Los Angeles Lakers: Kurt Rambis
The Los Angeles Lakers are in the market to hire the 25th head coach in franchise history, and now, several weeks after the job became available, it seems as if there are 25 candidates to fill the position.
The Lakers have still not reached out to any of the names they are considering, according to a team source familiar with the coaching search. They are expected to commence a preliminary round of phone interviews soon, but will not schedule any sit-down sessions until later in the month.
As the clock keeps ticking since Mike D’Antoni resigned April 30, three pertinent questions spring to mind:
1. What should the Lakers be looking for in their next coach?
2. Who are the Lakers considering?
3. What is taking so long?
We’ll start in reverse order.
While it’s natural to assume the Lakers should have a sense of urgency about finding their coach -- particularly as other jobs open up around the league (Golden State, New York, Utah, Minnesota and, presumably, Detroit) -- the Lakers are in something resembling a high-stakes game of Texas hold ‘em.
They know what cards they’re holding: two aging future Hall of Famers in Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash under contract for close to $34 million for next season; a significant chunk of cap space beyond that; and, of course, the intangible asset of calling Southern California home -- plus a prestigious résumé as one of the most storied franchises in the league.
The draft lottery
What they’re waiting for is the flop. In this case, the information that will determine how they play their hand will come May 20, when the NBA conducts the draft lottery in Times Square.
The Lakers’ 27-55 record was sixth worst in the league this season, thus giving them a 43.9 percent chance of ending up with the No. 6 pick. But in the lottery system, it’s a crapshoot. The Lakers have a 6.3 percent chance of ending up with the No. 1 pick and a 21.5 percent chance of ending up in the top three. Then again, they have a 34.6 percent chance of picking somewhere in the Nos. 7-9 range, worse than their finishing slot.
In a New York minute, everything can change, as they say. The Lakers are hoping for a little luck on their side when they send the last No. 1 overall pick in team history, James Worthy, to New York to represent them for the night.
Whichever draft tier they ultimately find themselves in -- picks Nos. 1-3, standing pat at No. 6 (they are ineligible to move up to 4-5 in the current system) or falling to 7-9 -- could lead the franchise in drastically different directions on its coaching quest.
Let’s say they luck out and catapult into the top three. The Lakers will find themselves in a win-win situation. On one side of this coin, they believe that one of the top prospects -- Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, etc. -- will be an immediate franchise-changer, a player they can bring into the program to learn from Bryant for a couple of seasons before he takes the reins alongside whichever max-level free agent they bring in over the next two summers. On the other, they find another team that believes there is transformative talent available at the top of this draft and trade the pick.
Both are enviable positions for the Lakers to find themselves in, but they are the starting points for vastly divergent paths. If they use their top pick on a player they think can lead the team for years, then the coaching hire will surely be expected to cater to that prospect’s strengths as his top priority. While the sun and moon in the Lakers’ universe have revolved around Bryant for nearly the past two decades, developing that young player would suddenly become an even more important task for the franchise than protecting Bryant’s legacy as he plays out the final two years of his contract for $48.5 million.
If the Lakers trade the pick for an established veteran such as Minnesota’s Kevin Love, for instance, it puts the franchise on a totally different trajectory. Suddenly, by pairing Bryant with another star in his prime, the Lakers are theoretically back to being a factor right away, even in the stacked Western Conference.
Let’s say the pick ends up being worse than they were hoping for, in the Nos. 7-9 range. Maybe they fall in love with a prospect and take him at that spot, but maybe the pick is expendable. And while a selection that late in the draft surely wouldn’t be enough to land a vet like Love, it might be enough to convince the Chicago Bulls to let Tom Thibodeau out of his contract to coach the Lakers.
The opt-out options
If the draft lotto is the flop, then seeing which players choose to opt out of their current contracts and test free agency come July 1 represents the turn in this big poker game.
Why hire a coach in June if it develops come July that LeBron James is looking to leave Miami? Why commit prematurely to a coach -- and, subsequently, a certain style of play -- and potentially shut yourself out from consideration by James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and others when it comes time to decide on their futures?
That's another major variable the Lakers are weighing. When it comes to landing a marquee free agent, you want any edge you can garner over the other teams competing for his services. The Lakers could be in a position where they can tell James or whomever else they target, “Not only do we want you, but we want you so much we’ll let you help pick who is going to be your coach.” For some players, that could be a major incentive.
With all that in mind, it should offer some clarity as to why the Lakers’ candidate pool is so deep at this point.
They have different coaches in mind who would be specific fits for every different direction they could end up heading in.
If they are going to be a rebuilding team, why not take a chance on a younger coach who can grow with those young players? It worked in Phoenix this season with first-time head coach Jeff Hornacek. Why not hire Kevin Ollie, fresh off taking Connecticut to a surprise NCAA title, to lead that transition and cut his teeth in the league without the pressure to win every night? Or maybe Atlanta Hawks assistant coach Quin Snyder becomes that guy. Or Derek Fisher should he retire from playing after the Oklahoma City Thunder finish their current playoff run.
