You didn’t need a Princeton degree to know this wasn’t working.
And so the Lakers didn’t just push the panic button, they pounded it harder than a Kobe Bryant stare after losing four of five games to start the season. Mike Brown is now the victim of the fastest in-season coach firing in NBA history -- no surprise since everything about the re-tooled Lakers is on the stopwatch, specifically their chances of winning a title and now finding the right fit at coach.
Another tour of duty for Phil Jackson would be the logical choice, but his body suffers from the ravages of time and wear, and he recently said he couldn’t physically deal with the rigors of travel and life on the road. Meanwhile Mike D’Antoni, who coached Steve Nash in Phoenix and Kobe on the Olympic team, recently had knee replacement surgery and indicated he wouldn’t be 100 percent physically until around the holidays. The only other unemployed veteran coaches are Nate McMillan, also an assistant on Team USA, and Jerry Sloan, although both probably qualify as secondary candidates.
Whatever path the Lakers take, this much is clear: They can’t afford to make a mistake, not with their timetable, and not after what just happened with Brown.
The team added Nash and Dwight Howard to Kobe and Pau Gasol to make noise in June, and there is chaos all around the franchise now, the Lakers creating buzz for all the wrong reasons. It’s not that many will fault them for firing Brown and dumping his highly controversial Princeton offense, though Stan Van Gundy told the Orlando Sentinel it was “the most ridiculous firing in the history of the NBA.” It’s that the most anticipated Laker season in years is suddenly shrouded in question, if not doubt.
The franchise is also reeling from a pair of embarrassing episodes. First Jim Buss, who’s running the team, refused to hire the Kobe-recommended Brian Shaw two summers ago and went with Brown instead. Then, when Buss gave Brown a vocal vote of confidence, telling everyone to be patient -- only to yank him less than 24 hours later.
Lakers fans aren’t shedding any tears for him, but the way Brown was treated was harsh. He wasn’t even given the courtesy of a dozen games, and the upcoming soft schedule might have spared him. Besides, the makeup of the Lakers’ core changed drastically almost overnight, and that’s a challenge for any coach. Erik Spoelstra wasn’t pulled when the Heat started 9-8 in the first year of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and six months later he was in the Finals. As you might imagine, Van Gundy wasn’t alone; the coaching fraternity is howling.
Still, the issues went deeper because the players, led by Kobe, began to get restless. And that got the attention of GM Mitch Kupchak and, finally, Buss. So the organization didn’t have any choice. Remember, they don’t have a five-year plan. They’re on the clock with a largely veteran win-now crew and couldn’t afford to risk any lengthy issues following them well into the season.
The Lakers struggled to grasp the concept of the Princeton offense from the very start. It didn’t help that Howard missed most of the preseason while mending from off-season back surgery, and that Nash suffered a fractured leg in the second game and hasn’t played since. The idea of taking the ball from Nash seemed counterproductive, and the Lakers suffered from turnovers and a lack of scoring, ranking 13th in the league.
The players, at least publicly, said all the right things. Just last week, Kobe told the many critics of Brown and the Princeton offense to “shut up” and let them work it out. Howard echoed as much and warned his teammates against any visible dissatisfaction, which might be taken the wrong way. Nash was very conciliatory toward Brown and the new system, but again, Nash isn’t the whiny type; he kept his mouth shut during the final few years in Phoenix when the Suns were mismanaged.
Something changed, though. Management would never fire Brown unless the key Laker players, especially Kobe, gave the thumbs-down signal. That’s usually how it goes in these situations, so make your own assumptions. When Kobe shot a cold stare in Brown’s direction the other night in a loss in Utah, a look that instantly went viral, panic suddenly reigned.
Anyway, Brown is already in the past. It’s all about where the Lakers go from here. A new coach and new system beckons, but the same old pressure and urgency will continue to surround a unit that’s built to win a championship. Nash will turn 39 in three months while Kobe has only two years left on his contract -- and Howard still hasn’t signed a contract extension.
It’s now or maybe never for the Lakers as they figure a way to repair a season that just started. Maybe their next offense will involve the novel concept of giving the ball to Kobe and letting him decide what to do with it.