Friday, November 09, 2012

Mike Brown fired after 5 games

The Los Angeles Lakers fired coach Mike Brown on Friday after a 1-4 start to his second season in charge.

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak announced the surprising move several hours before they hosted Golden State. Assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff will coach the Lakers against the Warriors while the club's top brass searches for Brown's replacement after just 18 months in charge.

''The bottom line is that the team is not winning at the pace we expected this team to win, and we didn't see improvement,'' Kupchak said at the Lakers' training complex in El Segundo.

Los Angeles began the season with championship expectations after trading for center Dwight Howard and point guard Steve Nash, adding two superstars alongside Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. But the Lakers went 0-8 during the preseason last month for the first time in franchise history before stumbling into the regular season with an 0-3 start, losing to Dallas, Portland and the Clippers.

After finally beating Detroit last Sunday for their first win, the Lakers looked listless again in a loss at Utah on Wednesday, dropping to last place in the Western Conference. Los Angeles' defense has been largely poor, and the players still haven't figured out the new offense installed by Brown during training camp.

Combined with their aging core of talent and a massive payroll, Kupchak and owners Jim and Jerry Buss decided they couldn't wait another game to start winning. Brown was dismissed in a morning meeting.

''We're not looking five or 10 years down the road,'' Kupchak said. ''This team was built to contend this year. There's no guarantee that this team can win a championship, but we feel that it can be deeply in the hunt. We're also aware that our players ... are getting older, so our feeling is that we can contend at this level for another couple of years.''

Brown was hired in May 2011 to replace 11-time NBA champion Phil Jackson, signing a four-year deal worth roughly $18 million in May 2011. Kupchak said the eight-figure payout they'll have to make on Brown's contract wasn't a factor in their decision.

''It's a pretty direct message to all of us,'' Gasol said while leaving the Lakers' shootaround Friday morning in El Segundo. ''There's no messing around. It's time for all of us to step it up.''

In a brief news conference, Kupchak did nothing to squelch speculation that Jackson could return for a third tenure with the Lakers. The 67-year-old Jackson walked away from the club in 2011 with few apparent hard feelings, and his health has markedly improved during his time away from the NBA.

Kupchak said he hasn't reached out to any candidates for the job, but thinks it's likely the Lakers will hire an experienced coach who isn't currently working. Kupchak said he hasn't talked to Jackson, but Jim Buss' sister, Lakers executive Jeanie Buss, is Jackson's longtime girlfriend.

''When there's a coach like Phil Jackson, one of the all-time greats, and he's not coaching, I think you would be negligent not to know that he's out there,'' Kupchak said.

***

After losing four of five games to start the season, the Los Angeles Lakers fired coach Mike Brown on Friday.

Assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff will serve as interim coach while the Lakers search for a long-term replacement. In a news conference, team general manager Mitch Kupchak left open the possibility of the Lakers making a run at bringing back Phil Jackson for a third time as coach.

"I think you'd be negligent not to be aware that [Jackson's] out there," Kupchak said.

On Friday morning at the Lakers' practice facility, Brown was meeting with his coaching staff to discuss the evening's home game against Golden State, when a Lakers employee interrupted and asked him to step out for a few minutes. Nearly 10 minutes later, Brown returned and informed his staff that he had been fired.

The Lakers will cease running the Princeton offense immediately, sources told Yahoo! Sports. Management was unhappy with the offense implemented this season, and Bickerstaff was told that he needed to move away from it. Some elements could still be used on Friday night but the team plans to install more traditional pick-and-roll NBA sets moving forward.

Another coaching candidate prominently being discussed as a long-term possibility: Mike D'Antoni.

D'Antoni has been without a job since leaving the New York Knicks in 2011. D'Antoni had knee replacement surgery in the past couple weeks and is not yet on his feet. Would still need time to rehabilitate before he could go back to work.

