Commentary

Lakers at a coaching crossroads

Based on the preliminary coaching candidates, L.A. could go in very different directions

Updated: May 18, 2011, 5:29 PM ET
By Dave McMenamin | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- Less than a week has passed since Phil Jackson limped his long body out of the Lakers' practice facility for the last time. Since then the team has pieced together a short list of candidates: two tested veterans (Rick Adelman and Mike Dunleavy) and two guys looking for their first stint on the sidelines (Lakers assistants Brian Shaw and Chuck Person).

[+] EnlargeBrian Shaw
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe risk of selecting a first-year coach like Brian Shaw might be less of a gamble than one would think.

Keep in mind, it's still early in the Lakers' coaching search, but those are the first names to draw interest. Interviews with L.A. general manager Mitch Kupchak will go on hold for about a week because he flew to Chicago on Tuesday to attend a pre-draft camp and will continue on to another camp in Minnesota to look at prospects; the Lakers have four second-round draft picks, but no first-rounder. Kupchak is scheduled to return to Los Angeles next Tuesday night.

More possible fits are sure to lengthen the coaching list as the process plays itself out, but for now, you're looking at a Lakers front office deciding between heading in two diametrically opposed directions.

Will they hand over the keys to a guy like Adelman or Dunleavy, who have been around the block plenty of times, just never while driving the Lakers' current luxury vehicle? Or do they let Shaw or Person move into the driver's seat after they both have been merely passengers the past couple of seasons?

The Lakers are built to win now, with a payroll north of $90 million committed for next season and seven players in their nine-man rotation 30 years or older. With that championship-or-bust mentality putting a stamp on the coaching search, Adelman's 20 years and two Finals appearances and Dunleavy's 17 years and one Finals appearance worth of experience could be seen as a leg up on the neophyte careers of Shaw and Person.

But before the Lakers choose someone based solely on the fact that he's called a timeout before, they should look at the teams remaining in this year's playoffs.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the cumulative record of coaches in their first season in the NBA is 6,888-9,069 (.432 winning percentage), yet three of the four coaches still standing -- Miami's Erik Spoelstra, Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks and Chicago's Tom Thibodeau -- are in their first head-coaching job with no previous NBA experience as the top man on the totem pole before that.

Thibodeau was not only in his first job, but in the first season of his first job. He guided the Bulls to a league-best 62-20 record, becoming the seventh man in NBA history to win Coach of the Year in his first year on the sidelines. It should be noted, the fourth coach remaining in the playoffs, Dallas' Rick Carlisle, is one of the seven coaches along with Thibodeau to win COY in his first year out of the gate.

Twelve of the 30 head coaches to finish the season this year were in their first NBA coaching gig. While Keith Smart got the boot in Golden State and John Kuester and Kurt Rambis are on the hot seat in Detroit and Minnesota, respectively, there was also Atlanta's Larry Drew leading the Hawks past Stan Van Gundy's Magic to the second round, Indiana's interim coach Frank Vogel sparking the Pacers to the playoffs with a late-season surge and Monty Williams coaching New Orleans to a 2-2 tie in the first round before falling to the legendary Jackson.

Then there are the shining examples of San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, who went from the front office to the Spurs sidelines in 1996-97 and hasn't looked back, collecting four rings and an assured spot in the Hall of Fame and Pat Riley, who went from the broadcast booth to the director of Showtime, as Lakers fans are well aware.

All of the historical implications of a first-year coach taking over are significant, but they don't apply directly to these Lakers this year, of course. This year more than any other, the familiarity with the roster that a Shaw or a Person would bring could outweigh the benefits of experience of another candidate in light of a lockout that could occur if the league's owners and players association can't hash out a new collective bargaining agreement by the time the current CBA expires on June 30.

If a work stoppage consumes the summer and spills into the start of next season, what will be more valuable in a potentially abbreviated two-week training camp before the season begins -- a coach who has "been there before" but has been banned from contacting his new players for months because of the lockout so he is trying to establish relationships while at the same time putting in a new offense and defense; or, a coach who has shared everything from champagne showers to sweep-induced tears over the last several seasons with the Lakers and doesn't have to waste any prep time with getting-to-know-you icebreakers or rudimentary play calling?

As one Western Conference executive put it when reached by text message to ask who he would fill the Lakers vacancy with, "Shaw ... he knows the guys and the system."

Shaw and Person particularly know the one guy who the Lakers' planet orbits around, Kobe Bryant, who will turn 33 years old this summer and is entering his 16th through 18th seasons in the next three years with $83.5 million still owed to him. No candidate, whether he's coached 1,561 games like Adelman, 1,329 games like Dunleavy or zero games combined between Shaw and Person, can say they've managed the transition of one of the game's all-time greats as he hits the twilight of his career. Clyde Drexler left Portland before Adelman had to deal with it and Magic Johnson retired as Dunleavy bolted for the Milwaukee Bucks the first time he coached in L.A.

Then again, familiarity could go against Shaw and Person this time around. There's a feeling that the Lakers may be attempting to distance themselves from all things Jackson after informing most of his training staff their contracts wouldn't be renewed at the end of the season and Jackson admitting that he didn't speak to Lakers vice president of player personnel Jim Buss all season long.

There's a great unknown in hiring a first-time head coach. If Shaw is to get the Lakers job (or the Warriors job he is expected to interview for this week or the Indiana job that he interviewed for with his former teammate Larry Bird four years ago and could get another chance this year) he'll have to answer questions about the vision going forward he'll bring to the team. The same goes for Person.

But there are equally tough questions that could be posed at Adelman -- should your career winning percentage be looked at as .605 for regular season wins or .000 for going 0-for-20 in championships in your 20 seasons? And at Dunleavy -- how do you explain having twice as many 20-win seasons (six) as you do 50-win years (three) on your resume?

Not to mention, the first time the Lakers replaced Jackson with an experienced coach in Rudy Tomjanovich in 2004, it didn't work out.

Maybe it's time to go with a first-year guy.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Dave McMenamin

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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