Mitch Kupchak, and the Los Angeles Lakers, are on the coaching hot seat after the failed experiments of the Brown/D’Antoni era. After enduring the worst coach in Lakers history (67-87 .435%) and missing the payoffs for only the 6th time, the team will need to carefully look at every option to find the next potential Hall of Fame coach like Pat Riley and Phil Jackson. The team needs a strong leader, one who has the ability to mesh with Kobe, but also instill a strong defensive mindset with an up-tempo style that allows Kobe to involve his teammates on offense.
There is no absence of viable candidates since this is the Lakers and one of the most coveted coaching jobs in sports. The list of interested candidates is long with Kurt Rambis, Byron Scott and Lionel Hollins being at the head of the class. They are also entertaining Alvin Gentry and Mike Dunleavy, neither of whom are legit options or would be a good fit for the Lakers.
The three candidates with the strongest NBA experience are Lionel Hollins, Byron Scott and Kurt Rambis. Rambis is an easy choice for obvious reasons. A former Lakers player who won four titles with the team during the 80’s, Kurt was the Lakers’ assistant head coach last year and is well respected by the players. Rambis was also an assistant head coach under Phil Jackson from 2001-2004 and has a good relationship with Mitch Kupchak.
What’s concerning, though, is his two- year stint as head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves where his triangle offense never materialized and compiled a 32-132 record (.195%). Rambis never found the right pieces for it to work, and struggled to win with great talent like Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Michael Beasley. He has also been rumored to be joining Derek Fisher’s staff in New York.
Byron Scott is not only a member of the Laker family, but also a good friend and former mentor to Kobe Bryant, making him a strong coaching candidate. Scott was the starting shooting guard for the Lakers from 1984-1993 and won championships with the team during Showtime with Magic. As head coach for the New Jersey Nets, New Orleans Hornets, and most recently the Cleveland Cavaliers, he has a lot of experience for the job.
Scott has had success in getting his teams to the playoffs; leading the Nets to two straight NBA finals and New Orleans to the playoffs after turning around a bad 18-64 team the year after he took over. Critics have knocked his coaching style for being too demanding, judged his play calling for lacking creativity, and questioned his player substitution decisions. The questions are whether his style can co-exist with Kobe and if he can win over the players’ confidence given his history of getting fired mid-season.
Next up on the coaching carousel is Lionel Hollins, who was forced out of Memphis at the end of 2013 despite his team’s appearance in the Western Conference Finals. Under Hollins’ guidance, Memphis became known for its tenacious defense and for turning Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley into some of the best players in the league. Hollins is an old-school player’s coach who knows how to blend talent and build team chemistry.
Hollins offers the Lakers a head coach with playoff experience and a true defensive identity. His teams may have lacked the ability to create shots when it counts, but he could be as good as Phil Jackson was at managing the various personalities of Kobe and Paul Gasol, like he did in Memphis. He wasn’t fired because he lost the confidence of the players or he couldn’t win, he left because of an ownership change and its desire for a more analytical approach to coaching. Memphis’ ownership is probably kicking themselves after they didn’t make it out of the first round of playoffs this year.
Behind these top picks are a few sleepers who could be considered to lead the Lakers back to respectability. George Karl has been out of coaching for two years, but has let it be known that he would welcome the challenge of returning to basketball. Karl is one of the best offensive-minded coaches out there and was the 2013 coach of the year. He is a proven winner and able to get the most out of his players. His downside is he will never be a player’s coach and tends to butt heads with his star players.
Two other options that need to be considered are Euro coaches Ettore Messina and David Blatt. Two of the most respected coaches in Euroleague basketball, they offer a plethora of experience developing players as well as a championship pedigree. Ettore Messina is the coach of CSKA Moscow and considered one of the best coaches in professional basketball. He has won 4 Euroleague Championships, 2 Coach of the year awards, and he was consultant to Mike Brown with the Lakers. Kobe is a big fan of Messina and would more than welcome him back.
Alternatively, David Blatt is a rising star in the Euroleague as he won the 2014 Championship with Maccabi Tel Aviv. He is known for winning at every level and, while all of his experience is in Europe, he did coach the Russian National team from 2006-2012. He fits the profile the Lakers are seeking—a player’s coach who situationally builds his game plan around his players to exploit their respective strengths.
The Lakers have several viable coaching options from which to choose before they’re out of the hot seat. All have the NBA experience, some are part of the Laker family, but only one will be the right choice to bring back the swagger and winning record to the Purple and Gold.