Indiana Pacers assistant Brian Shaw also could become a candidate – though that's a dicier proposition, given the acrimony that ensued between the Lakers front office and Shaw after the team chose to replace Jackson with Brown over Shaw.

Also, the Pacers aren't expected to be willing to let Shaw, their associate head coach, leave for a potential head coaching job with the Lakers, sources with direct knowledge of his contract told Yahoo! Sports.

In conversations on Thursday, Kupchak made a case to Lakers owner Jerry Buss and executive vice president Jim Buss to give Brown more time before deciding to fire him, sources told Y! Sports. Brown also made a case to management that he could get the Lakers into championship contention, sources said.

''The bottom line is that the team is not winning at the pace we expected this team to win, and we didn't see improvement,'' Kupchak told reporters.

The irony is that Jerry Buss' son who runs the day-to-day operations of the franchise, Jim – and not  Kupchak – was the primary advocate in the hiring of Brown and the firing of him. Kupchak was partial to Rick Adelman as a replacement, sources said. Nevertheless, the Buss family lost patience with the team's sluggish start to the Princeton offense, and didn't accept the excuses of a weak bench with such a star-studded starting five of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.

***

What sort of franchise hires a coach without at least discussing the prospects and candidates with their team's best player and the league's most headstrong star?

What sort of team hires a coach who routinely failed to make headway with his top star at his previous spot, sliding him into a role that even the legendary Phil Jackson couldn't handle toward the end of his run?

What kind of team watches as the coach cheerily embraces an offense that doesn't utilize typical point guard roles even after the franchise swings a trade for one of the finest point guards in NBA history?

What kind of franchise blames the coach for the fact that the triptych of Steve Blake, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol combine to put together perhaps the league's worst pick-and-roll defense at the two most prominent pick-and-roll positions, looking the other way when the hoped-for salve in Dwight Howard can't overcome the rustiness and pain that is obvious to anyone tuning in with standard-definition TVs?

What kind of team fires a guy on a game night?

It's the Los Angeles Lakers, chippies; and for all their front-office brilliance in acquiring some of the finest players of the last 16 years to lead them to their 17th title, they also blew it with the hiring, embracing and eventual firing of coach Mike Brown. USA Today's Sam Amick reported on Friday that the beleaguered coach will be glared at no more, at least during games, as the Lakers have sent the former Cavs head man and Spurs assistant packing just five games into an outright failure of a season.

Cable TV — and not the blogosphere, which has been pretty heady in its analysis mainly because they have Internet access — has prattled on for over a week about the Lakers' iffy offense, and the attempts to worm facets of the Princeton playbook into the Lakers' scheme. On the surface, Brown's interest in the offense seems a sound move; mainly because there really is no Princeton playbook, just a series of reactions based off of solid spacing and quick but deliberate movement. To a quotemonger, though, the idea was off — you don't take the ball out of Steve Nash's hands, you don't walk the ball up.

The problem is that the Lakers weren't walking the ball up. The team's 23rd ranking in possessions per game had more to do with their defensive issues than anything else as they took the ball out of the net. The team is seventh in offensive efficiency this season, an improvement over last season's 10th showing and an impressive showing considering two things:

1). Steve Nash has played just 50 minutes, all season. Steve Blake, his replacement, has had a miserable season.

2). The team turns the ball over on nearly 18 percent of its possessions, good for 29th out of 30 teams so far this year. That might damn Brown's offensive schemes all to hell, but to rank seventh in the NBA in offense in spite of giving the other team the rock on nearly a fifth of your possessions? That's remarkable stuff.

It's the defense, dummies. It's that miserable defense that was apparent from the start, with Nash and Gasol (two of our favorites at anything, ever) losing their way amongst quicker guards and big forwards, with a still recovering Dwight Howard unable to cover all the open spaces. The next coach will be the beneficiary of Howard's eventual defensive recovery (anyone can dunk, as Dwight has made over 67 percent of his shots on the season; but not everyone can hedge and dissuade three different opponents from easing into an easy shot), but for now the Lakers are a mess on that end.

