With no time to waste, Lakers make right decision in firing Mike Brown
LOS ANGELES -- Firing Mike Brown after 6 percent of the NBA season, after five games with a new system, after a game-and-a-half with a full starting lineup, was cruel, distasteful and unfair. It was, in the words of Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, premature. And, in the words of former Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy, ridiculous. And, in the words of Lakers interim head coach Bernie Bickerstaff, shocking. For most franchises, in most years, it also would have been wrong.
But there is nothing typical about the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers, a team with four potential Hall of Famers in the starting lineup, all of whom are nearing the end of contracts or careers. These are not the 2010-11 Miami Heat, with three megastars entering their prime, able to endure what head coach Erik Spoelstra constantly called "the process." In recent days, Brown reprised Spoelstra's pet term, but the Lakers were not interested in hearing it. You don't pair a 38-year-old Steve Nash with a 34-year-old Kobe Bryant with a 32-year-old Pau Gasol, and then acquire Dwight Howard 11 months from free agency, to embark on a mission of basketball discovery. This group has two seasons, max, to pick off a title. They refused to waste another day.
When Lakers forward Jordan Hill walked into the practice facility Friday, he saw Brown grinning in the parking lot, and they made small talk. Bryant, who had been texting with Brown the night before, cautioned Hill that they might be in for a five-hour shoot-around. Twenty minutes later, general manager Mitch Kupchak was telling the team their coach was gone. Players were shocked. Some of the young ones muttered, "L.A. is crazy." The move is indeed severe, but so are the stakes. "With this team, we didn't want to wait three months and find out it wasn't going to change," Kupchak said. "We had to make a quick decision."
If the Lakers preferred to be polite, they would have granted Brown another month, and he'd have probably guided the team back to .500 thanks to a softer schedule. The Lakers would have settled into sports purgatory, not driven enough to win a championship, not desperate enough to replace a coach. So, for a 24-hour news cycle, the Lakers will be blasted by Brown's peers, who are justifiably irate that he did not get a proper chance. But after the outrage fades, they will hire somebody better.
Since February, the Lakers front office has upgraded almost every corner of the roster. They cut loose point guard Derek Fisher because they were upgrading with Ramon Sessions, and then they cut loose Sessions because they were upgrading with Nash. They traded Andrew Bynum, an All Star, because Howard is a superior center. Now they have fired Brown because they know coaches on the market who will command more respect: Phil Jackson, obviously. Mike D'Antoni, definitely. Nate McMillan, probably.
While Bryant endorsed D'Antoni -- "He's a guy I'd absolutely be in favor of" -- he campaigned for Jackson, growing emotional as he reflected on his former coach's last playoff series, a sweep to Dallas in the 2011 Western Conference semifinals. "He's too great to go out that way," Bryant said. "I took it to heart because I couldn't give him everything I had. My knee was shot. That's always kind of bothered me." Bryant never used to read the books Jackson gave him, but since the coach's supposed retirement, he has called for literature recommendations. "He teaches guys to be thinkers," Bryant said. "He teaches us nuances and details and intricacies of the game a lot of people don't know. When it comes to basketball he's at a genius level. It's hard for anybody to step into those shoes afterward." When it was suggested to Bryant that new Lakers may need time to pick up Jackson's triangle offense, he cracked: "You doubting the Zenmaster?"
Despite the many calls for Brown's job around L.A., the mood at Staples Center on Friday night was more awkward than elated. Assistant coaches who just started working for the Lakers this season are finished with the team but still languishing on the bench. One of them, Bernie Bickerstaff, hired Brown for his first job as video coordinator in Denver and is now the Lakers interim coach. During a tense pre-game press conference, which was even attended by former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, it seemed Bickerstaff was biting his tongue to keep from lashing out at the club he was coaching. "It's a tough situation," Bickerstaff admitted.
The Lakers routed undermanned Golden State, 101-77, matching their win total since mid-May. Question whether the Lakers should have ever hired Brown, or why they brought him back for a second season if their faith was so brittle, but the fact remains that he sold the Buss family on defense and the Lakers ranked 22nd this season in defensive efficiency. The Princeton offense was not as problematic, but the confusion led to 18.6 turnovers a game, 28th in the league. "They either weren't getting it or it was going take too long for them to get it and we weren't willing to wait to see which of the two it was," Kupchak said. "It could have turned out just fine. But we were not willing to take that chance."
Even for the Lakers, the NBA's most popular reality show, this was a wild week. It started with a blowout victory over Detroit, followed by a loss at Utah, during which executive vice president Jim Buss told ESPNLA.com: "I have no problems with Mike Brown at all....I'm not a basketball mind like he is or the players are, and the players are fine with it, so I just have be patient." Buss's reversal was reminiscent of November 1981, when his father fired head coach Paul Westhead the morning after a loss at Utah, in part because Magic Johnson was irritated with Westhead's system and asked to be traded.
Kupchak insisted that no players offered input on Brown, but they did make fun of him Sunday at Staples when he inserted starters into the game with a 24-point fourth quarter lead, and Bryant glared at him during a timeout Wednesday in Salt Lake City. Even Friday, while praising Brown, Metta World Peace referred to him yet again as "a video guy." By the third quarter against Golden State, chants of "We Want Phil" were breaking out in the crowd. It was better than the alternative -- "Fire Mike" -- which would have been inevitable. Another Jackson reunion is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Although he retired two years ago amid physical concerns, his health isn't the impediment it was then. Oddly enough, D'Antoni is the one at home recovering from knee surgery.
No coach will bring a system that features all four potential Hall of Famers. Jackson's triangle would clearly suit Bryant, Gasol and Howard, but probably not Nash. D'Antoni's style would maximize Nash, Gasol and Howard, but maybe not Bryant. Of course, Bryant has looked up to D'Antoni since he was a boy in Italy, and there's no offense in which he would disappear. The Lakers obviously aren't young enough to fast break like the 2006 Suns, but they are built for D'Antoni's pick-and-roll, and their defense can't get much worse than it's been under Brown.
If this week's events are any indication, the Lakers will move quickly for a successor. How quickly? About seven seconds or less.