Last week Phil Jackson admitted he was leaning towards retirement. While it's very possible he will change his mind (assuming the money is there), it's reasonable for us to speculate about who could replace him. Here's a look at the candidates to coach the Lakers:
Brian Shaw, Lakers assistant coach- After Kurt Rambis left for Minnesota, most believed that Shaw was the heir apparent to Jackson. That may change now that the Lakers assistant is reportedly the top candidate to be named the head coach in Cleveland. The LA Times reported that Shaw was "likely to be named" the coach of the Cavaliers, while ESPN reported that no offer has been made yet.
Shaw's reported willingness to take the Cavaliers job (before we know where Lebron James will sign) means that either Jackson will keep coaching or that the Lakers would rather hire someone else. Personally, I think Shaw would be excellent coach. An exceptionally smart player on the Lakers 2000-02 title teams, Shaw has been a well-regarded assistant and long been viewed as head coaching material. He provides continuity for the Lakers, allowing them to keep running the same system that has worked so well for the past two years. He's not a big name, and he won't excite the fan base, but there's no reason why the Lakers can't three-peat with Shaw running the show.
Byron Scott, former Nets and Hornets Head Coach- An Inglewood native, a former Laker, and a one-time mentor to Kobe Bryant, there are many people in and outside the organization who would like to see Scott become the next Lakers coach. As a head coach in New Jersey, Scott took the lowly Nets to the NBA Finals twice (albeit in a really weak Eastern Conference). As a head coach in New Orleans, Scott boosted the Hornets from obscurity to premier status for a brief period of time.
While most people I speak with are thrilled about the possibility of Scott coming to the Lakers, I'm not so sure. Scott will likely bring an entirely new system to the Lakers, having run a hybrid Princeton Offense in his previous NBA stops. There's nothing wrong with the system, but this team has won two titles in a row playing the Triangle, and Kobe has run it for more than a decade. Also, Scott's stints in New Jersey and New Orleans both ended badly. He feuded with Jason Kidd in New Jersey, leading him to get fired after a 22-20 start in the season after a second straight finals appearance. His Hornets players complained he was too much of a hard-ass and basically gave up on him in the 2009 playoffs. Maybe he'd have a different mentality with a veteran Lakers team. But I think there are other candidates who make more sense.
Kurt Rambis, Timberwolves Head Coach- If this were college football, then there would be a decent chance that Rambis could effectively become the next Lane Kiffin, leaving after one season for his dream job. But the NBA works differently. I think Phil Jackson would love for his former top assistant to replace him, and I would bet that Mitch Kupchak has looked into the possibility of prying Rambis away from Minnesota. I'm sure Rambis would secretly love to leave the Timberwolves for the Lakers. But I highly doubt that Wolves GM David Kahn would let Rambis out of his contract, having just started a lengthy and deliberate rebuilding process.
Jim Cleamons, Lakers assistant coach- There was a time when Cleamons was viewed as the heir apparent to Jackson. Serving as a top assistant with the 1990s Chicago Bulls teams, Cleamons took a highly desirable Dallas Mavericks job that offered a young core of Jason Kidd, Jamal Mashburn, Jim Jackson, and Michael Finley. But Cleamons' one-plus year stint was so disastrous that it seemed to permanently derail any future head coaching ambitions he may have had.
Still, Cleamons became Jackson's top assistant in his first Laker tenure and filled in as head coach on several occasions, even winning a playoff game against the Spurs in 2003. Cleamons may not be a popular choice, and he may not be a big name hire, but he does provide some short-term stability, allowing the team to continue with the Triangle Offense.
Mike Krzyzewski, Duke Head Coach- A long-time favorite of Kobe Bryant, Coach K was offered the job back in 2004 and memorably declined. Krzyzewski claims he gets his fix of coaching NBA players during the Olympics and other international play, but after winning a fourth national title at Duke, the 63-year old knows this might be his final shot at coaching an NBA team. Most college coaches have failed in the NBA, but most college coaches also get stuck with horrible NBA jobs. The Lakers job would be a challenge for Krzyzewski, but it offers him a chance to win.
I think there's a better chance Krzyzewski would accept a Lakers offer this time around, but I would be surprised if an offer is coming. With a championship team, the Lakers probably don't want to experiment by having a college coach learn on the job, even if it is the legendary Coach K.
Roy Williams, North Carolina Head Coach- Mitch Kupchak once said that Williams turned down the Lakers job three times, calling it a Los Angeles record. Jerry West offered Williams the Lakers head coaching position in 1994, while he was still at Kansas. Williams declined and the job went to Del Harris. Like Krzyzewski, Williams was also offered the job in 2004 before it went to Rudy Tomjanovich. He also declined consideration in 2005 when Phil Jackson was eventually re-hired. In total, Williams claims to have turned down 12 NBA offers. This time could be different though.
Long known as the best coach never to win a national title, Williams now has won two. He has nothing left to prove in college, and at age 59, he could be looking for a new challenge with a last shot at the NBA. Kupchak is a North Carolina alum and would probably secretly prefer Williams over anyone else. It's not his Kupchak's decision alone though, and it seems unlikely that the Lakers would hire a college coach when anything less than a title next year will be considered a disappointment. Still, I guarantee you that Williams will get a call gauging his interest.
Larry Brown, Bobcats Head Coach- Like Williams, Brown is also a North Carolina alum, and that has to appeal to Kupchak. Brown's wife is from LA, he owns a beach house in Malibu, and it's well-known that he loves Southern California. Brown never lasts anywhere particularly long, but the Lakers championship window may not be open very long either.
Having taken the woeful Charlotte Bobcats to its first playoff appearance this past year, Brown has already been peering around at other jobs. New owner Michael Jordan (a fellow Tar Heel) has said he'd let Brown out of his contract, but doing so would probably anger the game's greatest player to no end. Not sure if Brown wants to risk that relationship. But Brown is one of the best X's and O's coaches in the NBA, and he'd probably be a great fit in LA where he could go for one last title. He'd also be the first man to coach the Lakers, the Clippers, and UCLA.
Jeff Van Gundy, former Knicks and Rockets Head Coach- Supposedly, both Kobe Bryant and Mitch Kupchak really like Van Gundy. If the timing had been different, he might very well have become the Lakers coach back in 2004. His name also came up for the Lakers job back in 1999 while he was feuding with Knicks ownership. I must confess to being a Van Gundy fan, and I believe he has one of the brightest minds in the game. That being said, I'm not sure if he'd fit in with the Lakers at this point in time. His defensive style might not work with the current personnel, and I don't know if his personality is right for this particular Laker team. I definitely think he could be a successful woach somewhere else though.
Prediction- Given the reported move by Brian Shaw, it appears he's either taken himself out of the running, or he was never in it to begin with. If you believe sports talk radio and internet message boards, then this would appear to be Byron Scott's job to lose. But I would bet that the Lakers will make a run at Kurt Rambis first, and may even try for Brown or Williams before making Scott an offer.
UPDATE- Byron Scott has reportedly accepted the head coaching job in Cleveland. This instantly makes Brian Shaw the odds-on favorite to replace Phil Jackson, should he retire. Jackson will announce his decision on Friday.