Lakers assistant coach Frank Hamblen knows what it's like to jump on a galloping horse when its original rider has been bucked off.
The year was 2005. Phil Jackson had (temporarily) retired and Hamblen stayed on as an assistant coach under new coach Rudy Tomjanovich.
Tomjanovich left the team midway through the season, citing health reasons, with the Lakers holding a respectable 24-19 record. Hamblen stepped in amid the chaos and L.A. tanked down the stretch, finishing 10-29 with him at the helm and missing the playoffs for the only time in the past 15 years.
"It's a hard job," Hamblen said after Wednesday's practice in El Segundo before the team boarded a plane for Denver. "You go from offering suggestions to accepting suggestions and making decisions. It totally throws off what you've been doing."
On Thursday, the Lakers play the Nuggets, a team going through a coaching upheaval of its own. Coach George Karl led the team to a 42-21 record this season. He stepped away March 16 to finish an aggressive wave of radiation treatment for throat and mouth cancer and the Nuggets have gone 5-5 since, although they have won their past three games.
Reports say Karl can barely speak, has lost 25 pounds and could miss the first round of the playoffs as he recovers from the ordeal.
As bad as Karl has it, his assistant coach (and former Laker) Adrian Dantley finds himself in a difficult position as well, stepping up in Karl's absence. Before Karl left, the Nuggets were primed to give the Lakers a run for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Now Los Angeles leads Denver by 4½ games with five games to play, and a win Thursday would wrap up the top spot in the West for L.A.
Denver is 9-6 overall this season with Dantley coaching, a .600 winning percentage as opposed to the .667 mark under Karl.
A knee injury to starting power forward Kenyon Martin and an ankle tweak to backup big man Chris Andersen haven't helped the Nuggets' chances, but the pressure will fall on Dantley, not the injured players, if Denver -- a team that lost in the conference finals in six games to Los Angeles a year ago -- doesn't make another extended run in the postseason.
"Of course you'd like to have an opportunity to have your own team, go through a training camp, set a foundation, figure out how you want to play, have your own people, hire your staff and all this, but it didn't happen that way," Hamblen said. "It didn't happen for Adrian, it didn't happen for a lot of people in this league and it's a tough move, making that foot-over move on the [bench] especially when you don't really have control."
Jackson chooses to see the silver lining in Dantley's situation.
"That's an opportunity," Jackson said. "It might be difficult, but that's a great opportunity. I'm sure he looks at it like that too, to be able to sit there, make some decisions and have an opportunity to do some things out there. There's some pressure, but you get used to that, that's what you do."
Jackson says he remembers being a young assistant coach in Chicago and getting a chance to fill in at head coach, not because of any medical problems with his boss, but rather because of his proclivity for temper tantrums.
"I had an opportunity when I was an assistant coach, because my coach was a volatile coach," Jackson said. "Kevin Loughery got thrown out 14 times in the course of [one] year. So you get a game, three quarters, a half, a quarter, five minutes left in the game, 25 seconds left in the game, whatever [to take over].
"Coaches aren't quite as demonstrative in this day and age -- well, there are some that still get thrown out, but it's not quite the same."
Jackson has coached more than 1,800 games in the regular season and playoffs combined and by his memory, he has missed only two of them: a regular-season game in Portland last season because of swelling in his legs that the Lakers lost with Kurt Rambis stepping in for him, and a playoff game against San Antonio in 2003 because of an allergic reaction after a heart procedure. The Lakers won that game with Jim Cleamons in charge.
If anything were to happen to prevent Jackson from coaching, Kobe Bryant thinks the Lakers would remained focused and he also thinks that a coach other than Hamblen and Cleamons would fill in as Jackson's replacement.
"It's pretty much the same message, really," Bryant said. "I don't know what their situation is like, but here, if that was to happen, if Phil decided to miss a couple games and Brian [Shaw] stepped in, it would be pretty much the same message."
"It's tough to deal with. Besides the X's and O's or the emotional leadership he provides, it's an emotional [drain]," Bryant added. "I couldn't imagine having to go through Phil leaving the team for something that serious. It hits home."
The discussion of wins and losses can be a welcome discussion when it comes to thinking about something as scary as cancer, but Lakers guard Derek Fisher voiced the most important message Wednesday.
"We wish Coach Karl well," Fisher said.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.