The Lakers lost a valued member of their coaching staff this week, as Kurt Rambis has been named the head coach for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Rambis' departure will not only hurt the coaching staff, but it also mucks up the picture for Phil Jackson's successor.
For a while it had seemed that Rambis would follow Jackson as Lakers head coach, possibly as soon as next season. And quite frankly, I'm surprised that Rambis would take the Wolves job, given the likelihood he'd be handed the keys to the premier franchise in the NBA. I was under the impression that Rambis and his family were happy in LA, and he was just biding time until he got the Lakers top job. He turned down the Sacramento Kings head coaching job a few months ago, and it seemed like his situation with the Lakers was a primary reason. (He also reportedly was upset with the Kings only offering 2 years at an unsatisfactory salary)
Perhaps Rambis got tired of waiting for Phil Jackson to retire. Or perhaps he recognized that by the time Jackson did retire, he might get stuck with an aging franchise which had already experienced its greatest moments of glory, and he'd get caught in a rebuilding phase.
Regardless, he definitely has rebuilding project in Minnesota, and the Wolves' premier player, Ricky Rubio, is at least a year away from joining the team. Still, Wolves GM David Kahn is a sharp guy, and I think he will assemble a strong group of players that Rambis can win with in due time. Having Al Jefferson, Jonny Flynn, and Kevin Love is a nice start. Rambis may have found the idea of helping to build an organization from the ground up to be appealing. And who knows psychologically if he secretly relishes the idea of replacing Kevin McHale, the man who famously clotheslined him in the 1984 NBA Finals.
I think Rambis is a terrific coach, who has a great defensive mind and offers a voice of reason. I feel good about his chances of developing a young team into an NBA playoff contender in a low-pressure environment like Minnesota.
I don't think Rambis has ever gotten proper credit for his work in Los Angeles. He took over for Del Harris very early in the lockout shortened 1999 season, and immediately had to deal with turmoil that few rookie coaches could handle. Shortly after being hired, the Lakers signed Dennis Rodman, who brought his own issues. Rambis got off to a quick winning streak, and was widely praised by local fans and even Shaq.
Then, with a raging debate taking place in LA on how to handle both Kobe Bryant and Eddie Jones at the same position on the same team, the Lakers traded Jones and Elden Campbell to Charlotte for Glen Rice and JR Reid. Rambis had to figure out how to insert Rice into his scheme overnight, while handling an increasingly disruptive Rodman. All of this occurred while Shaq and Kobe were quietly starting their feud, and some teammates were upset that Jones had been traded. Rambis went 24-13 and got the Lakers into the second round of the playoffs, before losing to eventual champion San Antonio.
Many people in LA thought that Rambis would be given the Lakers head coaching job full-time, and some reports indicated that Jerry Buss was set to hire him. However, there was a sense in Lakerdom that a more established coach was needed to take the underachieving and drama-heavy squad to the next level, and Phil Jackson was openly lobbying for the job. Some fans called Buss "cheap" for considering Rambis, and he countered by giving Jackson a 5-year $30 million deal.
There was still loyalty in the organization to Rambis though, and he was named Assistant General Manager. Later, he befriended Jackson and become one of his most trusted assistants. By the time Jackson returned to the bench in 2005, after a yearlong hiatus, Rambis was established as the top assistant, ahead of Frank Hamblen and Jim Cleamons (who came back a bit later). Rambis periodically filled in for Jackson as head coach, and effectively ran training camp and an entire preseason in fall 2007.
There are many who felt that Jackson would finish out his contract this season, and that Rambis would take over for 2010-11. However, others think that Jackson can be talked into 2-3 more years, or as many years as the Lakers will enter the season as favorites to win the NBA title.
With Rambis in Minnesota, the debate is officially ignited on who will be Jackson's replacement. Some think that Brian Shaw might get the job. Shaw has been interviewed for several head coaching vacancies, and is widely regarded as an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks. Jim Cleamons would be another candidate. He used to be Jackson's top assistant, and memorably coached the Lakers to a playoff game win against San Antonio in 2003 when Jackson had open heart surgery. Cleamons did poorly as a head coach with both the Dallas Mavericks and at Youngstown State, but those jobs were so long ago that one can't help to think he's improved since then.
Another name that keeps coming up in Laker circles in Byron Scott. A former Lakers guard, Scott guided the New Jersey Nets to two NBA Finals appearances and was NBA Coach of the Year in 2007-08 with the New Orleans Hornets. But Scott uses a modified Princeton Offense system that might be too much of a change from the Lakers triangle. His tenure in New Jersey ended badly, and it appears that things might be imploding in New Orleans, as evidenced by their playoff collapse against Dallas.
Still, these are questions that the Lakers might not need to worry about for a while, if Phil Jackson decides to stay for a few years. In the meantime, they've lost a valued member of the organization.