Earlier this week, the L.A. times declared Phil Jackson‘s retirement all but official. With Phil repeating his desire to escape to Montana to get away from the rigors of managing Kobe’s ego, er, NBA travel. It’s hard to imagine this Laker team without Phil. As a Laker fan, envisioning a 2011-12 season without King Phillip brings back bad memories of the 1991 NBA Finals, when an up-and-coming Chicago Bulls team beat a Pat Riley-less (and Kareem-less) Los Angeles Lakers team.
All this being said, life without Phil must go on.
As of the moment, it seems like Brian Shaw, the long-time Jackson assistant, is the odds-on favorite to replace Phil and become the Lakers’ next head coach. Kobe and the team have vouched for him recently, saying he is the most fit to be Phil’s successor. The question is: does Shaw have what it takes?
Short answer: I’m far from sure.
Long answer: Shaw has one, very positive attribute in his favor: Kobe likes him. Additionally, he has shown a willingness to call out this Lakers team when play has become lackadaisical (as it seems of late). He has been with the Lakers since his retirement in 2003 and knows the Triangle well. Lastly, with 3 NBA rings as a player, he carries some weight in terms of his on-court experience.
There is a big difference, however, between being a well-respected assistant coach or player, vs. the leader and public face of the NBA’s premier franchise. Tom Thibodeau was able to make the leap successfully. Others, like the Lakers’ own Kurt Rambis, have had a rockier time. The jury is out for me as to whether Shaw has the presence and authority (much like Erik Spoelstra) to steer this Lakers team through the rough waters that lie ahead (specifically, as this team transitions from Kobe’s team to Bynum’s). Does he have the gravitas to convince Kobe to take a secondary role over the next few years? Can he control Ron Artest from being, well, Ron Artest? Can he overcome Mr. Kardashian’s regular in-season lulls? I’m not so sure. It may sound shallow, but Shaw doesn’t look like a head coach. And in a country where the single largest determinant for being a CEO is height, that also means a lot.
Laker fans will always remember Shaw for his uber clutch performance in the seminal game of the Shaq-Kobe dynasty, highlighted by the desperation Game 7 heave at the end of the 3rd quarter vs. the Portland Trailblazers. Shaq once claimed that Brian Shaw was the player he most respected in the NBA. Shaw has always been popular, but sometimes (even often) the most popular, isn’t the best. There is also more to being a Laker head coach than just being a fan favorite.
Regardless, at this point Shaw doesn’t just seem like the frontrunner, but the foregone conclusion. Kurt Rambis, who knows the Lakers’ system as well as Shaw (and was previously touted by none other than Phil himself as the heir apparent), is stuck in NBA purgatory – serving out a 4 year-$8MM sentence with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Even if Rambis is fired by the Timberwolves at the end of this season (a distinct possibility), his demeanor doesn’t seem to fit a Laker team filled with outsized egos.
Another popular candidate in the past has been Byron Scott, another potential heir apparent and loser of the Lebron sweepstakes. Unless he is able to convince Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert to let him out of his current 4-year deal, Scott also is off the market. Scott, if available, would be my personal choice. He has past success as a head coach. Kobe likes him. And, I believe, has the presence that Shaw doesn’t. Well, at least if things get too depressing for Scott in Cleveland, he can go over to B-Davis’ house to share some ice cream.
And then, there of course are the coaches that never seem to leave the rumor mill. Duke’s Coach K has already (once again) taken himself out of consideration. It also seems unlikely the Lakers, with a veteran team, would bring in a high profile coach who doesn’t fit their system (eliminating the likes of Jeff Van Gundy, Jerry Sloan and Larry Brown).
So, Laker fan, brace yourself for a brave new world. And let’s hope that next year, Derrick Rose and his Chicago Bulls don’t bring us back 20 years.