Lakers’ management didn’t want to make a rash decision about letting their head coach Byron Scott go after two seasons where he set a franchise low for team wins his first season then shattered that record this past season. There is logic there — rushed, emotional decisions are rarely the best ones. Plus there is the legitimate concern that if the Lakers are going to change the guy at the head of basketball operations next summer — Jim Buss set his own timeline to step down if the Lakers didn’t improve to be second round or better playoff team (although he and Jeanie Buss disagree on that exact timing) — the team wouldn’t want to saddle the new decision maker with a coach he didn’t select.
However, Sunday night the Lakers pulled the trigger and fired Scott.
By the time they did, the two biggest names in coaching circles were off the board. While Tom Thibodeau allegedly was interested in the job, he was never going to get the dual coach/GM job with the Lakers he really wanted (he did get that in Minnesota). The bigger miss for the Lakers was Scott Brooks, a guy who had developed a young core in Oklahoma City into contenders and who his players loved (plus the ties to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook wouldn’t hurt). There was some mutual interest between the sides, but while the Lakers thought about Byron Scott, Brooks took the job in Washington.
So who do the Lakers hire now? While there will be a long list and an extensive search, here are five names to keep an eye on, in descending order of likelihood.
1) Luke Walton, Golden State Warriors assistant coach. This is the dream candidate for the Lakers. A popular former player who has a coaching pedigree that includes playing for Phil Jackson (the next GM?) and having a front-row seat for Stephen Curry and the small ball revolution the past two seasons. He showed he has some coaching chops this season when he led the Warriors to a 39-4 record with Steve Kerr out with back pain (although what that really showed is Walton knows how to ride an elite horse, a very different job would await him in Los Angeles). The Lakers want him, the Warriors have always been concerned this would be the job he might leave them for. The question is, will he take the job? Walton can afford to be picky, he will have options for years, and the Lakers’ organization is not the most stable one right now. If he gets a sense he will just be tossed about in the winds of change, Walton could stay put by Kerr’s side.
2) Ettore Messina, San Antonio Spurs assistant coach. He is a former Lakers assistant coach (under Mike Brown) who has a fantastic knowledge of the game and won big in Europe as a head coach. If the Lakers want to move to a more modern offense (think Warriors/title-winning Spurs) he could bring that style, and he knows the game. This is not another David Blatt, Messina doesn’t have that ego but he does have that knowledge of the game. He would put the Lakers’ young core in positions to succeed. This would be a tougher sell with parts of the fan base, this is not a guy with the big name the Lakers are seeking.
3) Mark Jackson. The former Golden State coach and current ESPN analyst helped develop the young talent in Golden State, and they turned out pretty good. He’s undoubtedly passionate about the game. He will form a connection with the young players on the Lakers. But he created an almost (maybe not almost) paranoid “us vs. them” feeling in the Golden State locker room between them and management (and everyone else), he was not seen as easy to work with. That may not fit well in the already turbulent Lakers organization.
4) Kevin Ollie, University of Connecticut. This would be the “hey, Kevin Durant, check this out” hire. Ollie is a former NBA player who has had success on the college level as a coach, and is also someone Durant saw as a mentor his first season in the league. While there are NBA GMs who have their eye on Ollie, he’s not considered a guy likely or ready to make the jump to the NBA yet. This would be a pretty naked political move aimed at KD, one not likely to impress the star.
5) Jeff Van Gundy. He’s listed fifth not because the Lakers aren’t interested, they are. He’s not listed fifth because he couldn’t do the job — he could do it very well, the Lakers’ anemic defense would get a lot better quickly under him. He’s listed fifth because nobody can be or has been as picky about his landing spot back in the NBA as Van Gundy and the instability of the Lakers front office will keep him from taking the job. Van Gundy wants GM powers or at least a strong partnership with someone he knows he can work with (Daryl Morey in Houston, for example), he does not have that in L.A. He doesn’t know how much longer the GM will be in place.