Los Angeles Lakers: Mike Brown
MIAMI – When sizing up the Los Angeles Lakers for a potential NBA Finals showdown, few teams in the league are as equipped with tape measures as the Heat.
Miami's two key offseason acquisitions bring a combined three seasons of experience from facing Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Co. in the NBA Finals. Now, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis see a far more potentially dangerous Lakers team developing in Los Angeles, with the additions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, than any of the previous squads each of their teams met from 2008 to 2010.
“They've got a lot of great players over there, Hall of Fame players,” Lewis said. “But we feel like we can match up with not just one particular team, but anybody in the league. We've got guys who can play multiple ways, and a team that can play multiple styles, regardless of opponent.”
The Heat's combination of experience, flexibility and versatility are considered their main strengths with a roster anchored by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Barring injuries, conventional wisdom suggests the Lakers are capable of matching -- perhaps even surpassing -- the Heat's star power in would shape up as the most anticipated NBA Finals matchup in decades.
But Lewis and Allen believe that a series with so much at stake against the Lakers, or any opponent out west, will ultimately be decided by the team with the more reliable supporting cast. That was the case last season, when even the best postseason of James' career might have come up short had it not been for Bosh's late-playoff return from an abdominal injury or Shane Battier's breakout play early against Oklahoma City or Mike Miller's magical shooting display in the Game 5 series clincher in the Finals.
By adding Allen and Lewis to a supporting cast that already proved to be deep and effective enough to win a title, the Heat think they took significant steps to further compliment their catalysts and boost their chance to repeat.
After scoring a total of 45 points in the first 12 games of the season, Antawn Jamison went for 16 against Memphis on Friday night, then added 19 in Dallas on Saturday. In each, he hoisted 11 shots, a veritable explosion relative to the four a night he'd put up to that point. He was productive on the boards as well, grabbing 22 in total. Basically, Jamison looked like the guy Lakers fans (and Lakers management) expected when he was signed over the summer, but hadn't yet seen.
He wasn't the only member of the bench coming alive. Jodie Meeks was a man in exile under Mike Brown, playing only 22 minutes through the first five games. While his playing time increased under Bernie Bickerstaff, Meeks' production didn't. He hit only three of his 15 3-point attempts in the season's second five games and struggled with turnovers. In Sacramento, though, he broke through with a 12-point fourth quarter, and 15 overall. In Memphis, he hit a pair of second half triples, and in Dallas made 3-of-5 from downtown.
For both guys, a big key was a change in how they were deployed. Brown had played Jamison almost exclusively at small forward, in part to utilize his shooting skills but mostly to make room for Jordan Hill, who was among the team's best players in camp. The impulse to play Hill made plenty of sense, but in the process Jamison was pulled out of his comfort zone.
"It was difficult to get into a rhythm when my first three or four shots are three pointers. You’re going to hit one here or there, but it was just tough for me to get into a rhythm. And I’ve always been a guy who can get it from anywhere," he said Monday following practice. "Whether it’s driving to the basket, a put-back, or something off the dribble. Pick and pop. Those are the things that kind of get me into a rhythm, and honestly it was tough getting into one coming in, trying to come in and knock down three’s after sitting down for eight or nine minutes."
In Memphis, Jamison entered the game as a power forward with only one other big on the court, and was almost instantly more productive, able to use the entire floor. In Dallas, he started at the 3, quickly scoring twice with excellent off-ball movement, but again spent plenty of time at the 4 and again produced a good looking shot chart.
Some positive messaging helped as well, helping Jamison push past hesitation that had been dogging him.
I call it "Yeah, but" season. As in "Yeah, Player/Team X might be doing ____, but ..."
For the Lakers, you could start with "Yeah, the Lakers are 5-5, but Dwight Howard is still healing and Steve Nash has barely played. And so on. Not every construction affords that kind of naked optimism, but all are worth investigating.
Here are three more potential "Yeah, but" scenarios facing the team, and thoughts on how things will play out going forward.
1. The way Kobe Bryant is playing, the Lakers can't help but be contenders at the end.
Bryant, whose triple-double paced Sunday's 119-108 win over Houston, is playing next-level ball even relative to his own lofty standards: 26.4 points per game, 5.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 52.8 percent from the floor, 40.8 percent from downtown. His metrics are stunning. Bryant is currently obliterating career highs in true and effective field goal percentages, has never posted a higher with assist rate, leads the league in win shares, and his PER (27.4) would be the second best of his 17-year run.
Basically, he's spent the last 10 games giving the death stare to Father Time.
