Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Everything you need to know about the Lakers' coaching carrousel

I was literally writing a post about the Lakers and them not “jumping to conclusions”; I even had a cool allusion to the great Office Space about the dangers of jumping to conclusions. Mike Brown was 1-4 as the coach of the Lakers this year, and according to ESPN statistics, it’s the 3rd shortest time into the season that a coach has ever been fired. Surely, with his point guard (and co-offensive coordinator) going down to an injury and a centerpiece of his bench being highly ineffective (Jamison hadn’t scored over six points in any Lakers game under Brown), Mike Brown would be given more than five games.  No way did I think that the Lakers would get rid of him that quickly.  Indeed, I had written that January/ All-Star break was a more appropriate yardstick for the fuse on the incendiary material attached to Brown’s contract.

Don't let the palm trees fool you, LA can be a stressful place

Moreover, why would the Lakers give Mike Brown 11 million to go away (the amount reported that the Lakers owe Brown over the next three years)? Even if you are the Lakers, wasted money is wasted money, no reason to eat the remainder of his contract when the completely re-vamped team hadn’t even made it off the lot much less been taken for a spin?  Besides, who would they replace him with? Phil Jackson didn’t seem to be interested in coaching after retiring (again) and going to live in Montana.  Add to that, the contentious relationship that Jackson had with management and Phil didn’t seem like a viable option.  Past Jackson, the only “available” (defined here as people that are still involved in basketball and are not currently under contract with an NBA team) coaches who have won NBA finals were Rudy Tomjanovich and Larry Brown.  To replace Mike Brown with anyone else meant that the franchise is at most replacing him with someone with equal qualifications (a colleague that had coached in the NBA Finals previously, as he did in 2007) or replacing him with someone who has accomplished less than the 2008-2009 Coach of the Year.
Regardless, Mike Brown deserved better than he got.  It was an embarrassment to trot him out, give him a public show of confidence (nearly always the kiss of death in these situations) and not allow him to coach the full complement of new players that the General Manager put together for him. For such a storied franchise, this was an impulsive move. 

At least that is what part of me is thinking, the other part thinks…

Mike Brown deserved to get fired. If you know something won’t work, there is no reason to linger on and on and waste valuable time.  This team is comprised of aged and grizzled veterans, there is no tomorrow for them. They were built to win this year.  The Lakers were averaging giving up nearly 99 points per game during Brown’s reign this season.  For a coach heralded for his defensive schemes and prowess, (and after having added a former Defensive Player of the Year to the team) to have a poor/mediocre defense didn’t fare well for Brown.  Brown has coached Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, arguably the two best players of the recent generation and was unable to win a title with either of them.
Some have expressed dismay over the short leash Brown was given. If you’re paying millions to a coach and you have lost faith, you can fire him at halftime.  There is no etiquette for firing someone.  It is a firing. It is, by definition, an event full of acrimony.  There was no reason to stand on ceremony to avoid hurting feelings.  Basketball is a business, and if the institution of free agency has taught us anything it is that there is no such thing as loyalty.  There is only winning and losing.  Keep in mind, Brown didn’t have five games to coach the Lakers, he was the coach last year.  The Lakers are arguably the most heralded franchise in NBA history. Anything less than a championship team is unacceptable.  Things happen faster in LA.   With one of the greatest players ever on your team, every year you don’t win the chip is a wasted year of his greatness (I mean, Steve Blake Kobe only has a few years left). Brown had his shot, he missed on it.  He’s getting paid to go away, and he should.  

The Jackson Episode

Phil Jackson actually has 11 rings as a coach, but who's counting?

