When Luke Walton was relieved of his duties as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers last week, one of the criticisms leveled at him was that he failed to upgrade his bench by hiring top-quality assistant coaches. It’s arguably the most accurate assessment the front office made this entire season.
Here’s a list of the coaches Walton filled out his coaching staff with during his three-year tenure: Brian Shaw, Brian Keefe, Mark Madsen, Jesse Mermuys, Miles Simon, Jud Buechler, Theo Robertson and Casey Owens.
Shaw and Madsen were both Laker retreads, Shaw an assistant and Madsen a teammate during Walton’s playing career. Although Shaw had extensive experience in the league and Madsen was making his way up from the G League, the stench of Laker homerism was unmistakable with the pair.
Then, there were the Arizona hires. Mermuys, Simon and Buechler all shared an alma mater with Walton, along with the added similarity of limited NBA coaching experience. Mermuys had been an assistant coach for two years in Toronto, as well as one year coaching the Raptors’ G League affiliate, the 905, and both Simon and Buechler were both coaching rookies.
Combine that with Casey Owens, who had recently been promoted from the G League, and Theo Robertson, a video intern in Golden State who came with Walton from the Warriors, and the Lakers had an incredibly green staff. Other than Keefe, none of them had a history of success coaching in the NBA. Their inexperience manifested itself in the team’s performance.
When you think about how far the Laker brand has fallen in recent years, that applies to not only the product on the court and the quality of the front office, but also the talent on the bench.
Back when the team last made the playoffs in 2012-13, former Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni roamed the sidelines and was assisted by his brother Dan, Bernie Bickerstaff, Chuck Person, Darvin Ham and Steve Clifford. The previous season, Los Angeles also employed Quin Snyder as an assistant, and Ettore Messina as a consultant.
That’s three head coaches of current playoff teams (D’Antoni, Clifford, and Snyder), as well as two lead assistants on playoff teams (Ham and Messina). Messina was in the conversation for the head coaching job before the Lakers hired Walton in 2016, and Ham was on Kevin Arnovitz’s list of top candidates on ESPN.
The disparity in talent and experience compared to what the Lakers had during the Walton era is as stark as night and day. Snyder has crafted one of the most successful defenses in the league in Utah, while D’Antoni’s offense in Houston is almost unguardable. Clifford coerced a top-ten defense out of D.J. Augustin and Nikola Vucevic in Orlando, Ham helped transform Milwaukee into a contender, and Messina has been part of five straight winning seasons and postseason berths in San Antonio.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles couldn’t figure out how to run offensive sets with a secondary option beyond the initial action. The team’s defense only took a step forward when Tyson Chandler miraculously fell into the Lakers’ laps. Even the scouting department’s hits in the draft have been tempered by some gaps in development that have forced the young players into situations ill-suited for their skill sets and long-term growth.
It’s hard to pin all of that on Luke Walton, although he bears the brunt for not hiring better assistants to help him in that task. (The team didn’t even replace Buechler when he joined the New York Knicks last offseason). Walton came from Golden State, where even though Steve Kerr also has a penchant for hiring former Wildcats, the staff included legendary defensive mind Ron Adams and offensive savant Alvin Gentry. Kerr understood what Walton didn’t — head coaches, particularly first-time head coaches, need some backup.
The Lakers have identified their three primary targets for the next coach of this franchise: Juwan Howard, Monty Williams, and Ty Lue. Although they’ve already made a grave error by beginning this search without stabilizing their front office situation, it might be an even bigger mistake to assume that finding the right head coach is the end of the process. It’s only the beginning.
Howard would be a first-time head coach, and though he has a background in player development, he would likely need some assistants more familiar with play-calling or designing offensive systems. Williams was never very creative on offense as a head coach, oftentimes stifling Anthony Davis by playing him next to a ground-bound center, and could use an assistant who is more capable of constructing a productive offense around LeBron James.
Lue was excellent on offense in Cleveland — though he may need some input in personnel decisions to ensure that continues in Los Angeles — but the Cavaliers were only even league-average on defense during his first shortened season, and far below that during the final two. His theoretical defensive coach Mike Longabardi made minimal impact in that respect. Longabardi currently still presides over the Cavaliers defense, which ranked last in the league this season, showing the perils of hiring the wrong assistants.
What’s becoming clear in the modern NBA is that every aspect of team-building requires depth, be it in the front office or on the roster itself. Having multiple capable people matters, whether on lottery teams or championship contenders. While the Lakers seem to have remained convinced that certain exceptional individuals can handle the work of many, the rest of the league has proven that there is strength in numbers.
Therefore, when it comes to assembling a coaching staff for next season, Los Angeles needs to think big, not just in the size of the staff — which, hopefully will include a dedicated shooting coach — but also in the caliber of the coaches they target to fill every role on the bench. They can’t just hire from within the Laker family, or people who have an existing relationship with the next head coach this time. The front office and whoever they pick to coach the team need to conduct a wide-ranging search for assistants
Every coach under Walton, save for Miles Simon (who continues on in all likelihood just to handle draft prep) was given the axe because they all bear culpability for how poorly this season transpired. That means that any assistant who comes on in 2019-20 will have an opportunity to affect the direction of this franchise.
It’s important that the Lakers take all of those hires seriously, and not just the one at the top.