The percentages will fall, because even Kobe eventually goes back to career norms. He's never been better than 47 percent from the floor, so expecting him to remain above 50 while playing 2-guard at 34 years old? Not realistic. Neither is 40 percent from the arc for a guy who hasn't been over 33 percent since '08-'09. Moreover, we've seen this, or something like it, before. Last season, Kobe was incredible over the first few weeks of the season, and hit a wall as it wore on, shooting 40 percent in February and 39 percent in March.
Sure, the numbers will level out, but overall his performance doesn't necessarily have to. As many (myself included) suggested might happen with Nash, Dwight Howard, and Pau Gasol around, Kobe is adopting a less-to-do-more philosophy this year. His shots per game are down from 23 last season to 17.8, and his usage has dropped from a league leading 35.7 percent to 29.1, his lowest figure since '03-'04 (not coincidentally, with the last Lakers SuperTeam). All of this has happened without Nash, the guy who will unquestionably make life easier for Kobe, removing giant chunks of ball handling duties while setting him up for clean looks around the floor, or the debut of D'Antoni, an offensive genius who will undoubtedly find creative ways to free Bryant up.
Bottom Line: Sure, Bryant won't finish the year with a true shooting percentage of 63.8, but as long as he stays healthy -- always the wild card -- and doesn't change his approach, the basic thesis remains in play: Kobe has an excellent chance of logging his most productive and efficient season in recent memory.
2. The Lakers are now piling up points. Showtime is back!
They're giving them up by the bushel, as well. In their two most recent wins, Phoenix and Houston, two middle-third offensive teams, torched L.A. through three quarters, both shooting well over 50 percent from the floor while reaching 84 and 87 points respectively. They scored at will, the Lakers just scored at will-er. Real teams won't give up points like the Suns and Rockets and will feature plenty of offensive firepower, as well. The Lakers have to tighten up defensively or ultimately they'll be short some steak for all the sizzle.
To say the least, the last seven days have been a whirlwind, even by the Lakers' high standards. With the dust now settled, does the franchise still appear on the right track?
The show can be heard by clicking on the module, and a breakdown of talking points is below.
- (2:30): After sharing some secrets for aspiring journos everywhere, we discuss the firing of Brown. Was it fair? Was it the right decision? Why did things ultimately go wrong for Brown?
- (7:19): The Lakers shocked the world by hiring D'Antoni, despite all the reporting (and fan noise) that strongly pointed in a third tour of duty for The Zen Master. First things first. What does this development do to the Buss Family Thanksgiving dinner just around the corner?
- (10:26): We examine why Jackson may have deemed a lesser fit than D'Antoni. There are legitimate reasons to question this roster's compatibility with the triangle, and more important, how fully invested Phil would remain, given the physical and mental toll the NBA grind seemed to take on him through the 2011 season.
- (14:23): What adjustments could be necessary by D'Antoni to get the most out of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, and the supporting cast? How will this team eventually look with everyone healthy and on the same page? (By the way, it occurred to me after recording how the better "Where does Pau fit in?" comparison player was probably Boris Diaw, rather than Shawn Marion.)
- (19:10): Our biggest concern about D'Antoni might be his habit of running very short rotations, which simply cannot happen with a roster so collectively long in the tooth. However, we're not nearly as concerned about the "no defense" reputation that has plagued the coach since his days in Phoenix. While those Suns were hardly the second coming of the Bad Boy Pistons, they were actually better than credited.
- (20:55): The Kamenetzky brothers are gonna miss interim head coach Bernie Bickerstaff sooooooooooo much.
When a reporter asked him Sunday evening about the Lakers blowing out their last two opponents after the team fired Mike Brown and named Bernie Bickerstaff as the interim coach, Bryant said: “He’s good. He’s getting the f--- out of the way.”
Enter Mike D’Antoni and an offensive philosophy that will free up the Lakers’ attack and allow them to play an up-tempo style of basketball that hasn’t been seen around these parts since the “Showtime” era.
For the first time since Steve Nash and Dwight Howard arrived in Los Angeles, we can begin talking about what they can accomplish in a system that could play to their strengths rather than wondering how long it will take them to adapt to one that took them out of their comfort zones.
Nash and Howard seemed like a tantalizing pick-and-roll prospect when they arrived in the offseason – particularly in combination with the shooting talents of Bryant and passing acumen of Pau Gasol – but the Lakers’ offense too often looked hamstrung and uncertain under Brown. Watching them struggle through the rigidity of it all, you wished you could scrap the system and just tell them to have fun.
