Coaching search continues at slow pace

June, 10, 2014
Jun 10
6:40
PM PT
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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It was surely a jarring scene for the Los Angeles Lakers' fans who turned their televisions to any of a number of sports stations Tuesday morning. There were their former coach and former starting point guard standing in front of a jumbo-sized New York Knicks logo, embarking on a joint mission to bring the same championship success they last shared in L.A. in 2010 to NYC.

The Lakers' faithful have had close to three months to digest the news that Phil Jackson won't be coming back through their door for a third stint coaching the team, but seeing Derek Fisher become the 26th head coach in Knicks history -- rather than the 25th head coach in Lakers history -- surely had to open up old wounds.

[+] EnlargeDerek Fisher
Jennifer Pottheiser/Getty ImagesDerek Fisher, left, and Phil Jackson shake hands Tuesday at a news conference to announce Fisher as the Knicks' new head coach.
The Lakers got out in front of the story over the weekend, with the Los Angeles Times reporting that the team had decided it wasn't interested in Fisher (or any other candidate without previous head coaching experience) and had moved on from the notion of bringing back the five-time champion.

Fisher said otherwise. According to the freshly retired, 18-year veteran, the Lakers indeed expressed interest in him, but he told them he was already so far down the road with Jackson and the Knicks that they shouldn't bother with exploratory talks unless they were ready to talk serious business.

"I was surprised, as some of you were, that they made the announcement they made that they wouldn't pursue me," Fisher said during his introductory news conference. "I don't think they ever intended to. That's fine. I respect it. I never thought of that or tried to compare the two opportunities. This was an opportunity that spoke to me right away. I was excited about that from the beginning."

Whether the Lakers really believe they are better off with a more experienced coach or they were merely saving face to avoid it looking like their former player spurned them for the same guy they had spurned in November 2012 (in Jackson) can be debated.

It is certainly better for the Lakers to make a blanket statement and say they aren't interested in current college coaches or candidates with no head coaching experience in the league than to have the narrative be that a bunch of the guys they had initially targeted -- Fisher, Connecticut's Kevin Ollie, Kentucky's John Calipari, Southern Methodist's Larry Brown, former Atlanta Hawks assistant coach Quin Snyder -- all chose to be somewhere other than with the Lakers moving forward.

Ollie and Calipari both inked lucrative deals to stay with their schools -- five years, $14 million for Ollie and seven years, $52 million for Calipari. This after Calipari turned down a Godfather-type deal from Cleveland that would have netted him close to $80 million over 10 years, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein. Brown told USA Today Sports that he wasn't interested in L.A. because his goal is to capture another NCAA national championship to pair with the one he won with Kansas in 1988. And Snyder, who was previously a Lakers assistant under Mike Brown, was hired to coach the Utah Jazz last week.

Not that Fisher was that realistic of a candidate anyway, when it comes to checking off all the boxes the Lakers were looking to fill. Yes, Fisher had the relationship with Kobe Bryant on his side and also a connection with Kevin Durant that potentially could have been leveraged in the future to lure the reigning MVP to L.A. as a free agent. But Fisher also would run the triangle -- as he says is his plan for the Knicks -- which was a major reason Brian Shaw wasn't hired and Brown got the job when Jackson left in the first place. Plus, there was the financial reality of the move.

Were the Lakers really going to shell out $25 million guaranteed when they weren't willing to pick up the $4 million in Mike D'Antoni's contract for 2015-16, which eventually led to D'Antoni's resignation?

And so the days continue to pass, nearly six weeks since the job opened up, and the search continues.

[+] EnlargeByron Scott
G Fiume/Getty ImagesAt this point, Byron Scott is considered the clubhouse leader in the Lakers' search for a new coach. Scott reportedly interviewed for the second time Tuesday.
To recap, the Lakers have interviewed five candidates so far -- Mike Dunleavy, Kurt Rambis, Byron Scott, Alvin Gentry and Lionel Hollins -- and general manager Mitch Kupchak had informal discussions with a sixth, fellow North Carolina alum George Karl. ESPN.com's Chris Broussard reported Tuesday that the team interview Scott for a second time, according to sources.

