The Lakers’ coaching quandary
Two years after Byron Scott was hired, two unremarkable years that culminated with this season’s historically bad 17-win campaign, Scott is gone, dismissed after stewarding Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour and doing his part to protect the draft pick the Lakers desperately needed to land in the top three.
Surprised? Hardly. Sure, in recent weeks it appeared Scott may have been safe for another season. The D’Angelo Russell debacle reinforced Scott’s early-season opinion that Russell, despite his marvelous talent, lacked the maturity needed to play extended minutes, and the Lakers are unlikely to lure any elite free agents this summer, not with the franchise in the fledgling stage of a full-scale rebuild. Scott’s job security seemed to improve last week, when Tom Thibodeau and Scott Brooks – the two top coaching free agents – agreed to deals with Minnesota and Washington, respectively.
Yet Scott was never more than a placeholder for the Lakers, a bridge coach with the toughness to see the team through a difficult transition. Any optimism that L.A. could succeed with Scott vanished when LaMarcus Aldridge passed on a feeble Lakers sales pitch last summer; from then on it was all Kobe, all in, with Scott taking the brunt of the daily backlash from a disastrous season.
The timing though was … curious. Dismissing Scott could not have been a heavily debated decision. The Lakers’ season was effectively lost by mid-December, leaving plenty of time to plan for the end of it. An open coaching job in Los Angeles would have been a sought after opportunity. Thibodeau would have been interested in it; Brooks, too. By waiting until Sunday to relieve Scott, the Lakers will dip into a coaching pool considerably shallower than it was a week ago.
Did Thibodeau not appeal to them? Thibs’ thirst for total control could have been a problem, with co-owner and vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak in charge now, and Jeanie Buss, co-owner and president, poised to take over next summer. And what about Brooks? The Wizards coach lives in the area and would have jumped at the opportunity to interview for the gig. Did Kevin Durant’s former coach, with an NBA Finals appearance on his résumé and Coach of the Year hardware on his shelf, not warrant a look?
There’s an easy explanation: The Lakers are in lockstep on whom they want. Luke Walton is an obvious choice; the former Lakers forward has strong ties to the franchise and is fresh off the most successful fill-in head coaching stint in NBA history. Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie has been on the NBA’s radar for a few years. Spurs assistant Ettore Messina has for even longer. Jeff Van Gundy has a proven track record and the disciplined system the Lakers badly need.
And yet: Will these coaches want the Lakers? Walton has a cushy gig in Golden State and would be as appealing of a coaching candidate – if not more – next summer. Ollie is entrenched at UConn. Van Gundy may not be eager to jump into an unstable situation.
And that’s the biggest question with the Lakers, isn’t it? The brewing civil war in the Buss family has been, well, civilized to this point, with Jeanie and Jim Buss largely staying out of the headlines. But with Jim Buss’ self-imposed deadline to turn the Lakers into a contender looming – and with Jeanie indicating that deadline is next summer, with contention meaning the second round of the playoffs – a battle for control of the franchise could be unavoidable.
Bryant is gone, Scott now is too, and the NBA’s marquee franchise is at a crossroads. The right coach – a leader, a teacher, a strategist – will push the Lakers back toward a path to contention. The wrong one will push L.A. further and further away from it.