That’s essentially what the Lakers did Monday. They simplified things. They made it a game more than a system, and my guess is it won’t be long before their players and fans start enjoying themselves again.
Once upon a time, when Paul Westhead, who has a master’s degree in English literature from Villanova, took over a talented Lakers squad 14 games into the 1979-80 season, he invoked some Shakespeare (from “Macbeth”) with a young Magic Johnson: “If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly.” Johnson looked at Westhead, nodded his head and said, “I get it, you want me to get the ball and run it down the court and score."
There are wrinkles and nuances to D’Antoni’s push-the-pace offense, but its exuberance might be its greatest attribute, given the season he is walking into and the team he is coming to lead. The team is 3-4 and needs to win a title to deliver on the promise of its talent. This isn’t exactly the time to learn a new offense, whether it be the Princeton or the triangle.
With D’Antoni, the focus will be on generating possessions and open shots. You know Bryant, who likes to shoot, is going to have some fun. And there’s no question D’Antoni’s hire will please Nash, who won back-to-back MVPs under him in Phoenix and who will know his role well under his old coach. But perhaps no one will benefit more from D’Antoni’s arrival than Howard.
As far as pick-and-roll offenses go, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Howard has been the most efficient “roll” man in the NBA over the past three seasons. During Nash’s time with D’Antoni in Phoenix, the Suns were one of the best in the league at running the pick-and-roll and led the league in offensive efficiency for the “roll” man in three of four seasons from 2004 to '08 (the one exception being the 2005-06 season, when Amar’e Stoudemire missed 79 games).
Considering Howard is an unrestricted free agent after this season, the importance of his comfort level can’t be overstated, and D’Antoni’s style, which should feature him in an attack-the-basket mode, could help secure his future with the Lakers. Although there might not be many traditional low-post opportunities, the young, dynamic center could very well have a field day in a D’Antoni offensive scheme.
And although it might not all come together overnight (unlike D’Antoni’s coaching deal), you can’t tell me that won’t be fun to watch.
There's plenty of intrigue surrounding the decision -- the circumstances that led to Jackson's deal falling through, the impetus for the Lakers making a swift decision late Sunday night to hire D'Antoni without ever even having an in-person interview with him, the details of the state of Jackson's relationship with the Buss family these days -- but what really matters is how D'Antoni will affect the team on the floor.
Here's a quick take on the upside and some potential problems with the move:
1. Familiarity with Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant
You could say that if it wasn't for D'Antoni, we'd think of the Lakers' point guard as former All-Star Steve Nash, rather than future Hall of Famer Steve Nash. From 2004 to 2008, Nash and D'Antoni flourished together in Phoenix. There is a deep connection between the two and certainly D'Antoni should be able to set Nash free from the "hummingbird in a sandwich bag" that Mike Brown's system trapped him in. As an assistant coach for the USA Basketball teams that won Olympic gold in 2008 and 2012, D'Antoni also built a strong relationship with Kobe Bryant. Both Nash and Bryant used the word "love" to describe their feelings for D'Antoni prior to the hiring. They will play hard for D'Antoni and with enthusiasm for what he is trying to achieve on the court. Plus, you have to figure that D'Antoni and Nash's shared desire to capture ring No. 1 for one another will help fuel Bryant's chances of ring No. 6 and the Lakers' chances of ring No. 17.
2. The offense should improve
If there's one thing D'Antoni has proved he can do it is make a high-octane offense work. This won't be a repeat of his "seven seconds or less" glory days with the Suns, but it shouldn't be the plodding ball that plagued Brown's tenure at the helm in Los Angeles, either. The Lakers looked stifled with the steep learning curve associated with Brown's Princeton-style experiment. D'Antoni will let Nash follow his instincts and also encourage the rest of the guys to shoot when they're open. Basic basketball and a free flow could pay big dividends with this talented roster.
3. It was done quickly
Less than 72 hours after getting rid of Brown, the Lakers found their new man. And they managed to go 2-0 with Bernie Bickerstaff during the interim. If the coaching search dragged on and on, there was potential for the team to fall into a tailspin with all the questions piling up and causing distractions. This move was executed as quickly as possible, allowing the Lakers to get back to the business of playing games.
