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November 9, 2012
The Replacements
Counting Down the Lakers' Coaching Candidates

by Bradford Doolittle

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Now-former Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike Brown has always had a consistent idea for how he wants his squads to play basketball and because of that, he probably shouldn't have been the Lakers' coach to start the season. Not with this roster.

But Brown was retained and kept on even after general manager Mitch Kupchak changed the complexion of the roster over the summer. On the surface, the decision to fire Brown after five games is laughably absurd. The Lakers have two brand new core players, one of whom is injured (Steve Nash) and the other who is still less than 100 percent after back surgery (Dwight Howard). Plus, Brown's players were still acclimating to a version Eddie Jordan's Princeton offense.

It doesn't seem unfair to fire a coach after such a small sample size and with so many obstacles to work around. Nevertheless, the Lakers' sin wasn't to give up on Brown too soon, but too late.

This is not to suggest that Mike Brown is not a capable coach. Among coaches with at least 100 NBA games under their belts, Brown ranks eighth all-time with a .653 regular-season winning percentage. The coaches ahead of him on the list account for 27 of the NBA's 66 championships. The man just above him on the list is Red Auerbach. So Brown has clearly succeeded at a high level in the regular season.

Brown has always preached methodical, defense-oriented basketball. His six previous teams have finished in the top 10 in defensive efficiency four times and in the top half of the league in all six campaigns. However, his teams have ranked no higher than 18th in pace factor and 20th or worse in each of the last four seasons.

The problem with that is all of those teams before last year featured the world's finest athlete in LeBron James, and the fact that Cleveland played so consistently slow with him on the roster is an indictment of Brown's flexibility to blend philosophy with personnel. It worked in the regular season, but Brown's Cavs and Lakers teams never broke through with a championship despite having a top-four seed each season. His last two Cavaliers teams were No. 1 seeds in the East, but neither squad reached the Finals.

That inflexibility bled over to this year's Lakers, though the death knell was actually sounded by an ill-fated decision by Brown to switch things up. Brown brought in Eddie Jordan to implement his Princeton-based offensive scheme. At the beginning, the notion made sense. Last season, the Lakers' offense consisted primarily of getting the ball to Kobe Bryant and clearing the hell out of the way. Bryant's usage rate rose even higher than it was in Phil Jackson' Triangle offense, to a level he hadn't reach since he was 27 years old. His scoring average rose, but his efficiency fell and the Lakers' offense overall was solid, but not elite.

Howver, the notion of putting in a Princeton attack should have been ditched the second the Lakers acquired Nash, and that should have been made more clear when they later added Howard. Neither player has a skill set suited to the scheme, though both are talented enough to adapt to most anything. But why adapt? How about putting in a system that maximizes the abilities of both?

While it's currently the Lakers' 25th-ranked defense that is drawing most of the criticism, there are definitely issues with the offense. The attack has been at its best by ignoring its Princeton basis and has been better since Nash was injured. That's not a sustainable model and the team has continued to look uncertain on that end. There is a school of thought that the issues on offense have bled over to the other end, where the Lakers have been listless. Brown just wasn't able to fit the system to the personnel.

Brown's failure to do that is why the Lakers are searching for a new coach today. And so with that, let's run down the pros and cons from the list of the names you're likely to see in the news over the next few days, plus a couple that you might not. These candidates are ranked from best fit to worst.

10. Eddie Jordan

Jordan is on staff and has experience. But if you fire Brown for allowing Jordan to tinker with his offense, you can't then hire Jordan for doing it. Jordan has had some success with his offense in the NBA. However, as we saw during his tenure in Philadelphia, his attempts at trying to overlay a rigid system onto a roster that isn't suited for it can be disastrous.

9. Stan and/or Jeff Van Gundy

Both Van Gundy's rank as among the top professional coaches that are not currently running a team. However, as Brown has discovered after Kobe's death stare, and his previous run-ins with James, if you can't get through to your star, you're sunk. Stan Van Gundy won't be coaching Dwight Howard again any time soon, and Jeff would never step into the breech under this kind of circumstance. Even if he were willing to do so, Jeff's defense-first mentality is not a great fit for a team that is going to have to win with offense. That's just the reality of a roster this old and this shallow, no matter who is playing the middle.