Veteran coaches who are looking for work, like Lionel Hollins, George Karl and Mike Dunleavy, have all expressed interest, but they are at points where they have little leverage. They would take the Lakers job whether they end up with the No. 1 pick or the No. 9 pick; whether Los Angeles signed a big-name free agent or held onto its cap space for the summer of 2015; whether Nash and Bryant were healthy or they were going to continue to struggle with injuries.
But making moves to become a more veteran-laden squad could coax Jeff Van Gundy or Stan Van Gundy to leave their broadcast jobs. Equipping their team to be competitive right away next season could get Thibodeau to tell Chicago to listen to the Lakers’ pitch. Bringing in guys who already know how to win could convince Mark Jackson to come on board. Going that route could get John Calipari to consider leaving his ready-made gig at Kentucky. It might even get Steve Kerr, who seems to have his pick between the Knicks and the Warriors at the moment, to want to don the purple and gold.
All of the names mentioned above have surely already been bandied about by the Lakers’ front office. Throw in Byron Scott, Kurt Rambis, Ettore Messina, Roy Williams and Larry Brown. There are others, undoubtedly.
The Lakers just don’t have enough information at this point to start eliminating any, nor do they really have enough to rank names properly, either.
Which brings us back to the first question: What should the Lakers be looking for in their next head coach?
There are three job requirements that he must be able to handle, no matter what happens in the lottery or in free agency. First and foremost, he must have a clear vision defensively. Seeing the video-game-like numbers opponents put up against the Lakers this season -- including that terrible stretch when they gave up an unthinkable 408 points over three non-overtime games -- convinced Lakers execs they have to go back to a coach who will make it a priority.
The Kobe factor
Second, the coach must be able to coexist with Bryant. The Bryant-D’Antoni relationship deteriorated to the point where the pair barely spoke by the end of their tenure together. Even in D’Antoni’s first season in L.A., when the Lakers still managed to win 28 of their final 40 games to make the playoffs, there was conflict.
Bryant would often use the Lakers’ shootaround time to receive treatment in the training room. When D’Antoni thought this was causing a disconnect between Bryant and his teammates, the coach asked the star guard to change his routine, according to a league source. As a compromise, Bryant still often used shootaround for treatment, only he had the training table brought out next to the practice court so he was physically present, technically, during the sessions. After playing such a long time at an elite level, it was understandable for Bryant to need extra time to get his body ready, but it led to occasions on the court where the team would be executing one way based on adjustments made during shootaround that morning -- and Bryant would be executing another.
With the financial commitment the Lakers have made to Bryant and the clout he has in both the locker room -- several of Bryant’s younger teammates grew up idolizing him the way that he grew up idolizing Michael Jordan -- and with the fans in Los Angeles, to whom he has helped deliver five championships, the coach must have a rapport with Bryant if the team is going to have any chance at real success.
Bryant won't necessarily be best friends with whomever gets put on the sidelines next to him -- he even famously clashed with Phil Jackson at times -- but will buy in if he is convinced the coach is capable.
So the fact that Bryant, as a rookie, was teammates with Scott and has been in contact with him in recent weeks, according to Chris Broussard of ESPN the Magazine, cannot be understated. Then again, he has relationships with many of the other coaches mentioned above, from Thibodeau (who was an assistant with Philadelphia when a high school-aged Bryant used to practice with the 76ers) to Rambis, Snyder and Messina (who all have coached him in L.A.) to Fisher, of course, a fellow rookie on that 1996 Lakers squad.
Third, the coach had better be just as astute at recruiting as he is with X’s and O’s. With the restrictive nature of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement preventing the Lakers from going over the luxury tax as willingly as they did in the past, having a coach who attracts top talent can be a workaround. The best players in basketball generally go on to win championships. Teams like the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks or 2003-04 Detroit Pistons that win as a collective are much more rare than James and the Heat, or Bryant and the Lakers, or Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs stacking titles because they have the best individual talent on the court.
With that said, if whomever the Lakers choose arrives with the promise of getting one of those top-tier players to join him in L.A. down the line, it makes that candidate all the more attractive. Scott is a nice coach and all, but Scott plus Kyrie Irving is a pretty package. Same goes for Calipari if he can leverage his relationship with James, or Ollie or Fisher if they can sway Kevin Durant to head West.
The chips are down in the Lakers' coaching search. The stakes are high. But don't expect to spot any tell signs until the draft lottery May 20. And even at that point, there could still be a lot more poker to play before the hand is decided.
It could happen on Sunday, at home against the Toronto Raptors. Maybe it will be Tuesday against the Phoenix Suns, another game played at Staples Center. Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni said that it’s imminent. When asked to frame Bryant’s comeback date in terms of being either days or weeks away after practice Thursday, D’Antoni chose days.
Now the No. 1 question facing the Lakers this season shifts from “When will Bryant return?” to “How will he look when he does?”
