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Thursday, November 8, 2012
The dreaded vote of confidence for Mike Brown?

By Brian Kamenetzky

Approach me on the street and accuse me of being an alcoholic, and I'll deny it.

"Of course," you might say. "Denial is the first sign of being an alcoholic."

True enough (according to the literature, at least), but it's also the first sign of not being an alcoholic.

In many ways, that's the dynamic at play whenever management is asked for a vote of confidence on the head coach. The answer is almost never "I hope he's renting" and encouraging words no matter how flowery are often followed by the axe. The powers that be express support because doing anything else is counterproductive. Denial plays like denial, even if it's genuine.

In Los Angeles, the hot seat questions have already arrived in earnest. Judging by our Twitter feed and comments left on the blog after Wednesday's 96-85 loss in Utah dropped the Lakers to 1-4, a healthy dose of purple-and-gold faithful are ready to cut ties with coach Mike Brown.

They hope, then, the (vote of) confidence and patience shown him by Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss, via ESPNLA's Ramona Shelburne, is merely a misdirection designed to distract while he dusts off his coaching Rolodex. It doesn't sound that way:
"I have no problems with Mike Brown at all," Buss said. "He just works too hard and he's too knowledgeable for this to be happening.

"So either the system is flawed or something's going on. Or, like the Triangle, it's very hard to pick up and understand. I'm not a basketball mind like he is or the players are, and the players are fine with it, so I just have to be patient."

Buss says he has been gauging player reaction to the Lakers' new Princeton offense, Brown and how they're dealing with the slow start by reading their public comments and talking to them directly. On Tuesday afternoon, he went down from his office to the court during practice to take their temperature, and he said he found things to be rather calm.

"Kobe [Bryant] and I have a relationship where he can just look at me and say, 'Everything's cool,' " Buss said. "So yesterday during practice, I gave Kobe a quick glance, and everything was cool." ...

... In Buss' own words, "this team was built to win now." So just how patient can he be?

"You have to give it time to understand [what's going on]," Buss said. "I don't know if there's an actual game total that would make me impatient. I know if we're 1-15, I don't think that would be very good. I'm sure that would be a panic button. But at this time, I'm fine with what's going on. It's a learning process for the players. As long as everybody is on the same page, I think we're fine."

For the record, Brown won't survive a 1-15 start, but the reality is a) should it happen I won't be around to report the news for I will already have taken the family into the K-Bros Blog Bunker (or "Blonker"), and b) the Lakers won't be 1-15 after 16 games. They won't be 12-4, either, but somewhere in the middle. By every indication, Jim Buss likes Brown and believes he's a good coach. Moreover, philosophically, the Lakers aren't a knee-jerk group. They don't make reactionary choices. Should something catastrophic occur -- the horrible record extends near Thanksgiving or clear indications Brown has totally lost the team -- any decision on Brown becomes easy.

More likely, though, it won't be that cut and dried. In a season with so much on the line, Buss and Mitch Kupchak could face some extremely tough decisions.

There are legitimate reasons for the team to tread carefully. Changing coaches is an expensive proposition. Not just financially, though firing Brown would cost the Lakers a ton of money, but also in time. It means starting over. New system, new staff, new learning curves. There is enormous upheaval, particularly for a team with such lofty aspirations. Plus, pulling the trigger now could mean swinging a sledgehammer at an illness before a real diagnosis can be made. Five games in, can anyone be sure the coach is the root of the problem on a team with so many new parts and complex personalities? And if he is, do they already know who provides the best fix?

It's not just about firing the coach, but finding a better alternative. Thinly-sourced rumors about Jerry Sloan notwithstanding, I don't know who they'd snap up. Sloan would be an interesting fit and certainly a step up on the gravitas scale, but after him, who? Would Mike D'Antoni really be a better choice for a team lacking discipline and defensive structure? He's intriguing, no question, but constructing arguments against him isn't hard. Stan Van Gundy isn't an option. Maybe Stan's brother, Jeff?

Until there's something concrete out there, I'm not entertaining the idea of a third go with Phil Jackson. I just don't think it's a real possibility. (And after the way his last run ended, it's legitimate to ask if Phil's batteries are truly recharged, because he wasn't all there in 2010-11.) There are better coaches than Brown, no question, but before canning him, the Lakers would have to make sure one of those superior options was signed, sealed, and delivered.

And no, the answer to who qualifies as superior isn't "anybody."

The strongest argument for change is this: If management believes Brown ultimately won't build the team going forward and the Lakers will still be foundering as the calendar flips to 2013, it's best to make a change now, giving the new guy the best opportunity to win this year. Waiting only makes the process that much harder. If a suitable replacement is lined up, rip off the Band-Aid now and let the healing begin (or something like that).

Philosophically, I agree with Brown's logic behind installing the Princeton offense. Having the foundation of a system to use when great defensive teams, Miami for example, blitz the pick and roll would be a significant weapon. And for all the consternation about the offense, for all the turnovers and confusion, until Wednesday's debacle in Salt Lake City, the Lakers were among the most efficient offensive teams in the league. It's the defense failing them through the first five games.

Of course, defense is supposed to be Brown's calling card.

Last year, I questioned Brown's rotations and his feel -- particularly early -- for the pulse of the team. Overall, though, I was generally sympathetic, given the horribly difficult circumstances he inherited. Brown improved over the course of the season and the Lakers ultimately did as well as their talent dictated. Still, a decent grade for 2011-12 isn't the same as being sold long term. Now the 2012-13 squad has made major upgrades in top-end talent, yet has struggled mightily. Even factoring in injuries and a discombobulated training camp, the purple and gold have generally looked pretty bad, particularly when the starting lineup is off the court. Their four losses have come by an average of 9.75 points.

The team has lacked confidence and snap. The players look as if they are overly burdened by expectations. They preach a party line on patience not consistently practiced on the floor, and don't always appear to believe.

Every coach I've ever asked, from Jackson to Joe Torre, says the management of people is the more complicated component of coaching, over X's and O's. Brown's default is to work harder and plan more. That tireless ethic is what appeals most to Buss. But can Brown, without question a wonderful person but someone who has struggled with credibility as a coach, be trusted to lead them through the growing pains, pressing the right buttons with the team's temperament?

That's the big question Buss and Kupchak have to answer. In tight situations, will Brown be someone the Lakers, with a decorated, veteran core, look at with total confidence? (As opposed to, say, this look?) Gregg Popovich gets that in San Antonio, so does Scott Brooks in Oklahoma City. Erik Spoelstra does in Miami (or gets close enough, at least), but was fired almost daily until finally getting his ring.

So is Brown the next Spoelstra, the guy who couldn't get it done until he did? Or is he just someone ultimately lacking whatever key ingredient elevates a coach from solid to elite? The Lakers now have six straight games at home, including four against likely lottery teams. This gives Brown and the Lakers every opportunity to gain confidence and momentum, moving past the problems of the first five games. In two weeks, the conversation could change substantially.

If it doesn't, management's hand could be forced. Even if their early fortunes change, and I think they will, Brown's job security will be a front burner question until the end of the year, in good times and bad.

It's one more thing making a job many don't think he can do that much more difficult.