With Mike D'Antoni gone, the Lakers should aim for Steve Kerr

Thursday May 1st, 2014

Steve Kerr has all but accepted the Knicks coaching job, but he may find a Lakers offer more enticing.
Kathy Willens/AP

LOS ANGELES --- For six weeks Steve Kerr has been the Knicks coach-in-waiting. Club president Phil Jackson identified him as a top choice. They discussed particulars of the job. All that remained was the press conference. Whether it took place after the first round of the playoffs, or the second, seemed inconsequential to everybody except TNT. Kerr was bound for the Knicks, and given his close relationship with Jackson, he probably still is.

But as much as Kerr remains a Jackson acolyte, he is also a son of Southern California, who attended Pacific Palisades High School at the dawn of Showtime. He lives in Del Mar and gravitated toward TV in part because it gave him more time out west. His geographic allegiance would mean nothing, of course, had Mike D'Antoni not resigned Wednesday night. But D'Antoni's departure sets a stage, if the Lakers want it, for a competition over Kerr. Jim Buss refused to hire Jackson two seasons ago or give him control of the team since. If Buss couldn't land Jackson, he should at least try to swipe his man. The Knicks maintain the front-office advantage, but the Lakers have home court.

Kerr comes with no head-coaching experience, and while that would normally rule him out for the Lakers post, these are not normal circumstances. The Lakers are coming off their worst season in Los Angeles and preparing for their highest draft pick since James Worthy. They could use a young coach to grow with a young star. They could also use a magnetic figure to attract future free agents. In New York, Jackson will be the franchise face, pitching Kevin Love and Kevin Durant on the merits of the Knicks. In L.A., that position is still unfilled, and Kerr has the ability to own it.

The Knicks may eventually master Jackson's triangle offense, but it's already ingrained in the Laker organization, starting with Kobe Bryant. Kerr would be embraced in L.A., not only as a favorite son, but as the closest facsimile of the city's favorite coach. Mike Brown had the misfortune of following Jackson. D'Antoni had the misfortune of being selected over Jackson. Brown and D'Antoni inherited championship expectations. But the climate at Staples Center has changed dramatically. This season was a 55-loss reality check for the Lakers, a reminder that everyone has to rebuild at some point, and under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement there's no such thing as a quick fix.

That's why the Lakers were ready to retain D'Antoni for another year. They knew they'd struggle regardless of their coach. But they were not ready to guarantee D'Antoni's option for 2015-16, when they hope to have their next headliner in place, whether that's Love or Kyrie Irving or Rajon Rondo or someone unknown. D'Antoni recognized that he was no more than a bridge to a leader the Lakers really wanted.

His resignation ends a marriage that appeared miserable for all sides, practically from the beginning. In less than two years, D'Antoni clashed with Pau Gasol, alienated Dwight Howard and didn't win a single playoff game. But he didn't get much help, either. D'Antoni lost Bryant to a pair of season-ending injuries, Steve Nash to a career-threatening nerve problem, and wound up managing the equivalent of a D-League roster. He was hard to judge, but impossible to keep, synonymous with the darkest chapter in Laker history. If he returned, he'd have been booed on Opening Night.

D'Antoni's exit will not be celebrated like Donald Sterling's, but it caps a dizzying week of L.A. basketball, in which two men most closely identified with their club's failings have both been shown the door. Replacing Sterling will be easy. Options are endless. The list of inspiring coaching candidates, however, is not as long or as colorful. Unless the Lakers are able to pry Tom Thibodeau from Chicago like the Clippers extracted Doc Rivers from Boston, they will probably be left staring at the usual names: Kurt Rambis, Byron Scott, Lionel Hollins, George Karl. They can always let a premier free agent pick their coach for them.

But if they choose to enter the derby for Kerr, they better act fast, and pre-empt a Knicks press conference. Jackson was virtually unbeatable as a coach. The Lakers should find out whether the same is true as a president.

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