Bryant enjoyed one of the finest individual seasons of his 18-year career before suffering his Achilles tear, averaging 27.3 points on 46.3 percent shooting, 6.0 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 38.6 minutes per game as he finished fifth the league’s MVP voting despite the Lakers’ rocky record.
The one number in that statistical line that is sure to change, at least initially, is Bryant’s minutes. Bryant has already conceded as much. “If I can come back and keep my minutes to a minimum, that would be perfect,” Bryant said when the Lakers were on the road in Washington. This week, Bryant elaborated on the reduced work load, likening his initial foray onto the court to the process that every player goes through in the preseason and “builds to the regular season.”
While fans will be seeing less of Bryant on the court than they’re accustomed to, they’ll see more of Bryant playing a facilitator role, especially as long as Jordan Farmar (hamstring tear) and Steve Nash (nerve root irritation) continue to be sidelined.
“He’s going to have the ball,” D’Antoni said. “So, whenever you have the ball you’re the point guard.”
Bryant said it will be no different than how he played last season when he dished out eight or more assists 23 times and 10 or more assists 11 times.
“It’s being able to facilitate and score when the defense dictates it, so it’s no difference,” Bryant said. “I’d be more of the push man, obviously, just getting up and down. But, honestly it’s no difference than how I played my entire career, really. Just handling the ball, getting us into stuff and pushing it.”
Embracing being a distributor when he returns this season goes hand in hand with Bryant’s own expectations for where his game will be if he is stripped of the athleticism he’s always featured as part of his game. Bryant went as far as to offer up the names of four below-the-rim point guards in Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Gary Payton and Andre Miller as players whose games he could emulate (along with a couple other low-to-the-ground scorers in Larry Bird and Paul Pierce).
Lakers assistant coach Kurt Rambis, who was on Phil Jackson’s staff when Bryant won championships, said as long as Bryant is a willing passer, L.A.’s equal opportunity offense (nine players average between 8.3 and 14.3 points per game) should thrive.
“Hopefully we don’t change the way that we play,” Rambis said. “[Bryant] just gives us a much greater asset to use. Not only does he occupy his own individual defender, but he’ll occupy two or three other defenders which will help open guys up. Other teams have to game plan for him. So, if the ball continues to move, we’ll get much easier scoring opportunities.”
The knock on Bryant for years has been his reluctance to involve teammates in part because of his belief in his individual ability to get it done on his own. But Bryant said he has already been impressed by the new group (five of the 10 players who play regularly for L.A. are new acquisitions).
“I love their competitive spirit,” Bryant said. “Practices have been really competitive and we’ve really gotten after each other. It fits very well because they’re excellent at moving without the ball and finding cuts and crevices and cracks and have a great deal of speed and athleticism.”
All of that speed and athleticism has the Lakers playing with the league’s fourth-highest pace this season, averaging 100.3 possessions per game, up from 96.8 a year ago.
Can a slowed down Bryant fit that flow?
“We’re encouraging our guys to take the first quality shot but we’re not a running team,” said Rambis. “The pace doesn’t mean that we’re up and down the floor. So, he should be able to, without a problem, fit into the pace with which we play and he should add a lot of quality to that so that our points per possession and the pace that we score within that should go up too.”
D’Antoni only has a handful of practices to go on, but based on Bryant’s performance so far, the coach doesn’t think the five-time champ will curb the rest of the team’s tempo.
“I think he’ll be fine,” D’Antoni said, adding he “didn’t see anything different” with the pace when Bryant was running with the team versus when he was out. “We want to keep our pace up. It helps everybody else.”
That’s precisely what the coaching staff expects Bryant to do as well -- help everybody else, particularly the young players -- just by being the competitor that he is.
“The greatest thing that he provides is an exorbitant amount of confidence,” Rambis said. “He believes so strongly in himself as a championship-caliber player, that that confidence kind of overflows to the rest of the guys on the team. Even the appearances that he’s had out here, the practices that he’s in, the intensity in practice is amped up and that alone should make us a better team if we’re practicing harder and guys are learning to maintain their focus, maintain their intensity and in continuing to develop this ability to work hard and play hard, he’s just going to keep adding to that and push and drive the team.”
Bryant will change things for the 9-9 Lakers, but the change should ultimately be for the better.
“It will be a little bit of an adjustment period like always,” D’Antoni said. “But, it’s going to be good. You’re adding a great piece. So, we’re looking forward to that adjustment.”
The exchange was prompted by questions about his approach to coaching defense.
D'Antoni seemed to have the spat fresh in his mind when a different reporter asked him after practice Wednesday what percentage of training camp he spends on defense versus offense.
"I would say 99.9 (percent) on defense and 0.1 on offense," D'Antoni said with a sarcastic smile. "Does that satisfy you guys?"
He was making a joke with the over exaggeration, but the truth is, the coach actually has been making an effort to get his team to understand that their success this season will start with stops on the defensive end.
"It seems like he's harping a little bit more on defense now," Shawne Williams, who played for D'Antoni in New York, told ESPNLosAngeles.com. "He's spending more time on defense. It used to just be a lot of offense and he used to try to tell us, 'Defense comes from within,' but now, everything starts with defense and then we let that dictate the offense."