1. Nash is 38 and has a fractured fibula
Nash is not the same player he was with D'Antoni in Phoenix. He can still play at a high level, of course, as he was second in the league in assists last season (his 16th year in the league), but there has been some decline in his game. The league's crop of elite point guards, from Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook, is as strong as it's ever been and Nash's defensive shortcomings will be put on display on a near nightly basis against them. Nash also looked a step slower on offense in the preseason. Whether that was a symptom of Brown's system or a sign of deterioration in his game remains to be seen. Regardless, relying so heavily on Nash, especially as he's dealing with a fractured fibula that is keeping him out indefinitely, is risky. And even if Nash is healthy, does he have the shooters surrounding him to look as good as he did in Phoenix? Outside of Kobe and Nash himself, the Lakers haven't proven reliable on open-shot opportunities. If Nash keeps creating them, and the jumpers continue to be off the mark, then a key element of Nash's value is undercut.
2. The devaluation of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol
Part of the Lakers' mission this season, in addition to winning a championship, is to make sure Dwight Howard wants to stay with the team long term. Will D'Antoni's system feature Howard enough? Yes, he will be a beast in the pick-and-roll, but what about straight-up post touches? Will he get enough of them? And will D'Antoni be able to push Howard to improve his paint game when he had mixed results in that area with Amar'e Stoudemire in Phoenix and New York? Then there's Gasol. Will he be regulated to a Boris Diaw-like facilitator role or is there more for him to do? One of the key questions coming into D'Antoni's regime will be how much he is able to, and chooses to, exploit the Lakers' significant size advantage over most teams they face.
3. What about the defense?
D'Antoni's offensive track record is nearly unparalleled but defensively his teams have usually been in the middle of the pack in terms of efficiency. There was marked defensive improvement on the part of the Knicks in D'Antoni's last season in New York, but much of the credit for that improvement was given to current Knicks coach, and former D'Antoni assistant, Mike Woodson. The old adage "defense wins championships" isn't just a saying for these Lakers players, it's a belief -- especially for Bryant, who has repeated the mantra "defense and rebounding" as the keys to winning ever since the Lakers were suffocated by the Boston Celtics' D in the 2008 Finals. If D'Antoni's offense can generate enough possessions and points to counter-balance an average defense, things will go smoothly. If the offense struggles, either on the perimeter or down low, the pressure will be on the team's defense.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Given how “We want Phil” chants have echoed through Staples Center the past two days, I know this decision will leave many fans disappointed. Each of Jackson’s stints in L.A. have featured multiple championships, and this is a team built to immediately carry that tradition. In theory, what’s not to like?
However, something about hiring Jackson always struck me as overly familiar. Predictable. A bit too convenient. You could hear the wheels turning inside the heads of fans, media and players alike. "Phil is available. ... He lives in the South Bay. ... Eleven titles. ... Zen Master. ... Of course he's the guy."
Except, of course, most complex situations typically don't resolve in ready-made, neat solutions. And I wasn’t entirely convinced another go-round with Phil was quite the slam dunk most people thought.
To begin with, the seamless-return narrative was exaggerated. Only five current Lakers players have played under Jackson, and three had relatively short stints. A few notable highs notwithstanding, Metta World Peace’s time in PJ's system was, to say the least, turbulent. Steve Blake played one year under Jackson and was visibly uncomfortable in the triangle. During Devin Ebanks' lone campaign with Phil, the then-rookie rarely removed his warm-ups. Only Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol have truly flourished in the triangle. As Bryant noted after Friday's win, the 1999-2000 squad won a title in its first triangular season, but it was also loaded with veterans who spent years playing against Jackson's Chicago Bulls, which created some degree of familiarity. This 2012-13 roster wouldn't figure to benefit from that luxury.
There was also the issue of Steve Nash, who remains the same odd fit in the triangle as he was in the Princeton. Either the Hall of Fame point guard would have endured another learning curve in a system that doesn't cater to his style, or Jackson would have been forced to tweak his offense to accommodate a type of player he's never coached. Both approaches could have meant more heads bumping, and at least one reason Brown was fired was to avoid such a scenario.
It's also worth remembering that Jackson's last season with the Lakers didn't end particularly well, beyond just the second-round sweep at the hands of Dallas. As I wrote at the time, 2010-11 wasn't a strong season for Jackson. He had to be cajoled into returning, then throughout the season often seemed disconnected with players, unable to reach and motivate them. The team appeared less prepared than it should have been at key moments, and that lack of poise reared its ugly head during a playoff run that went from wobbly to disastrous. Too often Jackson relied too heavily on his established approach rather than venturing out of his comfort zone to address what clearly wasn’t working with the team. Truth be told, he appeared tired of the NBA grind, like a man who realized he might have made a mistake in returning.
This was a team clearly in need of a cathartic release, and Mike Brown's dismissal, whether consciously or not, provided the outlet. Collectively, the roster exhaled.