8. Flip Saunders

You'd like to see Saunders get another shot with a decent team after being worn to a nub in Washington. He took over a Wizards' roster that was trying to make the leap from good to elite and instead oversaw a complete tear-down, none of which was his fault. Before his horrid Washington experience, Saunders' offenses annually ranked in the league's top 10. Those teams were generally jump-shot oriented and were elite at protecting the ball. Frankly, neither trait seems like a great fit for the Lakers' roster. However, Saunders' affinity for mixing in the match-up zone does seem like a way for the Lakers to paper over shortcomings in their perimeter defense. Just as importantly, Saunders is well respected around the league.

7. Derek Fisher

We know that Fisher is smart, a good communicator and is presumably well-liked in the Lakers' locker room. Along with Jackson and Bryant, Fisher has been a constant in L.A.'s last five championships. His Xs and Os are unknown but at this point, that might be almost beside the point. He can preach effort, rely on a veteran assistant like Bernie Bickerstaff to help him with substitution patterns and turn the offense over to Nash. Other than his complete lack of actual coaching experience, one sticking point might be the fact that Fisher still wants to play. When is the last time we had a player-coach?

6. Phil Jackson

Jackson's face will be making regular appearances on your local sports news cycle until which time the Lakers announce a new permanent coach. We rely on objective measures at Basketball Prospectus, so here's a little-known metric that we like to consider when evaluating coaches: Jackson has won 11 championships. On one hand, it's worth questioning whether the Triangle would be a great fit for a Nash-Howard combination that screams for one pick-and-roll after another. You also wonder how easy it would be for Jackson to implement his systems without the benefit of a summer program or training camp. However, it's Phil-freaking-Jackson. If he wants the job, he should have it. The question everybody will be guessing at: Does he want it?

5. Brian Shaw

It was once a foregone conclusion that Shaw would be Jackson's eventual replacement, and the fact that he was passed over has to still stick in Shaw's craw. You also have the same kind of Triangle-based concerns that you would have with Jackson, only without a quantity of championship rings that only Antonio Alfonseca could accomodate. There is also the little matter that Shaw already has a job. He's the associate head coach of the Indiana Pacers, who are dealing with their fair share of adversity themselves in the wake of Danny Granger's knee trouble. If this were the summer, Indiana wouldn't stand in the way of a Shaw promotion. But in-season? It'd be a surprise if the Lakers were even given permission to speak to Shaw right now.

4. Nate McMillan

McMillan is another well-respected coach who has had some success in the league. However, he's a bit like Brown in that his teams have won with a slow pace, something which doesn't seem likely to work in Los Angeles. McMillan has a reputation as a defensive coach, but he's coached six offenses into the league's top 10, but the highest defensive ranking he's achieved has been 13th. His first six Blazers teams finished in the bottom three in pace factor. When he tried to increase the tempo during his last season in Portland, the results were not good. However, if Kupchak decides that he wants to play at a snail's pace, McMillan coaches that style as well as anyone.

3. Jerry Sloan

Sloan is just a great coach, period. His ability to blend his flex-offense with straight-up pick-and-roll attack could be just what the Lakers need. Stockton to Malone? How about Nash to Howard? Sloan would also command respect in the locker room, though that can wear out fast in the NBA. If he couldn't ultimately co-exist with Deron Williams in the dim lights of Salt Lake City, how is he going to deal with the Black Mamba and Superman in the glare of Hollywood? It might be too much for the down-homey Sloan to take on.

2. Mike D'Antoni

D'Antoni's teams were never as bad defensively as his reputation would have you believe. The Suns ranked 16th or higher in each of his four full seasons on the defensive end. And of course they were great on offense, leading the league in efficiency in all four of those seasons with Nash running the show. The Seven Seconds or Less system makes sense for each of the Lakers' four stars, even Pau Gasol. Think about Boris Diaw's role in that attack and consider whether Gasol could do all that and much more. The loser would be Kobe, who wouldn't have the ball in his hands nearly as often. That's where this house of cards could tumble fast. Plus D'Antoni is apparently recovering from knee surgery and might not be able to coach right now anyway.

1. Kobe Bryant

The simple reality may be that a team with this many huge egos may not be coachable. Kobe insists on the Lakers being "his" team and every report you read asks which coaches Bryant could play for. So just turn the operation over to him. Player-coach. Such a move might actually get Bryant to view the game through a whole other prism that would elevate his play even more. His basketball IQ is off the charts, and he's already the leading voice in the locker room. The problem is that he probably would never go for the idea. Also, we'd have to get Larry Coon to figure out the salary cap ramifications of a cap-maxed team paying a player as a coach. Bryant might have to do it for free.

Check out our Pro Basketball Prospectus 2012-13 homepage for more details and to order our annual guide to the NBA, available now in both PDF and paperback format.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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