This will be the ends justifying the means, assuming the Lakers choose the right replacement. Brown had to go. All this handwringing in the second week in November won't mean a thing once Howard has his sea legs back, and Steve Nash helps Kobe Bryant re-discover what a brilliant player Pau Gasol can be when he's put in the right spots. This is a low point, for the Lakers, but one they have 77 games and a playoff run to work their way out of.

For now, though, it's the final kiss-off on the Busses' great lost year of 2011. One in which they fired low-level employees just to keep the payroll tidy, dismissed longtime scouts without the benefit of an explanation, and treated the notoriously pouty Bryant as if he were training camp fodder in choosing the leader that would have to guide Kobe through the most stubborn seasons of his career.

This probably won't serve as a wake-up call to Lakers ownership. Hell, far from it. They'll just back into another championship or three, leaving us wondering why they couldn't find it in themselves to appreciate what Phil Jackson — 2011 sweep at the hands of the eventual champs or not — did for them.

Never change, El Lay. You big, bloated, mess of a thing that will somehow charm us by May.

***

Mike Brown had arrived at the Lakers' practice facility for the morning shootaround believing he needed a victory over the Golden State Warriors on Friday night to spare his job. Ownership and management had been meeting about his future throughout Thursday, and general manager Mitch Kupchak advocated to give the beleaguered Brown longer than five games before firing him, sources said.

Jim Buss, the Lakers' executive vice president, had gone along with the plan on Thursday, but something changed overnight into Friday. Jerry Buss wanted Brown out, and wanted him out now. As Brown gathered his assistants to plan for Friday night's game, a request came for him to step outside the room. The forever chipper, eager Brown returned to his coaching staff 10 minutes later with a decidedly different disposition.

"They fired me," Brown simply said.

All around the franchise, the belief was that the decision had come from Jerry Buss, who had lost patience with his $100 million roster investment losing four out of five games to start the season. He was tired of the Princeton offense, tired of the season-ticket holders' complaining, tired of the coach who he let his son, Jim, hire two years ago. For the $100 million of payroll – and the $30 million more of luxury tax – the old man wanted to bring Showtime back to the Staples Center. This was Jerry Buss playing the part of patriarch again.

Eventually, Kupchak would turn to his old NBA coach with the Washington Bullets, Bernie Bickerstaff, to get the team through Friday night's game against Golden State. Dump the Princeton offense, Bickerstaff was told. Showtime doesn't do Ivy League, and few in ownership – nor management – had to be convinced that the brief exploration had been a failure.

Only, the Lakers were sixth in offensive efficiency. In this short sampling, the bigger issues were defense and the bench. "Kobe likes the offense, and has from the start," one league source briefed on the conversations told Yahoo! Sports. "But they told Bernie: 'This is about the offense. It has to go.' "

This is about public relations now, about feeding that Staples Center and Hollywood monster, and Buss needs a coach with a pedigree. The greatest coach of all, Phil Jackson, could be waiting to come cash Buss' checks again, and motivated and inspired, his hiring would be a bargain at any price. He still needs to decide that he wants to coach again, that he wants the Lakers, but he's forever a sucker for the drama, for riding back to save the franchise. Two years ago, he couldn't wait to get out of the Lakers, get out of the NBA, and you wonder what's changed except for boredom and that lust for the next big score, that next big Hollywood ending.

"We want Phil," the Lakers fans chanted on Friday night in the Staples Center. "We want Phil."

Jerry Buss' plan is to give the people what they want: the great Phil Jackson. They remember the five titles with the Lakers, but everyone wants to forget the end, the way that Jackson dragged himself, dragged a team, to the finish line. This job is a grind, and those cheers fade fast. There are no Hollywood endings in the NBA – just old guys staying too long, coming back for all the wrong reasons.

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