Lakers must find their next identity
With Mike D'Antoni out, Kobe Bryant's time fading, L.A. needs more than a coach
The Los Angeles Lakers are looking for a head coach again, for the third time since 2011. What they need most might be beyond the capacity of any candidate.
The Lakers need a person who also can serve as the identity of the franchise. All the Lakers have going for them right now is their brand. It's one of the most economically and culturally valuable in sports, but it still couldn't help them win more than 27 games this past season.
It took people to build that brand, and for a variety of reasons, the Lakers have been stripped of a Hall of Fame hallway's worth of iconic names for more than a decade -- from the departure of Jerry West in 2000 to the death of Jerry Buss last year, with the losses of Chick Hearn, Shaquille O'Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Phil Jackson in between.
They're all major parts of the Lakers' lore. None is officially connected to the franchise right now.
The only one left is Kobe Bryant, who hasn't exactly been very visible lately. The last time he spoke in front of the Lakers' logo was in March, when he took time out from discussing his season-ending knee injury to put the Lakers' front office on blast.
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Having Bryant sign off on the new coach would help. He stayed silent on Mike Brown's hiring, and was blindsided when news of Mike D'Antoni's hire broke about an hour after Bryant stood in front of his locker and expressed his excitement for the anticipated hire of Jackson. If they can't sign a "sexy" name, at least Kobe's endorsement could help the franchise win the press conference.
That could be the first step toward transitioning to an era without Kobe, which is slated to officially begin in 2016, when his latest contract expires.
If the Lakers are planning to sign a major free agent in 2015, will the new coach have a contract that runs through the duration of the four-year maximum length for the player? Signs of stability help. That would require a commitment along the lines of the six-year deal the Boston Celtics gave Brad Stevens.
Normally, the coach in place is way down the checklist of attractions for free agents, behind the mix of money and roster and location. Think of the coach the Miami Heat had to offer LeBron James and Chris Bosh when they signed in 2010. At the time, Erik Spoelstra had a record of 90-74 and hadn't won a playoff series. Now Spoelstra is a two-time champion.
Spoelstra got through the rough early stages because he had the backing of Pat Riley. Riley is an individual with a strong presence, someone whose words carry weight throughout the kingdom. Something the Lakers lack now.
Riley actually talked to the Lakers about returning in 2004, after Phil Jackson's first run ended. But the Lakers weren't willing to give him the same amount of power within the organization that he had with the Heat. Riley wound up staying in Miami -- and bringing Shaq down to join him.
Miami has always had the same great weather as Los Angeles (give or take a few degrees of global warming). It took Riley to make the Heat the league's top franchise. When Spoelstra and LeBron use the phrase "Miami Heat basketball," it stands for something, and we all know the origins.
What does "Los Angeles Lakers basketball" mean these days? We know what it's stood for in the past.
Since there isn't a multiple championship-winning coach on the market, the way Riley and Jackson were in the '90s, the Lakers might as well try to find the next Riley or Jackson. That list would include guys like Ed Pinckney, Quin Snyder, Adrian Griffin, David Vanterpool and Jim Boylen. Or maybe go the Jason Kidd route and hire Derek Fisher or Chauncey Billups as soon as they officially retire.
But the Lakers' fan base expects swift improvement. They have memories of the ridiculously short bounce-back from NBA Finals in 2004 to out of the playoffs the next year to back in the NBA Finals in 2008. But that team had Kobe in his prime to accelerate the turnaround and Jerry Buss making the big decisions.
It's still the Lakers; it's just not those Lakers. Jim Buss makes the basketball calls, and now he has to hire a coach. The only time things have gone right for the Lakers in the past 10 years is when Jeanie Buss convinced Phil Jackson to return in 2005. The three other hires -- Rudy Tomjanovich, Mike Brown and Mike D'Antoni -- lasted 43 games, 71 games and 154 games, respectively. It's tough to make your mark on a franchise when you're not around long enough to grow a beard.
They can get by on brand and Bryant for a couple more years. After that, without the right people in place, it won't be a matter of the Lakers' winning tradition -- it will be a remembrance of the Lakers' winning history.