There’s a lot of talk about dismissing Mike D’Antoni from the Lakers’ bench, but rarely does anyone suggest a replacement. If we’re asking for D’Antoni to be fired, what good is that if we’re not even talking about who could replace him? And if he’d be a better fit for the Lakers?
First of all, I want to be clear that the firing of D’Antoni is far from inevitable. The Lakers will not be making any moves mid-season and will re-evaluate this summer. It’s fair to ask what more one could have expected from the embattled head coach. He has had a M.A.S.H. unit of waiver-wire pickups and D-Leaguers while his superstars have watched from the bench in street clothes. Kupchak gave a vote of confidence this week and said that D’Antoni has done a great job. Unfortunately, this is a star-driven league and Kobe may not want MDA around. When asked if D’Antoni should stick around, Kobe simply replied "I don’t know."
Fair or not, there are a number of factors that could spell the end of the Pringles Era. If Kobe loses patience with the front office, a coaching change could buy Kupchak some time. Additionally, the Lakers are at an inflection point that will set the tone for their future this summer, reloading with the 2014 draft and only Kobe / Nash under contract next season. D’Antoni Ball requires a very specific type of roster construction and the Lakers have to decide if that’s where they want to go. If a change is coming, it makes sense for it to happen now.
With that in mind, if a coaching change is coming, who should the Lakers go after?
Previous Coaches (NBA Retread): There’s something to be said for coaches that have been there before and have an established track record. While I don’t think Jerry Sloan will come out of retirement, there are a number of premier coaches that have been waiting for the right opportunity.
The Van Gundy Brothers
- Last Stop: 2006-7 Rockets (Jeff) / 2011-2 Magic (Stan)
- Why They'd Fit: It’s probably not fair to lump these two together, but I’m going to anyway. Jeff and Stan have a lot in common: they are both highly respected basketball minds that are in their 50s and have plenty left in the tank if they choose to coach again. The Van Gundy’s can each claim deep playoff runs to their name that will give them instant credibility with any roster. Either Van Gundy would be a great acquisition and fantastic personality to lead the Lake Show.
- Potential Failing: These guys are both very strong personalities. It's safe to say that Kobe isn't the easiest guy to get along with. Although there is only one Phil Jackson, it's not hard to see the Van Gundy's failing to mesh with Kobe.
- Last Stop: 2012-3 Grizzlies
- Why He'd Fit: Hollins was the victim of regime change in Memphis, despite the best Grizz season ever and a conference finals appearance. He architected a vicious defense anchored by Tony Allen and an underrated offense that revolved around Marc Gasol. Hollins has demonstrated an effective manner with players and that he deserves another shot at coaching in the L.
- Potential Failing: Part of the reason for his departure was Hollins' public battles with the front office over personnel moves and hesitance to accept the new direction of the team. Simply put, that wouldn't fly in Lakerland.
- Last Stop: 2012-3 Nuggets
- Why He'd Fit: The 2012-13 Coach of the Year was unceremoniously dismissed by the Nuggets, who made the organizational decision to shed their most valuable assets after a 57 win season. Karl is a great coach and did a phenomenal job of pulling together the Nuggets last year. He's won in Seattle, Milwaukee, and Denver. Karl is well-respected in the league for a reason.
- Potential Failing: He’s consistently in the playoffs, but has underperformed once he’s there. If Kobe wants to a win another title (and yes, he does), I think their chances are better elsewhere. I don’t think he’s the right fit for the Lakers.
- Last Stop: 2012-3 Nets
- Why He'd Fit: He doesn’t deserve the blame for failing to turn around last year’s Nets team, but was dismissed by Prokhorov anyway. His Mavericks teams won 50+ games every year and nearly won an NBA championship before an epic meltdown against Miami. Avery is a great motivator and his playing experience would allow him a voice in any locker room.
- Potential Failing: Avery is a strong personality and incredibly demanding coach that wore out his teams over time, pushing constantly. He did not handle the public scrutiny well with the Nets, how do you think that would translate in Los Angeles? There are certainly worse choices here, but I think the Lakers should pass.
