Thursday, June 13, 2024

Lakers’ low-ball offer for Dan Hurley is exactly what’s wrong with the NBA’s marquee franchise

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When the Detroit Pistons badly wanted Monty Williams as their head coach last offseason, they moved heaven and earth to make it happen. The deal that finally secured the former NBA Finalist reset the coaching market: six years, $78.5 million. In the year or so since then, virtually every top coach in the NBA has cashed in. Erik Spoelstra got the most expensive coaching contract in NBA history at a reported $120 million over eight years. Steve Kerr didn’t quite reach that length, but his average annual salary of $17.5 million on a two-year extension with the Warriors pays him more annually. Gregg Popovich and Ty Lue have re-upped in that range. Tom Thibodeau likely will at some point this offseason. This is what a top NBA head coach costs now.

Let’s compare the financial resources available to the Pistons and the Los Angeles Lakers. Forbes estimates that the Lakers, as a franchise, are worth more than twice as much: $6.4 billion vs. $3.08 billion. Only the Warriors earned more estimated revenue than the $516 million that Forbes projected for the Lakers last year. The Pistons came in at a much more modest $274 million. Economically speaking, these are two teams that should be punching in different weight classes.

So when the time came for the Lakers to go all-in on Dan Hurley, their coach of choice, how much did they offer? According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski: $70 million over six years.

Williams is, obviously, a more proven NBA commodity than Hurley. But in the past, the Lakers haven’t shied away from offering top-dollar for college coaches. They famously tried to lure Mike Krzyzewski in 2004 with a five-year, $40 million offer that would have paid him at the top of the market. Go back even further and they were willing to pay top dollar for UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian in 1979 as well. These pursuits came with Dr. Jerry Buss at the helm. The elder Buss also happily paid Phil Jackson at the top of the market to take over the Lakers in 1999, and then again in 2005.

But coaching has been a persistent problem during the Jeanie Buss era, and that isn’t just because of the revolving door the Lakers have installed in the head coach’s office. The Lakers are now looking for their seventh full-time coach since Jackson retired in 2011, but getting hires wrong is one thing. Low-balling the right candidates is quite another, and lately, the Lakers have developed a disturbing habit of making their preferred coaches underwhelming offers over the past several years.

The Lakers pursued Lue in the 2019 offseason to replace Luke Walton. The fit was obvious. Lue had won a championship with LeBron James. He was a former Lakers champion himself. He was still very young by coaching standards at just 42. He should have been set up as the coach of the Lakers for potentially a decade or more.

Instead, the Lakers failed to secure their man. Lue addressed those talks in an interview with ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk years later. “The Lakers [saw it] more so as like [I’m just] coming to coach LeBron,” he said. “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.” The reported offer, at the time, was pitiful: just $18 million over three years. That offer would have aligned Lue’s contract with James’, supporting his theory that the Lakers didn’t treat him as a long-term coach. His previous deal with the Cavaliers paid him $35 million over five years. Such a commitment is the standard for championship-winners.

And yet, when the Lakers literally had their own championship winner, they didn’t do much better. Frank Vogel accepted the job that Lue turned down, and he did it under the three-year terms that offended Lue. He proceeded to win a championship in his first season. The Lakers didn’t extend him until 10 months later. They only gave him one extra year, according to reporting from The Athletic at the time. This despite Vogel following up his championship effort by leading the Lakers to a No. 1 defensive ranking despite both James and Anthony Davis missing significant time due to injury. Had Davis not gotten hurt in the first round of the 2021 postseason, the Lakers easily could have made another deep run.

So what happened to Vogel? Well, the Lakers panicked after one disappointing playoff run. Rob Pelinka decided to make a trade for Russell Westbrook that James pushed for. When that trade blew up, neither Pelinka nor James faced the consequences for it. Vogel was scapegoated for bad decisions the rest of the organization made. Hey, at least getting rid of him was relatively cheap on that one-year extension.

The Lakers have long been willing to pay for the best talent on the floor. They have now paid the luxury tax three years in a row with James and Davis at the top of their roster. But the Lakers have also never been known for making similar investments in behind-the-scenes personnel. Head coach was, at one time, an exception. Lately, it hasn’t been.

There is no telling if there was ever a figure Hurley would have taken to coach the Lakers. It’s entirely possible that the chance to win a third consecutive national championship coupled with his deep northeastern roots meant that there was no offer he ever would have taken to coach the Lakers.

But these are the Los Angeles Lakers we’re talking about here. They are the NBA’s marquee franchise, a 17-time champion with all of the resources that come with such a history and the Hollywood glamour that helped create it. There is no world in which their version of an all-in offer for a head coach should be smaller than Detroit’s. That it was shows why Hurley was probably right to pass on this job. The Lakers either don’t understand or are willfully ignoring the league’s current coaching marketplace. If they weren’t willing to pay Hurley market-rate, would they have shelled out for top assistants? Would they have paid for the infrastructure it would have taken for him to implement his entire program?

It’s hard to say. Their recent history suggests the answer is no. The Lakers have always been willing to pay for stars in the past. It just seems as though their standard of a star coach has become impossibly narrow. If they weren’t even willing to pay a Pistons price for Hurley, it’s hard to imagine that they’re ever going to be willing to make the sort of off-court investments it will take to build the sort of sustainable, winning culture they hoped Hurley could bring.

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