But with those circumstances no longer providing fresh adrenaline, it will be interesting to see how the Lakers conduct themselves.
The Kings are dealing with their own struggles, but they have enough talented -- if likely mismatched -- players to potentially keep their hosts busy. With a serious test against San Antonio looming on Tuesday, it would be great if the Lakers capitalized on the chance to continue building momentum.
For perspective on Sacto, I conducted an IM exchange with James Ham from the TrueHoop network's Cowbell Kingdom. (It should also be noted our conversation took place before the NBA suspended DeMarcus Cousins two games for a confrontation Friday with Spurs commentator Sean Elliott.) Below is the transcript.
Andy Kamenetzky: Like the Lakers, the Kings have come out of the gate 2-4. What's been your general impression of the team?
James Ham: The Kings are a young team and while they are much improved, they still make a lot of mistakes. Like the Lakers, they have a lot of new rotational pieces and they are still searching for the right mix on the floor. At 2-4, the Kings shouldn't be down on themselves. They very well could be 3-3 or even 4-2. They have been extremely competitive in almost every game so far.
AK: Sacto's defensive numbers have been pretty good, despite coming off a season in which they were among the league's worst in most categories. Byproduct of a sample size, or has this team legitimately improved the lockdown?
JH: They have improved greatly on the defensive and it's only going to get better as they continue to build chemistry, especially on rotations. DeMarcus Cousins is developing into a very high-quality post defender, but he has had issues with foul trouble. The addition of James Johnson was huge, but the biggest difference so far this season has been the effort of Tyreke Evans. He is developing into an elite perimeter defender in the mold of Andre Iguodala.
AK: The Lakers have trouble hanging onto the ball and aren't the world's greatest team defending in transition. The Kings have done a good job inducing steals this season, but how successful are they at converting turnovers into points?
JH: The Kings should eat the Lakers alive in transition. Both Evans and Marcus Thornton are great finishers on the break. Isaiah Thomas and Aaron Brooks are lightning quick, and Jason Thompson is a very underrated big who can really get up and down the floor. The Kings like to push the tempo. They are much better in transition than they are in the half court. Defense and rebounding sets up the transition, so they need the defense to work to make the offense work in many cases.
Who will be coaching the Lakers tomorrow against the Kings? It sounds like Phil Jackson is ready to come back into the fold.
AK: Save an unexpectedly fast resolution, it will Bernie Bickerstaff ... who, by the way, boasts the greatest winning percentage in franchise history!
The Lakers plane landed back in L.A. just after midnight Thursday following the team’s 95-86 road loss on Wednesday night in Utah that dropped its record to a Western Conference-worst 1-4.
The loss was not sitting well with Brown, so, true to his workaholic reputation, the coach made his way from the airport to the team’s practice facility in El Segundo to break down his squad’s latest lackluster performance by watching film.
The hours ticked by and Brown decided it was time for some shut-eye. He kept a bed at his office in El Segundo for such occasions, but he didn’t have any pillows.
Brown, weary from the start to the season, figured he had better get the best sleep he could -- pillows included -- and decided to check into a hotel. Only problem was, Brown went to not one, but two hotels in the area and both were booked solid.
It was the middle of the night and Brown knew he needed to be back in El Segundo for an early coaches meeting Thursday morning, so he figured the 45-minute drive down to his house in Anaheim Hills that would include another hour drive back in the morning with traffic on the roads wasn’t an option.
Brown drove to Staples Center. His office there had a bed, too. With pillows.
Mike might not have been in L.A. long, but there were plenty of stories like this one.
“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.
It’s an earnest quality of Brown’s. He’s dedicated. He’s prepared. He pays attention to detail.
But you can work all you want and still not be the right man for the job.
Back in 2009, when I was writing a feature on Phil Jackson, he told me about a note that former Marquette coach Al McGuire once sent to him.
“It said, 'If you can't get it done in eight hours, you ain't gonna get it done,'" Jackson recalled. “So that was one of the things that I try to remember about basketball.”
That concept never sunk in with Brown. He beat the odds in coming from being a mediocre player at a mediocre college basketball program (University of San Diego) to work his way up from intern to video coordinator to scout to assistant coach to head coach of the league’s glamour franchise.
He couldn’t rely on his legendary playing days or nepotism connections or flashy good looks and personality to get him coaching jobs, like a lot of his peers do in the industry.
He did it by working hard. Or by “working his tail off,” which is one of Brown’s favorite phrases.
