, MDsr would milk that matchup until the opponent adjusted. Same with Cat Mobley or Brand or whatever the matchup was.
It's not the most exciting basketball, but it might actually be pretty effective for the Lakers. MDsr loved to post Mobley and Cat thrived - he would love to do the same with Kobe. But if the Busses want the Lakers to be more up-tempo, then he'd be a bad fit for that. Although he was a protégé of Don Nelson back in the Milwaukee days and he gave lots of lip service to up-tempo while with the Clippers, the reality always seemed to be that playing fast in the end involved a certain loss of control that he couldn't accept. So he would talk about playing fast break ball with Baron, but it never really happened.
Lots of interesting stuff in there to chew over. Of course, we'll have more on Dunleavy and the other leading candidates as the Lakers' coaching search continues. In the meantime, much love to Steve for sharing his insights with us.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.