Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Lakers coaching candidates: JJ Redick among nine names to watch, but Ty Lue is ideal Darvin Ham replacement

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Darvin Ham’s time as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers officially came to an end Friday when he was fired after just two seasons on the job. Though necessary given his lackluster performance, the move was still somewhat surprising given the circumstances surrounding his hiring.

The job was only available for Ham in the first place because Frank Vogel, who led the Lakers to the 2020 championship, was himself ousted in 2022. Vogel’s downfall was his failure to successfully integrate Russell Westbrook into the Laker roster. Well… who traded for Westbrook? It was the front office led by Rob Pelinka and Kurt Rambis, who escaped the Westbrook trade unscathed. 

They proceeded to hire Ham. Their decision to fire him means that the Lakers will hire their fourth head coach during Pelinka’s tenure with the team, with Luke Walton included. Front offices rarely have enough job security to hire a fourth coach. Eventually, ownership tends to wonder if the right people are making that decision.

All of this is to say that despite the deep ties that Pelinka and Rambis have to this organization, there’s no guarantee that they’re going to get a chance at a fifth head coach. For their sake, this hire needs to work. That raises the bar quite a bit here. When the Lakers hired Ham, they proved comfortable with a first-time head coach that needed time to grow. That seems less likely this time around. In a perfect world, the Lakers are looking for a proven quantity, someone with a known X’s and O’s acumen that has worked with superstars before and can quickly garner respect from a LeBron James-led locker room.

With the search now beginning, here are nine names that make some degree of sense as Lakers candidates.

1. Ty Lue

Let’s start with the obvious: Ty Lue is currently employed. The Clippers would likely prefer it if he didn’t coach their cross-town rivals. The exact terms of his contract are unknown. When the Clippers hired him in 2020, they reportedly did so with a five-year contract. He is not known to have signed an extension, though Steve Ballmer has signed a previous coach (Doc Rivers) to an extension without the press immediately getting wind of it, so it’s possible that Lue’s Clippers future is secure. 

Coaching contracts typically include team-options on the final year, and Lue’s was no exception. That option was reportedly picked up last offseason, but coaches of Lue’s stature practically never coach through contract years, which is what next year would be. One way or another, clarity on his role with the Clippers is coming in the near future. It is worth noting that the NBA does not seem to believe Lue is tied to his current team. There was buzz suggesting interest from both the Bucks and Suns last offseason.

James has spoken glowingly about Lue in the past. The Lakers botched their last attempt to hire him in 2019 when they were reportedly only willing to give him a three-year deal and wanted control over his coaching staff. “The Lakers [saw it] more so as like [I’m just] coming to coach LeBron,” Lue said in a 2022 interview with ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk. “No, I’m coming to win. I just didn’t think I was treated fairly. And I wasn’t just going to accept any offer just to get a job.”

Time, and a big enough contract, heals all wounds. If Lue is available, he is the best coach on the market and the one likeliest to work well with James. The Lakers will let his situation with the Clippers play out before making a decision, but if they have their druthers, Lue would certainly be among their top choices.

2. Mike Budenholzer

You can set your watch to a Mike Budenholzer team. All of them are the same. They shoot 3s. They defend the basket. They never foul. They rebound. No coach in the NBA over the past decade has built a more reliable regular-season system than Budenholzer. If his team is healthy, it is going to perform at or above expectations. All five of his Bucks teams won 60% or more of their games. He once won 60 games for a famously star-less Hawks team. He took Milwaukee to the 2021 championship. Every team hiring a coach this offseason is going to reach out to Budenholzer.

The obvious misgiving on both sides will be Darvin Ham. He was a Budenholzer disciple in both Atlanta and Milwaukee. The Lakers might fear bringing in a coach with similar principles. Budenholzer might fear his working conditions if Ham gives him an honest assessment of what leading the Lakers is like. But unlike last offseason, this one isn’t stuffed to the brim with proven winners. Budenholzer is the only champion known to be available. That makes him desirable for a win-now team like the Lakers.

3. Juwan Howard

Juwan Howard’s Michigan tenure didn’t work out. That might impact his NBA coaching prospects. It might not. Quin Snyder failed at Missouri. He’s a successful NBA coach right now. Howard was a desirable head-coaching candidate before his time at Michigan. He spent six years under Erik Spoelstra with the Miami Heat, one of the most valued apprenticeships an assistant can have. He’s already proven desirable as an assistant coaching candidate, as he accepted a job on Jordi Fernandez’s Brooklyn staff in April.

Marc Stein reported in 2022 that Howard was the team’s top choice for the job when they were looking to replace Vogel. He turned it down then. They interviewed him in 2019 as well. He would be seen as a compromise candidate between James—who played with Howard in Miami — and Pelinka — who played with Howard at Michigan. It’s unclear if Howard’s last few years at Michigan have affected his standing within the Lakers, but he’s been in the thick of two separate coaching searches for them. It’s hard to imagine he won’t factor into a third.