No division here, the Lakers handled the Phil Jackson situation about as poorly as a team could.  For those unsure, here is the breakdown of the sequence of events: On November 9th Mike Brown was fired, later the following day the Lakers management contacted Jackson and set up a Saturday meeting. After the (reportedly very productive) meeting, Jackson was given until Monday to decide whether he would be interested in taking his former position. On midnight Sunday, Jackson was awakened to find out that Mike D’Antoni would be given the position.
After releasing Mike Brown, the Lakers obviously needed a coach—but there was no need to have one two days following his firing. Bernie Bickerstaff is a viable interim coach (as he has proved by leading the Lakers to their 5-5 record after the team stumbled out the gates to their 1-4 start) that afforded the Lakers a relatively long period to make their final decision on the coaching position. Jim Buss (the son of owner of Dr. Jerry Buss) has taken over the operations of the team.  The relationship between Jim and Jackson had been reported as contentious before this entire hiring fiasco occurred [An aside: Phil Jackson actually dates the daughter of Jerry Buss (and sister of Jim); she stays out of the basketball part of the Lakers, but it’s funny to imagine what that Thanksgiving table will be like this holiday season] . Part of the animosity may stem from Jim’s desire to move on from the Jackson era associated with his father (internally the Lakers have undergone a massive overhaul of personnel since Jim has taken over).
Still, even with a desire to move forward Jim would understand the natural reaction of fans (and perhaps even some players) to bring Jackson on board as coach.  It has been 24 years since someone other than Jackson coached the Lakers to an NBA title.  For people my age, Phil Jackson) is associated with the Lakers (as well as the Chicago Bulls) and their success. Jackson had to be the first call that was made. Nothing in the meeting with Jackson has been reported as being anything less than cordial or fruitful, and yet the Lakers management extended a deadline to Jackson and then revoked their offer. They then further embarrassed the most successful basketball coach in NBA history by waking him in the middle of the night to tell him that they were going in another direction.
The circumstances surrounding the latest interaction between the team and Jackson lead one to believe that they never wanted him. That, in fact, the management team wanted nothing to do with Jackson.  It was only his past success that necessitated the interaction at all.  Said directly, the Lakers went through the motions of courting Jackson despite having their heart set on a new dance partner.  It’s understandable that they might want to go in another direction (Jackson has had several health issues, is 67, and reports vary about his desire to not have to travel with the team on road trips during the season) but to publicly go through the machinations and go back on your handshake agreement to leave the offer open seems petty for the mighty franchise.
An additional layer was brought up by ESPN writer Arash Makazi, when he tweeted: “D’Antoni was in a great spot if he were just replacing Brown. Lakers put him in the odd position of replacing Jackson” Now that Jackson has been cast aside, the already high amount of pressure has increased exponentially. It’s championship or bust for the Lakers now that they have stiff-armed the Hall-of-fame coach; D’Antoni will certainly have his work cut out for him to win his first NBA championship.

The Actual Coach of the Lakers
He'll keep smiling as long as he keeps winning...all the way into June
Mike D’Antoni will make his coaching debut tonight vs the Brooklyn Nets.  Seven seconds or less comes to LA.  The Lakers will always be tied to Magic and Kareem’s Showtime Lakers, and D’Antoni’s up-tempo, high-octane offense is a modern day equivalent. With so many offensive dynamos on the team, this Lakers squad is shaping up to be an offensive juggernaut.  While under the D’Antoni system, the Suns averaged 109.8 PPG during the four seasons (2004-2008) that Steve Nash Capt. his offense.  During those four years, the Suns never finished ranked lower than 3rd in the league in points scored per game.
Substantively, everyone is interested to see how Mike D’Antoni’s system will work with a new set of characters.  He has never had a 4-5 combination like Pau and Dwight Howard. Basketball breakdown does a wonderful visual representation of the system. The biggest takeaway from D’Antoni system is that often the Power forward position is away from the basket often.  While Pau is capable of scoring away from the basket, having him camped out at the three is not the most effective position for his set of skills.  Under the Phil Jackson’s triangle offense, he was able to work the high post with the Center Andrew Bynum and exploit both his solid (albeit stationary) midrange jumper and fantastic interior passing.  From that position, both of those skills will be severely limited.
Gasol’s loss will be Dwight Howard’s gain; as a higher percentage of his touches will be off of the high screen and roll with one of the most offensively gifted point guards in NBA history.  Last year, Dwight Howard averaged 1.38 points per possession on Pick and Roll plays. No one in the NBA had an average that high. Combine that with the fact that Howard’s low post game has never been more polished, and Superman Jr. may have the most explosive offensive season of his decorated career.
One of the most interesting studies will be how Kobe responds to dominating the ball less.  In D’Antoni’s system, the point guard initiates the offense and starts the two man game with the big man.  Kobe will have the ball less (at least during the majority of the game assuming the offense isn’t changed at all) during possessions and the percentage of his shots that are 3 pointers (last year roughly 21% of his shots were from that distance) may also increase as his presence will be needed to space the floor.  In the triangle, Kobe was always in a two man game with a post player. It will be interesting to see if he gets less touches or if D’Antoni will tweak the offense to get him more action away from the ball to eventually get him in a better position to score.  Joe Johnson (the best shooting guard to ever play in D’Antoni’s system) averaged the second-lowest field goal attempts in his career under D’Antoni’s first full year of coaching in Phoenix.

Of course, all of this is conjecture until they throw the ball up. How do you think it’ll all work out?

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