We’re less than two weeks from the 2018 NBA Draft away a only a little further from the start of free agency, but the Lakers already have another move to make.
A report last month revealed that the New York Knicks were targeting Los Angeles assistant coach Jud Buechler to fill out newly-hired head coach David Fizdale’s staff, and the Knicks confirmed their newest acquisition yesterday.
That leaves the Lakers with an opening on their bench, and down one University of Arizona alum to boot.
Although it’s always tricky as an outsider to assign credit and blame within a coaching staff, some praise is due for Buechler’s work the past two seasons. In his first job on an NBA bench, Buechler was nominally tasked with player development as the Lakers saw noticeable improvement from their young core of Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and Lonzo Ball. Furthermore, the soon-to-be Knicks assistant was the head coach of the 2017 Summer League team that won the title in Las Vegas.
His departure gives the Lakers an opportunity to make some interesting choices for their next assistant.
The team already has an associate head coach in Brian Shaw, which would theoretically preclude hiring someone above Shaw. That rules out most former head coaches and restricts the pool to current players and/or assistants.
The simplest outcome could be to promote from within and give South Bay Lakers head coach Coby Karl a spot on the bench. Luke Walton brought Casey Owens up to his staff in 2016 after a year with the then-Los Angeles D-Fenders, so this move would be in line with past precedent.
A more compelling option would be to search outside the organization, so let’s think about what kind of targets Walton and his staff could pursue.
First, the obvious idea is to hire another Arizona Wildcat. Walton, Buechler, and current assistants Jesse Mermuys and Miles Simon all hail from Tuscon, and let’s not forget that the current Laker head coach got his first NBA job in Golden State under Steve Kerr, another Wildcat. The Arizona connection runs deep.
Richard Jefferson was a name thrown around when Walton initially took the Lakers job, and his playing career may have come to an end with Denver this season. Jason Terry is a free agent facing uncertainty in Milwaukee, but his stated goal has been to play 20 seasons, a target he could reach this year. Damon Stoudamire is another prominent Arizona alum who has been coaching mainly collegiately for the past decade. This could be his chance to return to the NBA.
Another common route would be for Walton to add a former teammate to his staff. Several of his former Laker teammates have already been coaches at various levels, including Derek Fisher, Metta World Peace, Coby Karl, and Ime Udoka (a Laker for 4 games, who knew?). Another short-lived Laker, Jannero Pargo, currently works as an assistant for the Windy City Bulls and would almost certainly welcome a move to an NBA bench.
Los Angeles could also consider looking abroad for a new assistant. Dimitris Itoudis of CSKA Moscow is a Euroleague champion who has flirted with joining the NBA in the past. (For reference, Ettore Messina of the San Antonio Spurs was a former head coach of CSKA and Utah’s Quin Snyder worked there as an assistant.) His assistant Andreas Pistiolis is also highly regarded in European circles.
Generally, foreign coaches are more prevalent on teams that have more foreign players on their roster. The Lakers only have one non-American player of consequence in Ivica Zubac, so they wouldn’t be the most likely team to pursue a European coach.
Lastly, Walton could just poach an assistant from another team, similar to what happened with Buechler in the first place. Again, it would be a lateral move for most coaches, given that the Lakers already have a top assistant in Shaw and another who appears to be very close to Luke’s ear in Mermuys. Nevertheless, the exposure of working for the Lakers could be enough of a draw.
It’s also possible the Lakers leave their coaching staff as is. There is no fixed number of assistant coaches required, and the team could deliberately leave a vacancy. The front office may wait until the roster is finalized and a coach is brought in to deal with the specific personnel. Perhaps a free agent target may want to bring a personal choice in to fill out the bench.
All we know is that for as challenging it is to evaluate the work of an assistant, it may be equally challenging to project the process of hiring one. What is clear regarding the coaching search is, like so many other facets of the Lakers offseason, the possibilities are numerous. It’s going to be a fun ride.