- Last Stop: 1998-9 Nets
- Why He'd Fit: Calipari is a known quantity and quality basketball coach. Despite a mixed record with the Nets in the 90s, he’s been successful everywhere he’s been in college, finally winning a championship with the Brow in Kentucky. You could argue that Calipari’s best skill as a college coach is recruiting, but you could have said the same thing about Peter Carroll, who just won the Superbowl with the Seahawks. It’s an open question if Calipari wants another shot at the NBA, but he’ll get one if he wants.
- Potential Failing: There aren't many college coaches who successfully transition to the NBA and Calipari's .391 winning percentage doesn't exactly inspire confidence. I generally believe he'd be able to handle the personalities, but I think Coach Cal is a better mentor for young men than someone like Kobe.
- There are a few other names that might be tossed around that should get a pass. Nate McMillan is a well-liked coach with a good reputation, but he also has a .514 career winning percentage. Scott Skiles is an Avery-lite, a defensive-minded coach who tends to wear out his teams over time. Don’t even think about Vinnie Del Negro, even as a mean joke.
New Head Coaches: While the Lakers have a history of hiring big names, Pat Riley was also an internal promotion that worked out pretty well. Casting a wide net outside of the usual suspects, who should the Lakers be looking at?
- Last Stop: GM of the Suns
- Why He'd Fit: Current TV analyst, former quality GM, and highly respected former player, Kerr would bring a championship pedigree that most new head coaches couldn't match. He is a student of the game that has played for Phil Jackson and Popovich. He would bring a real philosophy and manage NBA personalities well.
- Potential Failing: Aside from my concerns that he will be coaching the Knicks first, word is that Kerr would want to install the triangle. The triangle takes patience and years that the Lakers don’t have to successfully put in place. If he insists on the triangle, the Lakers should pass.
- Current Location: Assistant Coach, Miami Heat
- Why He'd Fit: Similar to how Popovich’s ranks have been pilfered for years, it’s time to start poaching the Miami Heat assistants. Like Spoelstra, Fizdale came from the Heat video room and has also worked in player development. Fizdale is a very cerebral basketball coach, but also someone who has successfully related to NBA players and helped install new schemes in South Beach. His reported contributions to LeBron’s post-game alone should get him a long look for any coaching vacancy.
- Potential Failing: Credibility issues. Spoelstra has been able to handle the transition from the video room, but most coaches are former players for a reason. Getting your first shot with a high profile team like the Lakers may not be the best way to ease into a career as a head coach.
- Current Location: Head Coach, Iowa State
- Why He'd Fit: Hoiberg is a high quality, high character coach who’s done a great job at Iowa State since taking over, winning NCAA tournament games the last several years (he just made it into the Sweet 16 this weekend). To this day, he remains the only coach who’s been able to get Royce White to live up to his sizable potential. I think Hoiberg will get the call from a big NCAA program or NBA team very soon.
- Potential Failing: Despite being a respected former player, this would be a Brad Stevens-type hire without the rebuilding situation. Hoiberg would be expected to win and win immediately in Lakerland, which are probably unfair expectations to place on him.
- Current Location: Assistant Coach, Houston Rockets
- Why He'd Fit: Something of a wildcard, Sampson was a very successful college coach for several programs whose career ended when he was run out of Indiana for recruiting violations. Afterwards, he has bounced around the NBA, working with the Bucks and the Spurs before settling in as an assistant for the Rockets. By all accounts, he's been great in Houston and is a very good coach.
- Potential Failing: I see Sampson as something as an unproven commodity at the NBA level. Although I don't feel like his recruiting violations being the issue here (he was good enough for Popovich to bring into San Antonio), he's another guy that I think would be best suited to get his first opportunity elsewhere.
In the end, I think the Lakers should go with a relatively safe commodity that will maximize what’s left of Kobe’s window. There are a lot of great choices here, some in the box and some out. Personally, I’m a huge Stan Van Gundy fan and think he’d be a great fit for any NBA team. He’s taken the Heat and the Magic to the brink of championships and could do plenty to help the Lakers from day 1. That said, I’d be thrilled with Hollins, Kerr, or Hoiberg on this list as well. The Lakers have a lot of decisions to make moving forward, but their head coach of the future looms as a big one.