Seven seconds or less? More like consecutive stops or else.
"Defense has been and it will be a priority if we want to be competitive and win the majority of the games," said Pau Gasol. "So, that has to be a focus for us. We can’t rely on our offense to bail us out and get us wins. Defense is what’s going to make us consistent and what’s going to make us beat good teams."
The Lakers' defensive numbers from a season ago sum up why the year felt so miserable. L.A. was tied with Brooklyn for 18th in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing opponents to score 103.6 points per 100 possessions. And that was with former defensive player of the year award winners Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace. Not that those two were a whole lot of help. Even with Howard down low, L.A. ranked 22nd in the league in opponents’ field goal percentage inside of five feet, according to NBA.com Stats Cube (59.8 percent), and even with World Peace on the perimeter, the Lakers were 26th in the NBA with just 7.0 steals per game.
With Howard and World Peace on-court defensive ability gone, the Lakers are relying on new assistant coach Kurt Rambis' off-court tutelage to help the team improve on that end.
"Kurt is doing a very good job," said Gasol. "Kurt I think is a really good defensive coach and coach overall, so he’s going to help a lot on continuing to emphasize how important the defensive end is in order for any team to be successful."
If it all sounds like rhetoric, well, some of it is. You can drill a team to death with defensive concepts, but they only make a difference if they can be applied during the course of a game. That's why D'Antoni prefers more open-court instruction during gameplay in training camp.
"Here’s the deal: One team’s got the ball (in an intrasquad scrimmage) so they’re on offense and working on offense," D'Antoni said. "The other team is defense. So, it’s really 100 percent on both."
Added D'Antoni: "We’ll try to add something each day and get our drills down, but you mostly learn to play and we play a lot. And when you play a lot, hopefully we’re working on our defense all the time."
With the Los Angeles Lakers lacking a proven small forward on their roster after using the amnesty clause on Metta World Peace, it's only natural to wonder if Beasley might be a good fit in purple and gold.
Here are four questions to consider before that can happen:
1. What is the waiver process for Beasley?
Beasley was owed $6 million by Phoenix in 2013-14 and $6.25 million in 2014-15, but only $3 million of his '14-15 deal was guaranteed. Beasley agreed to a $7 million buyout with the Suns, according to Sports 620 KTAR in Phoenix. If any team out there chooses to claim the remaining $7 million on his contract, they'll retain Beasley's rights. That's unlikely to happen.
The way this usually works is a player clears the 48-hour waiver process and then the bids come in, with teams free to use their mid-level, mini mid-level or biannual exception to try to entice Beasley to come on board. The Lakers do not have any of those exceptions available to them. They used their entire mini mid-level exception on Chris Kaman and do not qualify for the biannual exception because of their luxury tax situation, so all they could offer Beasley is a veteran's minimum deal worth approximately $1 million.
There is a chance that a team like Philadelphia, which has not yet met the minimum salary requirement for the 2013-14 season could take on his full salary to meet that basement level, but Philly could just wait to sign other free agents to account for the approximately $10 million in salary it has to acquire without bringing in someone like Beasley with his off-court background into its young, impressionable locker room.
2. Will the Lakers be interested in Beasley?
As one source familiar with the Lakers thinking said, "There's a reason why Phoenix cut him." Even though Beasley is just 24 years old and has career averages of 14.1 points and 5.2 rebounds in just 26.4 minutes per game, it was his arrest on suspicion of marijuana possession in August that seemed to be what ultimately pushed Phoenix to go in another direction.
However, Beasley had off-court issues before this summer and that didn't stop the Lakers from pushing hard to get him in the 2011-12 season. Twice that season, the Lakers thought it had deals in place to acquire the lefty forward from Minnesota, and twice those deals fell through, the second time just seven minutes removed from the trade deadline.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has shown in recent seasons that once a player catches his interest, that impression doesn't fade easily. Kupchak said that the Lakers had designs on acquiring Steve Blake for years stemming from an great pre-draft workout with the team in 2003. They finally got Blake in 2011. The same goes for Nick Young. Kupchak came close to getting Young for years before having it all come together this summer.
3. Should the Lakers want Beasley?
In a word, yes. Even though the team made some savvy pick-ups with potential in Young, Wes Johnson and Elias Harris to try to fill the void at small forward left by World Peace, none of them are proven players at that position. And yes, Kobe Bryant is just about as good at playing the three as he is at the two at this stage of his career with all the post moves he's developed, but Bryant's health for this season is still very much in question.
Getting Beasley at the minimum for 2013-14 would not only allow the team to keep the financial flexibility for next summer that it so covets, but it would give Mike D'Antoni another offensive weapon to work with. This is a guy who has a career high of 42 points, a guy who once put up 22 points and 15 rebounds in a playoff game, a guy who has a 34.5 percent career mark from 3, but has shot 36.6 percent or better from deep in three out of his five career seasons.
