In 1981, a Laker team with stars Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar fired Paul Westhead after a 7-4 start. Westhead coached an unorthodox system and drew the ire of the entire locker room. The Lakers promoted an unknown assistant named Pat Riley and won the NBA title that season.
In 2005, a Miami Heat team with stars Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O'Neal fired Stan Van Gundy after an 11-10 start. An excellent coach, Van Gundy's personality just didn't gel with the organization. Again, it was Pat Riley who came down from the front office, and coached the Heat to an NBA title that season.
I bring up these two examples because it's what Laker fans are hoping to repeat in the wake of Mike Brown's firing after a 1-4 start. Some people will say that the Lakers overreacted and pulled the hook too soon. But I disagree. Firing Mike Brown was the right move for the Lakers and it gives them the best chance of salvaging this season and winning the NBA title they're built to win.
I lost faith in Brown when he insisted that the Lakers run the Princeton Offense this season. Now, I know a thing or two about the Princeton Offense. When I was at Columbia, our team's head coach Armond Hill (now a Boston Celtics assistant coach) was a Princeton alum and ran the most orthodox version of the Princeton Offense that you'll ever see. I broadcast close to 75 games with Columbia running the system, and I feel as though I took an advanced seminar on the intricacies of the offense.
The Princeton Offense was the wrong system for the Lakers, and it's baffling that Brown would have stuck with it after the acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. The Princeton Offense works great when you have a team of jump shooters that is less athletic than their opponents. UCLA fans probably remember the 1996 Princeton Tigers confounding the Bruins in shocking upset in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. The offense was the great equalizer that allowed a less athletic Princeton squad to hang with the defending NCAA champion Bruins.
However, the offense is ill-suited for the Lakers personnel. First off, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol aren't good jump shooters. Steve Nash is a great shooter, but the Princeton Offense stifles his creativity, marginalizes his athleticism, and doesn't allow him to utilize his exceptional skills. Kobe Bryant's skill set could actually work in the Princeton Offense, and reportedly, he was a strong proponent of switching to the system early on. But if it's not going to maximize the talents of three of the Lakers' big four, then there's really no point in running it.
The Lakers have looked so awful in the preseason and in the early part of the regular season, that it was clear to me that they wouldn't be able to get to championship form by April. Trying to force a square peg into a round hole was futile, and it was better that they recognize their mistake as soon as possible, so that they can improve going forward.
Some people have said that it's unrealistic for the Lakers to win a title in the first season of adding Nash and Howard. They point to the Miami Heat needing to time to gel after they acquired LeBron James and Chris Bosh. But those people forget that the Boston Celtics won a title in the first year after acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to play with Paul Pierce. The Lakers are older than the Heat, and their window of opportunity is smaller. They need to do what's necessary to win this season.
In truth, Mike Brown was always the wrong hire for the Lakers. In a lockout shortened-season, the Lakers should have promoted Brian Shaw to keep their system intact and reduce the need for them to learn something new. Had they played in the same system from 2010-11 to 2011-12, then they might have had more success last year. Instead they spent much of the year adjusting to a new system without much time to learn it.
I do think Mike Brown is an excellent coach who can thrive in the right situation. He was reportedly offered the Golden State head coaching job last year, and he would do better with a young team that he can coach up. He did take a young LeBron and a team of stiffs to a surprise NBA Finals appearance in 2007. But there's a reason why LeBron James wanted Brown out in Cleveland, and why Brown's Cavs squad gave up on him during the 2010 NBA Playoffs. He may be a hard worker, and he may be a smart coach, but he doesn't have a personality that commands the respect of veteran players. His insistence to continue with the Princeton Offense, when it obviously didn't fit the team's personnel, shows that he has a bit of an ego. Brown is better suited to coach up young players where he can have an unquestioned role of authority. I'd actually compare him to former Lakers coach Del Harris, who brought the Lakers into the playoffs when they were young, but didn't command the respect of stars like Shaq and Kobe.
So who do the Lakers hire next? Reportedly, they will hire Bernie Bickerstaff as an interim head coach, but they probably have their eyes on a bigger name. The first ask should be to Phil Jackson. Let's not forget that Kobe Bryant has never won outside of the triangle offense, a fact that Del Harris and Rudy Tomjanovich could tell you. Jackson also has the gravitas and the calming influence that the team could probably use right now. But Jackson looked spent at the end of the 2011 season, and I don't think he wants to coach again.
I think an excellent pick would be Jerry Sloan. He also commands the respect of NBA veterans. And more importantly, he runs the pick-and-roll offense that is probably best suited to the Lakers' current group of personnel. Nash thrives in the pick-and-roll and the chemistry with him, Howard and Gasol should be perfect in that system. Bryant can certainly play that way too. Think of Nash as John Stockton, Howard as Karl Malone, and then Bryant and Gasol as a ridiculous added bonus.
Another name that has come up is Mike D'Antoni, who coached Nash during his best years in Phoenix. I like D'Antoni a lot, but the Lakers are too old to run at the pace he wants, and their lack of depth is a major problem in that system. Furthermore, D'Antoni's offense is probably too much for the Lakers to learn in the middle of this season.
Nate McMillan is another veteran coach, who might be a good fit for the Lakers. I wouldn't count out Kurt Rambis either, who was in the wrong situation in Minnesota, but can work well with Bryant. If they do stay in-house, then Chuck Person is a rising star, deserving of a head coaching job. I'm not sure if he's the right guy to lead them to the title though. Then again, no one knew who Pat Riley was in 1981.
Regardless of all this, the Lakers made the right decision in pulling the plug quickly on the Mike Brown experiment. It gives them the best shot of winning a title this year.