I was shocked when I read the Lakers had fired Mike Brown 5 games into the season. Either you believe in your coach enough to give him a chance, or you shouldn’t let him coach your team at all in the first place. Regardless of whether Mike Brown was the right coach for this Lakers team, firing any coach midseason makes it much harder to gel and compete for a title. The only way this could possibly make sense is if there’s somebody who is obviously better waiting in the wings.
So when I saw the headline that the Lakers had hired Mike D’Antoni for head coach, I could scarcely believe it. Not only was Phil Jackson available, but he was the perfect coach for this team. I thought for sure, after screwing up with Mike Brown, they’d pay whatever was necessary to bring Jackson back. However, Jackson’s asking price was exorbitant and his heart didn’t appear to be in it. Still, couldn’t the Lakers have done better than Mike D’Antoni?
D’Antoni’s famous for his 7 seconds or less offense. This offense relies heavily on quick hitters and fast breaks and requires fast, quick, athletic players and lots of depth. The Lakers have neither. Their average on-court age right now is 30.6 years old, and the number will go up as the players age and as Nash, 38, returns from injury. Only 7 teams have won titles with players over 30, and if they do manage to win the title this year, the Lakers will almost certainly be older than all but one if their roster remains in tact. All 7 of these teams had been playing together for at least a year prior to their titles, and they all had been in the same offensive system for at least that long. They also were all well below the league average in pace. The oldest team to win a title is Jackson’s 1998 Bulls.
The message is clear – old rosters should be handled with care. Historically, if you want to win with an old team, you need a methodical offense and a familiar system. This effectively minimizes the energy gap and allows the experienced basketball instincts of the older players to show through. Basically, the antithesis of the 7 seconds or less offense. Trying to teach a roster this old a new system and then expecting them to be able to outsprint their younger opponents to a title is asking this team to do two things that have never been done before.
Certainly, in terms of spacing the floor and allowing players to run a simple offense based on instinct, attacking, and pick and rolls, seven seconds or less has the potential to make the Lakers offense pretty slick. But plenty of coaches can teach players to run the pick and roll and space the floor in a simple system, and it’s hard to imagine the Lakers wouldn’t have been excellent on offense anyway, given their overwhelming talent. Despite being wildly inconsistent and at times looking awful, the Lakers were 6th in points per possession at the time of Brown’s firing running the Princeton and have looked fine running a bare bones offense under Bernie Bickerstaff. With Nash, Kobe, Howard and Gasol, I don’t think you need much coaching on offense.
However, they were only 23rd in terms of team defense, and D’Antoni certainly won’t help that. Every team D’Antoni has ever coached in the NBA for a full season has been in the lower half of the league in terms of team defense, based on both total points per game and points per possession. That’s a long track record of futility, and it points to a philosophical problem. The Nuggets, Suns and Knicks all improved markedly on the defensive end once he left. Dwight Howard has the potential to be the league’s elite defender but he’s recuperating from back surgery and clearly not 100%. Kobe and MWP were once great defenders but are now in the twilight of their careers and have clearly lost a step. Guys like Jamison and Nash, never good defenders even at their peaks, are now huge liabilities. If Brown couldn’t get this group playing defense, I shudder to think what D’Antoni will do with it.
Beyond this, major in-season changes in coaching philosophy do not lead to titles. Only three teams have made in-season coaching changes and gone on to win a title, and all of these teams filled their positions with people who already knew and could implement an established system. The 2006 Heat went from a young coach, Stan Van Gundy, to team GM and recent head coach Pat Riley. The Lakers dumped Paul Westhead for Riley, then an assistant coach, after the team mutinied during the 1981-82 season. Westhead had actually taken over the 1980 Lakers and won the title after the head coach almost died in an accident and he was gifted an elite team with system in tact. The Lakers will obviously not run the Princeton, which brings us back to the triangle-the system with which the most Lakers are comfortable and a system that is a proven winner for both the Lakers and older teams in general.
Furthermore, the Lakers are probably the most challenging team in the NBA to manage and put D’Antoni back in a situation in which he has not thrived. Both Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant, for all their talent, are both well established prima donnas and coach killers. D’Antoni has shown time and again that he cannot deal with that kind of player. He lost Shawn Marion in Phoenix and failed miserably with both Stephon Marbury and Carmelo Anthony in New York. Furthermore, he never seemed to reach a comfort level with the pressure-cooker that is New York City. Now he’s expected to handle Kobe, Dwight, and Los Angeles at the same time? Established relationships or not, good luck.
Perhaps bringing back Jackson was never really an option. Still, numerous better options than D’Antoni existed. The most obvious is Brian Shaw. He is well-liked by the Lakers brass and players and is, again, a Lakers insider who is intimately familiar with the triangle. He could have stepped in and brought the team back to the familiar formula that’s won them so many titles in the past rather than having to start from scratch on a team with an already-limited window. Sure, he’s an unknown commodity as a head coach, but so were Westhead and Riley when they won LA titles in their first seasons.
Even if you strike out on both Jackson and don’t buy into Shaw, why not call the Hall of Fame coaches with coaching styles that might fit this team better? Jerry Sloan’s methodical offense kept Stockton and Malone relevant into the twilight of their careers and would work beautifully with Nash to Howard/Gasol, particularly with Kobe Bryant a much bigger threat than Hornacek or Jeff Malone ever was on the wing. And while Larry Brown may be old, mercurial and abrasive, he’s a basketball savant who has proven he can take just about any team to a new level and has tamed some of the most difficult talents in NBA history. Failing to capture any of them, Nate McMillan has proven he can function in difficult situations, as evidenced by his work with the Jail Blazers, and is also a defensive minded coach.
The Lakers are arguably the most talented team in the league and have the potential to compete for a championship, but it’s certainly not going to be easy. Firing Mike Brown five games into the season and then replacing him with the wrong coach isn’t going to make things any easier.