Don't discount the appeal of Beasley's ability to shoot it, either. The Lakers drafted Ryan Kelly in the second round primarily for his ability to stretch the floor with his long-range accuracy, but the team has been discouraged by the rookie's progress during the summer, according to multiple league sources. The Lakers doubt that Kelly, who missed summer league while recovering from multiple foot procedures, will be ready for the start of training camp.
Beasley could fill out a couple check marks of what the Lakers are looking for.
4. Should Beasley want the Lakers?
This answer isn't as straight forward. While Beasley has already made approximately $25.9 million in his time in the NBA, according to BasketballReference.com, he did have to agree to give up a guaranteed $2 million over two years in the Phoenix buyout. He could make that money back and then some by signing with a team that offers him the mini mid-level exception of $3.2 million. If he signs with the Lakers for the minimum, he loses $1 million. That might seem insignificant when you've already made $26 million, but $1 million is $1 million, especially for a player whose future in the league is far from certain.
So, financially maybe the Lakers aren't the best fit for Beasley.
However, style of play wise, L.A. could be perfect for him. Not only are D'Antoni's open-court sets suited for his game, but Beasley had his best season as a professional while coached by Lakers assistant Kurt Rambis when he was the head coach in Minnesota in 2010-11.
Not only that, but the Lakers have had success in recent seasons in salvaging guys' careers who were rich in talent, but poor in opportunity (think Shannon Brown, Trevor Ariza, Jordan Hill, Earl Clark).
And the opportunity should be plentiful in L.A. at small forward.
While Hill was unable to go for a significant portion of the schedule because of a herniated disk in his lower back and surgery on his left hip, what about those three consecutive games in December when he didn’t play even though he was perfectly healthy?
This hardly received the same attention as when coach Mike D’Antoni didn’t play Antawn Jamison for seven straight games later in the season and Jamison spoke up about it. Hill, who would tie Steve Nash for the unofficial but all-important Most Supportive Teammate award, kept quiet.
When the season was over, however, Hill asked D’Antoni -- who coached the player in New York before the No. 8 pick was shipped out of town just months into his rookie season -- what he needed to do to stay on the floor next season.
“He talked about what I need to work on for this coming summer,” Hill told ESPNLosAngeles.com. “My jump shot -- he definitely wanted me to work on my outside jumper.”
The experiment to turn Pau Gasol into an outside-oriented big man blew up in D’Antoni’s face last season. But in Hill, who has played eight fewer seasons in the league than Gasol, the coach found a much more malleable subject.
“That’s mostly what I’ve been focusing on this whole summer, not so much the post work because I know I can go down to the block and easily get an offensive rebound and putback,” said Hill, who ranked sixth in the NBA last season in rebounds per 36 minutes (among players who played 25 games or more), according to BasketballReference.com. “We got Pau Gasol that can focus on the paint and we got Chris Kaman that can focus on the block. So I just want to be a stretch 4. Just try to spread the floor a little bit, just show a little range. I’ve been working on it the whole summer, trying to focus on that, on my 3-ball. It got a lot better. I’m just ready to put it all together and showcase it.”
Hill, who shot 61.8 percent inside of 5 feet last season en route to a career-high 6.7 points per game average, did not fare as well the farther away from the basket he went. According to NBA.com Stats Cube, Hill shot 35.7 percent from 5-9 feet last season and 30.8 percent from 15-19 feet. And he missed the only two 3-point shots he attempted (in fact, he’s 0-for-9 on 3s for his career). However, there was signs of promise. He shot 50 percent from 10-14 feet and 42.9 percent from 20-24 feet, but the opportunities were limited (fewer than 10 attempts during the season from each of those spots).
Hill has traded Mikan drills around the basket for ballhandling exercises meant to help him develop a one-dribble, pull-up jumper. He's also practiced the footwork required for pick-and-rolls. Not just playing the part of the man setting the screen and diving toward the hoop, but also flaring out in pick-and-pop scenarios, and even working on curling off the pick as a screen-recipient rather than a screen-setter.
"I’m just trying to do a variety of stuff that will help me spread the floor and get great shots," Hill said.
The location of Hill’s offseason home is helping his outside improvement. It just so happens that Hill spends his summers in Atlanta, the same place as teammate Jodie Meeks. The sharpshooting Meeks, who was third on the Lakers last season with 122 made 3s (behind Metta World Peace’s 141 and Kobe Bryant’s 132), doesn’t necessarily coach Hill’s shot, but he does motivate Hill.
“Jodie’s not him telling me I need to follow through, but we always have competition shooting,” Hill said. “He’s definitely going to win a lot, but I’ve definitely won a couple. So when I do competition shooting with him and I win, I get the confidence that, ‘OK, my shot’s falling now. I can shoot better now.’”
The key to survival is adaptation. Hill is trying not only to carve out a niche within D’Antoni’s system but also to expand his game in hopes of extending his career.
“Now, in my head, it’s just like, ‘Man, I just got to try to keep my body healthy,’” said Hill, who has appeared in only 187 of a possible 312 games in his four-year career.
