Well that certainly happened fast. Just five games into the 2012-2013 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers have fired head coach Mike Brown.
A team that beefed up its lineup significantly by trading for both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard didn’t enjoy going through a winless preseason, as well as a 1-4 win-loss record to start this season.
And almost as quickly as Brown was ousted, the Lakers have turned to Mike D’Antoni and not Phil Jackson to run the star-studded roster.
Nice guy finishes last
The firing of Brown is nearly unprecedented in NBA history, coming as it did so early in a season. Brown, after all, had not been able to coach the Lakers for a full 82-game season after last year’s protracted 66-game schedule.
But pressure mounts fast in the City of Angels, particularly for the city’s favorite professional sports team. Brown, the former video coordinator who became a scout and later a San Antonio assistant who eventually became LeBron James’ coach with Cleveland, was just not a good fit in a media market like Los Angeles.
Sure enough, everyone to a man liked Brown. “Very hard working, maybe one of the hardest-working coaches that I’ve ever been around,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said at the news conference to announce Brown’s firing Friday.
At the end of the day, even as Brown tried implementing the so-called “Princeton offense” that was supposed to maximize his stars’ talents but often ended up looking like a trainwreck, his fate was sealed by his slow start. The 16-time World Champion Lakers need to win, and they need to win now.
Yes, Steve Nash hardly got to play for Brown before he went down with a knee contusion in LA’s second game. And yes, Howard was coming off offseason back surgery and still isn’t at 100%. But don’t tell that to Laker fans or the braintrust of Laker president Jim Buss and GM Kupchak. As a team that’s way over the league luxury tax, patience wasn’t going to cut it and neither was Brown.
The timing of the firing was curious as it was only five games into this budding season. However, the Lakers have done in-season firings before. In 1981, just 11 games into the season and after Magic Johnson asked to be traded, Buss’ father Dr. Jerry Buss fired then-head coach Paul Westhead. Johnson supposedly wasn’t happy with how Westhead was using him in the Laker offense and demanded a trade.
Upon Westhead’s firing, a first time head coach stepped up and led Los Angeles all the way to an NBA Championship. His name? Pat Riley.
Phil’s power grab
In what has been described as a “power grab,” Jim Buss and Kupchak rejected the most successful coach in NBA history even as fans in Staples Center chanted “We want Phil!” in the two games Bernie Bickerstaff coached upon Brown’s dismissal.
Jim Buss and Jackson never were on good terms despite Buss’ father hiring and winning with Jackson and his sister Jeannie being Jackson’s longtime girlfriend. The clash of egos meant that when Jackson left the team in 2010, Buss wanted all traces of the coach removed from the Lakers, including popular assistant coach and supposed coach-in-waiting Brian Shaw.
This time around, Jackson supposedly asked for a salary in the $10 million to $15 million range, the option of not traveling with the team on select road games, the power to choose who would succeed him upon his next departure and partial ownership of the Lakers.
To insiders, it seemed that Jackson was being vindictive, forcing Jim Buss to be humiliated as he turned to Jackson to salvage his team yet again. It can be argued that with 11 NBA Championships, Jackson should have the cache to make those demands. It can also be said that in Jackson’s previous stop as head coach of the Chicago Bulls, he also clashed with Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Jerry Krause over personnel decisions.
'Seven-Seconds-or-Less' vs 'The Triangle'
One reason for not hiring Jackson is the difficulty to absorb his famous Triangle Offense. For all of its success, the Triangle has always taken most players about a season to truly ingest it. Though it wouldn’t have been a problem for Jackson-coached veterans like Bryant, Gasol, Metta World Peace and Steve Blake, questions arise as to how effective Howard and Nash would be in the system.
Of course, Shaquille O’Neal famously thrived in the Triangle, winning his lone MVP and three championships while coached by Jackson. Nash might have been more of a stretch, however, since his dribbling, creating, and shooting aren’t hallmarks of traditional Triangle point guards.
When D’Antoni coached Nash in Phoenix, the point guard was at his most productive. D’Antoni coached Nash for fives seasons and he won two MVPs during that period. The Suns finished first or second in the West from 2004-07 and D’Antoni is one of three coaches since 1996-97 to not reach the Finals over a three-year span despite finishing first or second in the conference.
When he moved on to coach the New York Knicks, the coach only made the playoffs once in four seasons and clashed with Carmelo Anthony. He eventually handed the reigns to his “seven-seconds-or-less” to Jeremy Lin, but even Lin couldn’t save him from being sacked.
Nash has had a great relationship with D’Antoni from their Phoenix days. Bryant idolized D’Antoni as a child in Italy as D’Antoni played against Kobe’s father in the Italian league. Both Bryant and Howard were under D’Antoni who was an assistant coach for Team USA at the Beijing Olympics. Though Bryant largely pronounced his love for Jackson, he has never hidden his admiration for D’Antoni.
The question now is, will D’Antoni’s offense-first system work in Los Angeles? In a city that doesn’t hang division banners or conference banners, only a championship will do. Even as Bryant has declared his desire to play until he’s 40, Howard looms as a free agent at the end of this season. If D’Antoni doesn’t achieve success and quickly, the prospect of D12 leaving LA increases exponentially. Should that occur, will the Lakers turn to Jackson to save their trainwreck then?