Realistically, four candidates remain: Dunleavy, Scott, Gentry and Hollins. Karl, despite his accomplishments, runs too similar of a breakneck system to D'Antoni's and would make the Lakers look hypocritical if they hired him after not backing D'Antoni and the style he employed. Meanwhile, the Lakers have granted the Knicks permission to interview Rambis to be an assistant coach on Fisher's staff, a league source told ESPNLosAngeles.com on Tuesday. While it's true Rambis has a year left on his contract with the Lakers as an assistant coach, he could return even if not named head coach. If the Knicks offered more years and more guaranteed money, however, it would be difficult for Rambis to say no, just to wait out the Lakers' coaching search.

It's a search that continues to move at a snail's pace. The Lakers currently have no more interviews scheduled for this week; however, Scott Skiles (former coach of Milwaukee, Chicago and Phoenix) remains on the short list, according to Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com. James Worthy, a former Lakers great and current Lakers television analyst on Time Warner Cable SportsNet, suggested to ESPNLosAngeles.com last month that the Lakers take a look at Indiana Pacers assistant coach Nate McMillan as well.

Tom Thibodeau, another name ESPNLosAngeles.com reported was once being mulled by the Lakers, is no longer considered a viable candidate. The Lakers realize that getting Thibodeau out of his contract with the Chicago Bulls would require trading their No. 7 pick in this year's draft, and L.A. deems that too steep a price to pay.

Before Scott's reported second interview Tuesday, it had been nearly two weeks since the Lakers had interviewed anyone (Hollins). So what is taking so long for the search to continue? There are a couple of forces in play. First, there is only one remaining head coaching vacancy in the league, the Cleveland Cavaliers. While Hollins and Gentry both interviewed with the Cavs, only one of them can get it, leaving the Lakers with a few candidates to choose from. (Scott will not interview with Cleveland, despite the Cavaliers' recent preference in hiring coaches they previously fired). Multiple league sources with knowledge of the Lakers' hiring process have told ESPNLosAngeles.com that Scott is considered the leader in the clubhouse at the moment, but the search still has several more stages to progress through.

At this point, with no threat of being completely left out in the cold in terms of hiring a guy they feel comfortable with, the Lakers figure they might as well hold out until free agency begins and see what the market bears before they settle on their coach.

Like a basketball team down by 10 with a minute to go still calling a timeout to set up a play, the Lakers are prolonging the game, hoping they can pull a rabbit out of the hat. Everything that's out there would tell you it's unlikely that a top-tier talent such as LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony will opt out of his current deal to sign as a free agent with the Lakers this summer, but that pipe dream of the Lakers' simply won't be over until it is.

Maybe they make some sort of draft-day trade to make their team more attractive to one of those guys (and maybe the same draft-day trade makes the job more attractive to a veteran coach such as Jeff Van Gundy, who has thus far been reluctant to pursue the opening while so many questions about the roster remain answered). Maybe circumstances change with the Heat and Knicks between now and July 1, when free agency opens. There is no way to quantify how valuable it could be to make a pitch to a free agent and offer both a max deal and a say in the coaching hire. But then again, there is no way to know how valuable that is or isn't unless they try it.

Or, maybe, James wins his third championship in a week or two and proclaims, while on a makeshift stage at center court hoisting up the Larry O'Brien trophy, "I'm coming back for No. 4!" And maybe Anthony can't say no to the Knicks after he sits down across from Jackson and Fisher and they put their combined 18 rings on the table in front of him.

Maybe the Lakers read the tea leaves, sense a quiet free-agent class this summer, do follow-up interviews with their current crop of candidates in late June and pick their guy before it even gets to that point.

All we know for sure is the Lakers' coaching search is closer to the end than it is to the beginning, but at the same time, it's not all that close to being over just yet.

Dave McMenamin

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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