After returning for a brief stint in the playoffs less than four months after undergoing hip surgery that was supposed to sideline him for six months, Hill said he feels 100 percent as he tries to teach his body new tricks on offense.
"I feel great," Hill said. "I feel good on [the hip]. I’m walking around with no pain. I’m jumping, I’m strong. I’m doing spin moves. I’m doing everything right now that involves my hip, and no problems."
Nor does Hill have any problem recognizing the true value he brings to the Lakers. No level of offensive ascension that Hill achieves will cause him to sacrifice his dedication to defense. It remains the priority.
“Oh man,” Hill said, between two audible sighs, when asked what went wrong with the Lakers’ shoddy pick-and-roll defense in 2012-13.
For Hill, the first step in neutralizing the opponent is recognizing where the biggest threat lies. The crop of point guards controlling the ball in today’s NBA might be the best collection of talent the league has ever seen at that position. Meanwhile, you can count the number of game-changing centers playing today on one hand. It is the responsibility of the big men to help their guards.
That’s what the Los Angeles Lakers are trying to find out.
Gone is their best rim protector in Dwight Howard, off to Houston. Gone, too, is their best perimeter stopper in Metta World Peace, off to New York.
Now the Lakers will find out if less is more.
Not that L.A.’s defense was any good with the services of the three-time defensive player of the year in Howard and one-time DPOY winner in World Peace, anyway. The Lakers were tied with Brooklyn for 18th in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing opponents to score 103.6 points per 100 possessions. Even with Howard patrolling the paint, L.A. ranked 22nd in the league in opponents’ field goal percentage inside of five feet, according to NBA.com Stats Cube (59.8 percent), and even with World Peace’s notoriously quick left hand, the Lakers were 26th in steals per game, generating just 7.0 a night.
“Their defense never really gave them a chance to win,” newly hired Lakers assistant coach Kurt Rambis told ESPNLosAngeles.com. “It was very erratic at best. In a lot of ways, when you bring in a lot of players from a lot of different systems, it takes awhile to get everybody connected and on the same page, how you have to defend a myriad of offensive NBA sets and you have to defend talented offensive people, it takes all five guys. They’ve got to be connected, and they’ve got to make the correct decisions at the correct time, and for the Lakers last year, it was clear that they just never really got connected on that end of the floor.
“You could see throughout most of their games, guys would turn their palms up to the sky, and it was like, ‘Is that my responsibility? Is that your responsibility? Who was supposed to do what?’ So, we’ve got to do a much better job of getting them so they can cover each others’ backs at that end of the floor.”
The reason that Rambis is back with the Lakers is not only because the team lost its two most talented defenders in Howard and World Peace, but because it lost its two most defensive-minded assistant coaches in Chuck Person, whose contract was not renewed, and Steve Clifford, who became the head coach in Charlotte.
Rambis, who assumed a defensive coordinator-type role in the final two seasons of his last run with the Lakers when Phil Jackson was head coach, said that Mike D’Antoni isn’t giving him the same label.
“(D’Antoni) said that all assistant coaches will be involved in all areas in our initial conversation,” Rambis explained. “Not that we have etched everything in stone, but to come back as a defensive coordinator, you can talk to Mike about whether there’s going to be any sort of designation on that. By my understanding, there isn’t going to be, but he just kind of wants all of the gaps to be covered so everybody is responsible for working with players and being involved in practices and being involved with games. But to have myself associated with the defense, that means that area is going to be covered.”
The Lakers have had a precipitous decline on the defensive end. After they held the Boston Celtics to just 79 points on 40.8 percent shooting in their Game 7 win in the 2010 Finals, their last three playoff appearances have ended in ugly fashion. First the Dallas Mavericks shot a blistering 46.2 percent on 3-pointers during a four-game sweep in 2011, amid Andrew Bynum decrying the team’s “trust issues” on the defensive end. Then the Oklahoma City Thunder scored 100 or more in three of their four wins against L.A. in their 2012 second-round series. Finally, in last season's first-round sweep by San Antonio, the Spurs shot a combined 53.0 percent from the floor in Games 2-4 after figuring out the Lakers' D that held them to just 37.6 percent shooting in Game 1 of the series.
“They never got connected defensively,” Rambis said of the 2012-13 season.
“I sound like that guy on 'Saturday Night Live': 'The Lakers have been berra berra good to me,'” Rambis told ESPNLA.com on Monday, mimicking Garrett Morris’ (one of Crystal's contemporaries in the 1970s) SNL impression of a Dominican baseball player. “It’s been a great association with myself and the Lakers. Obviously they have provided an awful lot of opportunities for me, as a player, assistant coach, head coach, front office opportunities. I’ve learned a lot over the years, and this is just another path. Just another path with the Lakers and it’s going to be interesting. I’m excited about it.”
Now he finds himself in the position of being responsible for fixing any problems that should arise with the Lakers next season rather than just pointing out the problems on TV.
Rambis touched on a variety of topics over the phone just hours after he announced the news of his reunion with the franchise via Twitter.