It was a remarkable journey Brown embarked on, no doubt. But somewhere along the way, his worker reputation became more of an annoyance to his players than an inspiration.
During last year’s lockout-shortened season, when rest was at a premium because of the compressed schedule, Brown would sometimes conduct contact practices on game days instead of simple, low-impact shootarounds. He picked up the nickname “All Day, Every Day” from his players for his reluctance to take a break.
The joke continued on Friday morning, Brown’s last day on the job.
"Me and Jordan Hill kind of were joking a little bit while we were doing therapy and said we might have a five-hour shootaround today,” Kobe Bryant said.
Many believe there is an argument to be made that Brown got a raw deal in L.A.
He joined the team when the league was about to enter its first lockout in 12 years. Pau Gasol, the team’s second-best player, was nearly traded on the eve of Brown’s first training camp, and it sabotaged the Spaniard’s psyche. Lamar Odom, the team’s emotional bellwether, was shipped out of town -- just as Derek Fisher, the team’s truest leader, was later in the season. Brown’s truncated Year 2 was marred by injuries to his key players (Dwight’s back, Kobe’s ankle, Nash’s leg) and he captained only five regular-season games to form his team before management pulled the plug.
But even in ideal circumstances, there’s still doubt about Brown.
One league source asked me on Friday night, “If Brown was always so prepared, how come he let his assistant coaches take over his huddles?”
Indeed, Brown often ceded control of the plays being drawn up during timeouts to his staff. It could be interpreted as trust. One source close to Brown said he had no problem doing it because he was “egoless.” But it could also be interpreted as weakness.
There’s a certain charisma that one needs to be a head coach in the NBA, especially for a team like the Lakers with more outsized personalities on it than the cast of “Modern Family.”
Everyone who knows Brown thinks of him as a good man. There’s little he cares for in this world outside of basketball and his family. But good guys don’t always make good coaches.
Even if you took away all the adverse circumstances that Brown had to contend with in L.A., he made mistakes that were his own doing.
Last season, he spent what little practice time the team had hammering away at his defensive concepts, and the Lakers’ offense suffered greatly because of it. Brown was smart enough to focus his efforts on offense this past offseason. He approached Bryant in the postgame locker room in Oklahoma City after L.A. was bounced from the playoffs in Game 5 of the second round to get his blessing to pursue a new Princeton-style offense. But when the Princeton was sputtering early on this year, he refused to keep it simple during the adjustment period.
He’ll look back at that decision as his biggest failure during his time with the Lakers. But there were others.
He vowed to cut Bryant’s minutes down last season, then turned around and kept Bryant out on the floor for 40-plus minutes with regularity. His first major adjustment to the lineup, bringing Metta World Peace off the bench, was abandoned just a handful of games into the season. He shuffled his rotations seemingly haphazardly. Sure, it paid off with his instinct insertion of Jordan Hill into the lineup late last season. But the same unsettled rotation pattern also rendered free-agent signee Josh McRoberts virtually useless last year, and it appeared Jodie Meeks was headed toward the same fate.
Even having said all that, it surely wasn’t an easy decision for the Lakers’ front office to let Brown go. Even though his players rolled their eyes when he’d plant a kiss on their forehead to punctuate his appreciation and even when media members would tune him out when he’d break out his hokey act of actually tapping his fist against his forehead when he said the phrase “knock on wood” (and he did that a lot), you don’t root for genuinely nice people to fail. You just don’t.
But winning has nothing to do with being nice. It just doesn’t.
So when Kupchak, executive vice president Jim Buss and Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss laid their heads down on their pillows Friday night after a whirlwind day, you have to think they were able to get a good, guilt-free night’s sleep.
The hard worker just wasn’t working anymore. They made the right call.
LOS ANGELES -- The word Bernie Bickerstaff used was "consented." Not exactly a verb of enthusiasm, but then again there was nothing to be enthusiastic about from his perspective when Mitch Kupchak asked him to coach Friday's game against Golden State in the wake of Mike Brown's firing.
This is not a place Bickerstaff, who gave Brown his first gig in the NBA as an intern in Denver, wanted to be.
"Mitch is a friend. Mike's a friend," he said. "He asked me, and I consented. So I'm here."
Days like Friday throw focus on the players left behind (How will they respond?), the newly unemployed coach (Where does he go next?), or the list of possible replacements. But without question the group put in the most awkward spot, continuing to do their jobs until a new coach -- and likely a new staff -- is brought in. These aren't a group of guys pushing Brown out the door.
"We're in that fox hole together. You're probably together more so than you are your families. There's a bond. I think basically, we all hurt, because there was a mutual respect for Mike," Bickerstaff said. "Mike's a great coach. Mike's won a lot of basketball games, and he's been in the Finals."
Meanwhile, they'll work in limbo as long as they're around.
"We have a professional obligation to come to work and do our jobs, as coaches and as players," Bickerstaff said. "I think that has to be the approach. The emotional part of it has to be set aside when we cross the lines and lines and they toss the ball, but we're all human and we have those human qualities. That we feel, and we care," he said.
Andy and I participated in a 5-on-5 roundtable discussion on the subject, along with TrueHoop's Henry Abbott, Darius Soriano of Forum Blue and Gold, and ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst.
The five questions on the docket:
1. Firing Mike Brown after five games: Good move or bad move.
2. Kobe Bryant publicly expressed support for Brown. Do you think he and his teammates played a role in Brown's firing?
3. Who should be the next permanent coach of the Lakers?
4. What other changes should the Lakers make to return to glory?
5. Will the Lakers turn it around this year and become a contender?
About a day after Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss expressed support for head coach Mike Brown, the Lakers have fired him.
Not going to lie -- I'm a little surprised the Lakers moved this fast, but as I wrote last night the most compelling reason to make a quick change is time. The Lakers don't have much of it to work with, and if management thought in holding off they'd likely be having the same internal conversations about Brown's viability six weeks from now -- and clearly they did -- today's move is the correct one. Without a doubt, even if the Lakers turned things around on the upcoming homestand, Brown would be a focus of attention throughout the year, and into the playoffs. Could he build the sort of credibility with his team required to win a title, as Erik Spoelstra did in Miami?
They decided not to find out.
ESPNLA's Ramona Shelburne reports either Bernie Bickerstaff or Chuck Person will coach the team tonight against Golden State, and going forward on an interim basis. (UPDATE: It will be Bickerstaff.)
The big question now is obvious: Who is the team's next head coach?
Because it's the Lakers, the names most likely thrown around will have the highest Q-ratings on the list of available coaches. It'll start with speculation about Phil Jackson, and move through Jerry Sloan, Nate McMillan, and Mike D'Antoni. Even Jeff Van Gundy's name will be tossed around, despite the way things ended between Dwight Howard and Jeff's brother Stan. But as this afternoon, all indications are there is nobody lined up for the job. Given how much a lack of gravitas hurt Brown both with his team and the media, it would be surprising to see the Lakers go with an unproven guy. (The possible exception being Person, a very well regarded assistant seen around the league as an up-and-comer.)
They'll try to go big, and generally speaking when the Lakers try to go big, they succeed.
The important thing for the Lakers is to properly diagnose the problem. For all the consternation over the Princeton offense, it was the defense repeatedly failing the Lakers this season. For that matter, the Lakers regressed on that end last season, too. So while a guy like D'Antoni would certainly generate incredible excitement, is he the guy who will fix them defensively? Is Sloan's personality the right fit? Is Phil willing to come back, and if he's willing are the batteries fully recharged? Because in his last season, Jackson didn't seem to be all there. A return for Brian Shaw seems highly unlikely, given how much acrimony surrounded his interview process following Phil's departure.
The move will certainly shake up the team, and drive home the urgency of the season. The Lakers aren't screwing around, and will do whatever it takes to preserve the first of what appears to be a two-year window with this group. It started today with the firing of Brown, and if things don't get better could extend to changes in the roster.
Nor will they wait too long to find Brown's replacement. Again, time is of the essence, as demonstrated by today's events.
Here are two conversations with head coaches that put a little perspective on the situation the Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in after a 1-4 start.
Early in the 2006-07 season, the Cleveland Cavs were in the midst of a losing skid in which they were struggling mightily to score. After going through a six-game span where they averaged just 84 points, LeBron James and Larry Hughes, then the team’s highest-paid player and second-most vital voice, were openly complaining about coach Mike Brown’s offensive schemes. It was the first serious internal player challenge to Brown as a head coach.
“The way we need to look at it is if we only score 84 points then we need to work hard enough on defense to only give up 83,” Brown said at the time.
This was Brown’s personality and coaching philosophy in a nutshell: Defense always came first and second. Correcting problems always started with focusing on defense, even when the concept seemed irrational. Blame it on Gregg Popovich and the “pound the rock” mantra in San Antonio; Brown pounded that defensive rock.
Later that season the Cavs reached the NBA Finals when they averaged just 87 points in regulation (there was a rather famous double-overtime game that skewed the stats a tad) in the Eastern Conference finals. The Detroit Pistons averaged 83 points.
Fast-forward to this fall and a conversation with Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra during the second day of training camp. The topic was the conference finals series last season with the Boston Celtics when the Heat headed to Boston for Game 6 trailing 3-2 after three consecutive losses.
At the time, Spoelstra struck a confident pose, much as he did in the previous series when the Heat fell down to the Indiana Pacers 2-1 and suffered an injury to Chris Bosh. Spoelstra’s mood was pervasive, the entire Heat team seemed to buy into his lead and never looked worried as it came back to win the series.
“To be honest with you, nothing that we faced in the playoffs last year was as mentally challenging as the year before,” Spoelstra said. “Nothing was like 9-8.”
Put all of that into context with where the Brown-coached Lakers sit now.
At 1-4, their start has been beyond disappointing to those who expected instant greatness with a team stocked with future Hall of Famers. Such expectations -- the Lakers did little to discourage them, Metta World Peace publicly talking about winning 70 games -- after a radical roster overall can be quite taxing. This was a lesson the Heat, themselves a little too quick to assume everything would fall nicely into place, are still obviously harkening back to.
The Heat, as Spoelstra said, still have some scars from the internal and external pressures of starting the 2010-11 season 9-8, culminating in the LeBron James “bump” of Spoelstra during a loss in Dallas. Now the Lakers have a mirror image to examine with Kobe Bryant’s “stare down” of Brown late in Wednesday’s loss in Utah.
Dealing with the pressure to win big fast under heavy national attention while integrating new stars, no matter their experience and skill, is a challenge. It’s not impossible of course. The 2007-08 Celtics started 20-2 in their first season after trading for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. The last time a Lakers team experienced such preseason hype was after the arrival of Gary Payton and Karl Malone in 2003 and that squad started 18-3. But as the Heat showed, early success is not to be taken for granted.
There are numerous things dogging the Lakers, and it seems Brown specifically, at the moment. The most frequently cited is the installation of a Princeton-style offense, a decision it should be pointed out that was reached by the organization in full consultation with Bryant before Steve Nash and Dwight Howard were even acquired. There’s also the minutes issue, it’s still early and Nash is hurt but the fact that the aged Lakers have four players in the top 33 in minutes per game thus far is concerning and an indication that Brown is already pressing. Then there’s a constant issue that has been with Brown since his days in Cleveland, which is his ability to command respect when needed.
But the true alarm that has resulted in all the angst around Brown is what’s been happening with the Lakers defensively, that rock that Brown has always relied on. The Lakers are lagging behind badly there and it's removing the safe zone where Brown can usually run. Brown doesn’t seek or get much credit for it, but he has been one the league’s best defensive coaches for the past decade.
For all the talk about Princeton and how it meshes with Bryant, Howard, Nash and Pau Gasol, the Lakers are actually doing OK with the ball. They’re not dominating at that end, and that was indeed the expectation, but they are not struggling. Five games in, they rank fifth in the league in field goal percentage (47 percent) and fifth in the league in offensive efficiency, the number of points they score per 100 possessions (104 currently) and a useful tool for standardizing offensive performance across the league.
There is room for improvement and not having Nash because of his leg injury factors in as well. There have been some calls to abandon the new offense and in all likelihood the Lakers will temper it. Said one league insider: “When they were struggling a bit last year they went to a version of the triangle and it settled things down and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them phase that in again.”
The tale on the defensive end is bleaker and that is where Brown is a fair target. Last season the Lakers had some good defensive numbers, giving up 90 points a game and holding opponents to 41 percent shooting. They slipped a little bit in some of the defensive rankings from Phil Jackson’s final season, but overall they were considered a good defensive team, in keeping with Brown’s reputation.
In the early going this season, however, the Lakers’ defense has been troublesome. They rank 22nd in defensive efficiency, the amount of points they give up per 100 possessions, at 103. They are 19th in defensive field goal percentage at 45 percent. They are 18th in points allowed at 98.8, more than eight more per game than last season.
Among everything that Brown is dealing with, these are the real issues. This is supposed to be Brown’s safety net, the “shrink the floor” help defensive philosophy that he helped make popular in the league. The one he normally drills and drills, obsesses about in preparation and preaches about at length. Right now, it has abandoned the Lakers despite the addition of Howard, the type of athletic basket defender that usually allows all defenders to look better.
If Brown is going to pull the Lakers out of their early-season slump -- and they start a six-game homestand Friday against Golden State that offers opportunity -- it will be here. That is, after all, what got Brown this job, and it will be that defense that will save it or not.