Mike Brown is gone. The challenges he was unable to properly manage are not.
The next head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers — who, according to multiple reports, could yet again be Phil Jackson — will need to do more than the obvious task of scrapping the ill-fated Princeton offense. Whether it’s Phil or it’s someone else, that task of fusing four future Hall of Fame-caliber players and a not-so-deep bench into a team to be feared will require navigating a series of issues made more daunting by the championship-or-bust expectations for this team.
First and foremost is the Lakers’ chemistry, on and off the court.
On the court, the pieces do not neatly fit together. Kobe Bryant is fifth on the all-time scoring list. He has five championship rings. He’s a two-time Finals MVP and a 14-time All Star. He is one of the greatest players of all time.
And be that as it may, he will have to be coaxed and coached to a place in which he allows Steve Nash to take control of the offense — Kobe’s offense. How often, and to what extent? Good question. The next coach better have the right answer.
He’ll also have to cede some touches — again, the question of how much and when will be key — and offensive possessions to Dwight Howard, a prodigious talent who may prefer the pick-and-roll with Nash and his own highlight reels to watching Kobe shoot the ball 25 times a game. That’s even if Kobe shooting the ball 25 times a game gets it done.
Speaking of Howard, he got one of the best coaches in the NBA fired last season while holding hostage the team that drafted and loved him. He spent part of last week, just before his then-head coach got fired, talking about the All-Star Game. In other words, he’s got a long way to go on the maturity scale.
That, too, falls to the burden of the guy who takes Brown’s spot.
Pau Gasol seems not to know what to do now that he’s the second big man on the Lakers. This is compounded by the fact that the modern NBA is less a league looking for twin towers of power (like the Tim Duncan-David Robinson-led San Antonio Spurs) and more rewarding to position-less teams that dominate the perimeter with guards and swingmen who can run the floor and play lock-down defense (like the current Miami Heat).
There’s also World Metta Peace, not exactly a dream to manage, whose own weirdness is no small obstacle. And there’s a rag-tag bench that will have to face some deep, deep teams with championship designs — including, of course, the aforementioned Heat.
All of this is part of the grand bargain Phil, or the Lakers’ second-place choice if Phil stays retired, must make. Yes, the new guy will inherit a lineup almost every team in the league would envy. But they also get these problems: an aging squad, massive pressure, some serious challengers and a very short and impatient window.
Within all of these challenges are crosscurrents that will dog this team’s final goal. The Oklahoma City Thunder shipped out a key guy in James Harden, but they remain a young powerhouse that has meshed into a fierce and loyal unit, and their Finals loss last season can often be a prerequisite for greatness. The Spurs remain well coached and free of drama, and despite their own issues with age are capable of beating anyone in a seven-game series. The Los Angeles Clippers have, in limited but telling times this season, looked as good as anyone in the Western Conference.
Even if you pass all of those postseason tests, there will likely remain the Heat — remarkable in their depth and capabilities, led by the greatest player on Earth who is now playing like it night after night, supporting Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and playing ferocious defense to boot.
Mike Brown was a massive problem, and his dismissal by the Lakers after their 1-4 start was the right call. Their embarrassing stumble out of the gate gave LA’s ownership and front office the cover necessary to make the right decision.
But that doesn’t mean Brown getting fired automatically fires up this Lakers team and turns them into a contender. That is just the start of starting at the beginning.
There are egos to be managed, X’s-and-O’s excellence to be wrought from these ill-fitting pieces, age and injury to contend with, a wide-open Western Conference to confront and gargantuan expectations to be carried through all of it.
That’s why Phil Jackson, if reports are correct and the Lakers know what they’re doing, is the top choice for the job. This gig is as booby-trapped as it is promising — one tailor-made for a Zen master with a penchant for manipulation and a track record of turning these kinds of teams into champions.