On the Lakers' disappointing 2012-13 season
"It was a very difficult year for the Lakers. We talked about it on ESPN and Time Warner. Any time that you add an awful lot of new players, which is basically what the Lakers did, there’s an assimilation process that has to happen. Even just dealing with terminology, you might be thinking the same thing, but everybody calls it something different or can call it something different depending on what team they came from or coaching environment they came from. So, just getting everybody to be connected out there on the floor offensively and defensively was going to take some time. And it did. Then you throw in a coaching change, you throw in players getting injured, that stagnates the process.
"Obviously the death of Dr. [Jerry] Buss and what he meant to this organization and the team and leadership, for awhile it seemed like the Lakers [were reeling from his loss]. Then obviously everything that went on with the Lakers throughout the season –- lineup changes and injuries -– it just wasn’t conducive to having a great team. There were high expectations on that team. Even myself, from the very beginning, I thought that team had a great chance to win the championship. A lot of things had to work right for them in order for that to happen, but they had a great shot. If that was going to happen, everything kind of almost had to be perfect, and it just never worked out that way. There were just so many things that went wrong all season long, and that’s the nature of the sports business. It doesn’t always work out perfectly for you.
"But when you look at how the Lakers played or how well they played since the third week in January, they started playing some good ball. They started getting connected and from that point on, ‘Hey, this looks like a team that can do some damage in the playoffs,’ until Kobe goes down and then everything changes once again. It was just a completely disruptive up-and-down year for the Lakers. You need that sort of consistency and continuity in order to excel at a really high level."
On Kobe Bryant's health
"His injury is going to be one of the big ifs of this upcoming season. Steve Nash’s health, losing Dwight [Howard], Kobe’s injury, new players on the team, those are all going to be ifs, how everything transpires. Everything I’m hearing about Kobe, he’s feeling great and he’s going to come back well. But that still remains to be seen. You still got to get out there on the floor and see what adjustments he has to make and see how he recovers from it. But if anybody can, if anybody has the drive to do it, he’s that guy. I’m sure he’s going to do everything that he can to get himself back healthy and playing at a very high level as soon as possible."
On what he learned in his time away from the Lakers
"I think any time that you go to different environments and different cultures, coaching clinics, you’re always learning something about basketball. Like I said earlier, if you’re stagnant in your beliefs and coaching philosophy and style, then you’re basically falling behind. So, it was a great learning experience for me going to Minnesota. It was a great experience being involved with television with ESPN and Time Warner. I think they’ve all been beneficial for me. It’s just going to add to being able to help Mike [D'Antoni] out as much as I can."
Rambis also appeared on "The Max & Marcellus Show" on ESPN LA 710 radio Monday and answered more questions about his new opportunity with his old team.
On how his hiring came about
“This is absolutely Mike D’Antoni’s call. As long as I’ve been with the Laker organization, they don’t put pressure on the head coach to hire certain people. They might make suggestions, but they’ve always let the head coach hire whoever he wanted to hire, except obviously a little bit of an obstacle last year when multiple coaches were involved after the firing of Mike Brown. But, under normal circumstances, the head coach brings in his staff and the Lakers organization has always let the head coach do that.”
On what style D'Antoni will implement next season
"Mike understands that the team can’t play with blinding speed. They don’t have the wing runners, they don’t have the athleticism that you need in order to do that. I think Mike, when you look at getting Steve and what Steve can do in terms of creating shots and then trying to accommodate Kobe and what he can do out there on the floor, started adjusting and adapting and playing a brand of ball that suited the team. But, you never look at a coach [and go], ‘Hey, this is a way I we think we can play,’ and then if they can’t play that way, make the adjustments and adapt. I think Mike did that over the year, but I think there just wasn’t enough time to really implement the things to involve Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol and Kobe inside that you really need to in order for that type of team with that talent to excel at the level that they needed to excel at to make a long playoff run."
On how his style of play as a player translates to his coaching
"I would hope that any coach is trying to get players to play tough, to play hard, to play a physical brand of basketball. You have to, when you start looking at the playoffs and how the game changes. If you want your players to have success, you have to get them to where they can overcome injuries, to where they can keep their focus intact despite a very hostile environment, and you got to have a certain toughness and nastiness that goes along with that. You can see players that rise above the distractions, that rise above the obstacles and can continue to play well, if not better. Those are the type of players that you want, and those are the type of characteristics you want to instill in your ballplayers that if it gets tough and you start to wilt, you’re not going to survive in this league and you’re certainly not going to survive in the playoffs. So, we want our players to be tough, we want them to be nasty and we want them to be able to feel comfortable whenever the environment gets tough."
Click to hear the full interview.
Oh yeah, we also talked about other stuff, like the impact of Ramon Sessions on the team's offense, and what his presence does for the Lakers' playoff chances.
Click here for the full interview.
LOS ANGELES -- When Kobe Bryant’s last-second, game-winning jumper in the paint was blocked by Luol Deng, there was no flailing, no complaining and no blank stares at his bare hands.