4. Phil Handy

When there were rumors surrounding Ham’s job security during the season, Handy, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, was viewed as the likely replacement. The Lakers value him so much for his developmental acumen that they kept him on Ham’s staff even after Vogel, who hired him in 2019, was axed. Handy himself has spoken of his desire for a shot at a head-coaching shot.

But it doesn’t seem as though he factored seriously into the 2022 search to replace Vogel. Bill Oram, a Lakers beat writer at the time, said that he hadn’t heard that Handy was receiving any internal consideration. At the very least, he was not among the reported finalists. Maybe things have changed in the past two years. Maybe the Lakers view him more as a skills coach than a head coach. It’s hard to say. But if nothing else, it’s hard to imagine a coach with as much support within the locker room not at least getting an interview.

5. David Adelman

The Lakers have lost 12 of their last 13 games against the Nuggets. Beating Denver is going to be a necessity if the Lakers plan to make a real championship push in the next few years. So why not gain some institutional knowledge on Denver while weakening the Nuggets at the same time by hiring away their top assistant?

Adelman has drawn credit for his role in designing Denver’s elite offense. His father, Hall of Famer Rick Adelman, was an offensive genius as well, so it seems to run in the family. Adelman has interviewed for head-coaching jobs in the past, and several coaches with ties to Michael Malone, including Chris Finch, Wes Unseld Jr. and Jordi Fernandez, have gotten jobs recently. It seems like Adelman is next in the line. The Lakers would likely prefer not to hire a first-timer, but Adelman’s expertise against Denver might make him a worthwhile exception.

Well… so much for experienced options. Unless you count leading a travel team for nine-year-olds, Redick has no coaching experience whatsoever. That hasn’t been for lack of interest. Joe Mazzulla has said publicly that he tried to hire Redick onto his Boston Celtics staff. The Raptors interviewed Redick for their head-coaching job last offseason. The Hornets have done so this offseason, and with that job open, there’s a chance he gets it.

Redick’s work as a broadcaster has been widely praised. He tries to introduce nuanced X’s and O’s conversations into a medium that rarely includes them. Perhaps most notably, he is currently hosting a basketball podcast with LeBron called Mind The Game. His lack of experience, and Laker ties, likely makes him a lower-end candidate here, but he’s going to be an NBA coach some day, and he seems to have LeBron’s approval. That counts for something. 

7. Terry Stotts

Terry Stotts was a finalist the last time the Lakers hired a coach. He didn’t get the job, and has barely worked since. At one point, the abrupt ending of his brief stop as an assistant for the Milwaukee Bucks might have raised some eyebrows. Once we watched the Adrian Griffin era (can eras be measured in months?) play out, well, we can more easily forgive Stotts for not wanting to be a part of it.

In many ways, Stotts has a resume similar to Vogel’s in 2020. He’s never reached the Finals, but he’s done just about everything else as a head coach across stops in Atlanta, Milwaukee and most notably Portland. His background is in offense whereas Vogel’s was on defense, but otherwise, this would be a pretty similar hire.

8. Kenny Atkinson

Atkinson’s last foray into big-market coaching collapsed because he seemingly couldn’t connect with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. He’s been cautious about taking another opportunity since. He accepted the Hornets job in 2022 before ultimately changing his mind and turning it down. Right now, he’s one of the NBA’s highest-paid assistants in Golden State. He’s in no rush to go anywhere.

Atkinson once turned D’Angelo Russell into an All-Star. That likely holds some appeal, as the Lakers would surely prefer not to give up all of their remaining draft capital to replace Russell if there is a reasonable path to maximizing him. His offenses were pick-and-roll heavy and typically took the right shots, both issues during the Ham administration. Like Stotts, Atkinson was reportedly a finalist for the job in 2022, and he should get another look this time around.

9. Frank Vogel

The other eight coaches on this list are all theoretical fits. Vogel is a proven fit. He’s literally led James and Anthony Davis to a championship. How often is a team in a position to re-hire a coach it knows for a fact can lead its current roster to glory? Should the Phoenix Suns let Vogel go as many predict, that is an opportunity available to the Lakers.

It’s not one they’re likely to seize. These are human beings, after all. The folks that fired Vogel won’t want to admit they should have kept him. Vogel may not want to coach a team that has already scapegoated him for a trade he didn’t make. No matter how interesting the theoretical fit is, the practical component of actually going to work every day with the same people you split from two years ago takes this one off of the board. But if we’re talking purely about the best interests of the team? Vogel set the bar in 2020. He’s won this franchise a championship. Everyone else is trying to convince the Lakers they can do what he’s already done.

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