As soon as the buzzer sounded, Bryant looked at Derek Fisher then quietly walked off the court.
This will be a different season that will require different responses to heartbreaking losses, and no one knows that better than Bryant and Fisher.
Four hours after Bryant’s missed shot gave the Chicago Bulls an 88-87 win to start the season on Christmas Day, the Lakers were scheduled to board a chartered flight to Sacramento to play the Kings on Monday night. Immediately after that game, they will board a chartered flight back to Los Angeles to play the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night.
If the Lakers' players missed basketball during the lockout, they will certainly get their fill over the first 72 hours of the season.
When the Lakers left the locker room after the loss, there were no messages about the game or words of advice for tomorrow, just a travel reminder.
Bryant had to pause when he was asked to recall the last time he played a back-to-back-to-back series.
“I really don’t remember much,” he said. “I was like 19 so I don’t even know if I was tired or not. We had one in Vancouver and the next day Kurt [Rambis] lost his job. It was a mess. It was a mess. That’s all I remember.”
Actually, Bryant was 20, and it was Del Harris who lost his job. It was Rambis who replaced Harris after the Lakers started the season 6-6.
“Whoever,” Bryant said. “One of them.”
Everything pointed to a blowout. Even Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis went on 710 ESPN Radio and basically presented his team as a bunch of young lambs being led to slaughter.
Of course, it didn't turn out that way. The Wolves led after the first quarter and never went away, forcing the Lakers to play to the very end and prompting Derek Fisher to call his team's effort "disrespectful." Given the overwhelming calm and happy vibes surrounding the team this year, the game represented the closest thing to controversy the Lakers have seen. (Keep in mind, it's all relative.)
So what will the rematch bring? Here's what to watch...
1. Monsters (and their creation)!
Not getting waxed by the Lakers apparently awakened something in Rambis' young squad. In their five games since visiting Staples, the Wolves have won three, and could have made it four with a little better push down the stretch in Charlotte. Modest steps, for sure, but keep in mind last season three wins was basically their quota for a month. The experience of playing well once against the Lakers will only embolden Minnesota for tonight's game, too. It shouldn't matter, since even a T-Wolves squad steeped in emboldened shouldn't be able to beat the two-time defending champs, but at the very least makes Friday's task tougher for the purple and gold.
In Wednesday's game against the Pistons, the Lakers sucked the life out of Detroit almost instantly. In Milwaukee, they stayed steady even while the Bucks were hitting jumpers they don't even make in video games, and eventually exerted control as Milwaukee found their proper offensive level. A similarly good performance against the Wolves will be welcome.
"He continues to evolve his game. There are so many players that play in this league as they get older and the miles start adding up on their legs, they continue to try and do the same things that they were doing when they were in their twenties. Using their speed and their quickness and their athleticism. If they don't learn how to adjust to their declining physical skills, then they ahve a hard time competing. But he's just so smart- he adjusts his game, he studies tape, he watches personnel, he sees how people are defending him. He just methodically picks you apart. He doesn't have the same pop he had several years ago, but the effectiveness is still there because he thinks the game."
"It's a credit to him... He's just a brilliant basketball player."
Nobody expected the Wolves to be good, but the results aren't any fun for Rambis or Phil Jackson, who expressed sympathy for his former deputy. "They’re really struggling right now," PJ said. "They’re at a part of the season where all you’re playing for is respect and pride, or whatever personally you can get going, and for your team. There’s no place to go, and no playoffs to make. So it’s tough to grind it out.
I asked how hard it is for a coach to go from a championship atmosphere to... well, not. Jackson believes Rambis is well-equipped to handle the situation. "Kurt’s had a real good mindset towards that. He always has. He went to an expansion team after playing with the Lakers, and that expansion team did pretty well. They won twenty-something games I think Charlotte did, in that first season. (Note: If by "twenty-something" Phil meant "twenty," he was spot on.) And he ended up being on a Sacramento team that had some issues later on in his career before finally getting into assistant coaching," Jackson said. "Having been there myself on a team as an assistant coach on a team that lost 15 in a row, you see the heads drop and issues start with individual players and things happening where it becomes excuses after excuses because losing is very hard to do in this game. Particularly when everything is generated out of winning. So it’s got to be about individual things, like one quarter time of play, or let’s find a way to have fun in practice so it doesn’t become drudgery."
"Every day becomes an issue."
For more from Jackson and the accompanying video, click below.
Noah Graham/NBAE Getty Images
Kobe Bryant and Kurt Rambis speak on the sidelines on January 21, 2009 against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center.
"I remember one practice last year, after a game in which he was getting hit an awful lot on his arm on his shots he spent a practice one-on-one with one of the assistant coaches continually hitting him on the arm so he could learn to shoot while he was being fouled at the same time. That's the diligence that he's done every single year, every month, every week. Understanding how he has to play better and overcome any obstacle that's put in front of him, whether it's double teams, triple teams. Understanding where he's being defended on the floor, and how different teams come to trap him. He's always studying and trying to figure out what he can do."
More Evolution of Kobe Bryant: