First and foremost, the Lakers would be wise not to fill the vacancy on the bench until they determine what their managerial structure will look like following Magic Johnson's resignation. The job of remaking the Lakers is complicated, and identifying the correct head coach will be among the most monumental decisions that executive will make.
Furthermore, the very nature of the head coaching job is uncertain until the Lakers determine the near-term direction of the franchise. Assuming LeBron James is a Laker in 2019-20, getting a buy-in from him in the final years of his prolific career will likely be a prerequisite to success. James' presence on the roster is a blessing to any coach, but it also complicates the job. LeBron has an extremely high threshold for credibility, and a coach must have it upon arrival and fortify it constantly to maintain James' respect.
The Lakers may or may not enter the 2019-2020 season as a team on which Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and a 2019 lottery pick fulfill crucial functions on the floor. These are young players still adjusting to the NBA game. Their development likely will be essential to the Lakers' future should they remain on the roster. But it's also possible that a new president of basketball operations abides by the script in Cleveland: Surround James with veterans, not with prospects still acclimating to the professional and personal demands of NBA life.
Managing a 17-year generational superstar and full-scale player development program are two very different projects, and finding someone who can capably serve two masters -- LeBron and youth -- is a difficult undertaking. There's a reason James has historically preferred to be surrounded by veterans: Focusing on basic education is a drag when you see the game with LeBron's perception.
Conversations with league insiders reveal several candidates for both the veteran Lakers gig and the project more geared toward development. But the pair of job descriptions diverge so profoundly that it's hard to identify coaches who have it all -- an ability to relate to James, a passion for player development, and a pedigree that would satisfy both LeBron and management. Whom the Lakers target will say a lot about the order of those priorities as they move forward.
But nearly every informed person is in agreement: Do not hire a coaching staff until your management structure is settled.
If the Lakers know that next season's roster will be composed much like James' Miami Heat teams and those of his second stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Lue emerges as a logical top candidate. According to a report by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, Lue is a front-runner for the job. The former Cavs coach won a championship with James in 2016 over a 73-win Warriors team, an incontrovertible achievement that James honors. Coming up as an NBA assistant, Lue earned his bones as a tactician, first and foremost. Whether he's drawing up sets out of timeouts, or installing counters on the fly in crucial postseason games, Lue's high-IQ basketball brain speaks to James. Lue also is willing to challenge James in front of the team at selective moments if, say, James insists on a strategy that runs counter to Lue's preferred game plan.
While he's a fit for a well-seasoned group of vets led by LeBron, Lue isn't a builder of cultures, nor is he an innate teacher who will verse 22-year-olds in the study of NBA basketball. Some of those who admire him believe that, at his next stop, Lue will need to build and manage a coaching staff with greater intention than he did in Cleveland. Doing so will help him grow into a more process-oriented head coach, developing a quality that, while always important, is vital with a roster of different ages and constituencies.
Jason Kidd | Mark Jackson
There exists a popular perception around the league that James values former players who are more inclined to provide support and act as a sounding board than establish their own structure. The thinking goes that "coaching LeBron" means coaching around LeBron, or deferring to him.
LeBron undoubtedly wants a coach whose basketball knowledge he respects, and that basketball knowledge will be best demonstrated by installing an offensive system whose defining feature is LeBron's intuition with the ball in his hand. Both Kidd (a Hall of Famer whom James admires) and Jackson are names that have circulated as potential successors to Walton since LeBron arrived in Los Angeles.
One conventional belief from those familiar with the LeBron-coach dynamic holds that the Lakers would be wise to choose a name with LeBron's imprimatur because the pressure would be on LeBron to make the relationship work. The counterargument says that these are exactly the kinds of political considerations that will further doom an organization that seems to value names and intrigue more than expertise and process.
When asked for an ideal candidate, multiple NBA insiders -- including executives, coaches and a high-profile active player -- recommended the LA Clippers' head coach. His name circulated so widely in NBA circles that he had to publicly temper rumors a few weeks ago.
Those who named Rivers, who is under contract with the Clippers, noted he'd have James' immediate respect at the outset -- for a championship, for his X's & O's (which routinely gave LeBron teams fits in their Eastern Conference clashes), and also for his performance leading a transient Clippers team through two seasons in flux and to an improbable playoff berth.
Williams, who currently serves on Brett Brown's staff with the Philadelphia 76ers, has a strong reputation for character and five years of experience in the first chair with the New Orleans Pelicans. He is also a central candidate for the job, according to Wojnarowski's report.
Williams is a coach with a penchant for structure and a gift for communicating with players, from transcendent superstars to 15th men. He's a serious person with whom LeBron James can have a serious conversations, when the need arises.
The Lakers' coaching search must take into account an inconvenient reality: James will turn 35 this December and now plays in an unforgiving Western Conference. Any notion that the job demands little more than a steady hand to manage LeBron's workload and expectations is dangerous. If the Lakers aspire to a strong playoff seeding, they can't waste a month or two not building good habits. They can't phone it in defensively, or wing it in the half court with LeBron as a last resort. In short, the Lakers' next head coach will have to emphasize detail at a much greater level than LeBron, a basketball savant, prefers. It's the only way to ensure his teammates, old and young, can compensate for the higher degree of difficulty.
If the Lakers still have to rely on the maturation of the young core in 2020, they will need a coach who excels at player development in addition to LeBron account management. Given what's at stake, it would be ill-advised for the Lakers to hire a head coach for the one player on the team who doesn't require hands-on coaching while ignoring those whose growth will determine the team's fate, even if that one player is LeBron James.
Are there head-coaching candidates who can split the difference for the Lakers -- establish credibility and authority with LeBron and simultaneously create an environment where young players can grow?
An apt place to start would be the staff of Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. In recent years, Budenholzer has cultivated a program that's development-heavy, yet one that's efficient, individually tailored and not at all tedious -- a big plus for vets. Both Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder and Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson have graduated from Budenholzer's branch of Spurs U.
Ham, a lead assistant on Budenholzer's current Bucks staff, is an interesting case study. He brings a balance of skills, having served under Budenholzer for six seasons and mastered the day-to-day structure that brings out the best in teams like the league-leading Bucks. He would assemble a smart staff of skilled tacticians and communicators and run a tight ship -- but one without busywork. Though Ham didn't have the career of a Kidd or Jackson, he has established a reputation in recent years as an assistant with an exceptional bedside manner, someone who can speak tough truths to players, irrespective of their standing.
If the goal is to create a world in which James feels his needs are being met and in which Kyle Kuzma is learning how to play a consistent brand of NBA defense, Ham might represent that middle ground. He has the temperament and presence to inspire and challenge both men. He has also previously worked for the Lakers as an assistant coach for two seasons.
Like Ham, Howard hails from one of the most respected benches in the league -- Erik Spoelstra's coaching staff in Miami. For six seasons, Howard has aided in player development and evolved into one of the most reliable members of the tight-knit Heat family.
There isn't a more disciplined organization in the NBA, and Spoelstra is a process junkie. Those in Miami say Howard's gravitas as a coach, already present on Day 1, has only grown over time. He has developed a passion for the craft and has honed his tactical knowledge. Is Howard the basketball brainiac LeBron demands? It's hard to say, but the sense from those who know is that, provided he takes the task of staffing his bench seriously, he'd be afforded the benefit of the doubt.
There might not be a figure in basketball who commands more of James' respect than Gregg Popovich. What if the Spurs coach called James to tell him Udoka, a San Antonio assistant coach, is the right man for the job?
Udoka, an NBA journeyman like Ham, has honed his skills and reputation for seven years on the Spurs' bench, where he serves as the connective tissue between the staff and players, both veterans and projects. Udoka is a worker bee whose poise and measured nature would breathe a fresh ethic into an insular Lakers franchise that has been run by organizational courtiers for too long.
Those who have worked with James say that basketball intellect is the ultimate prerequisite for the job, and that's an area in which Collins excels in Golden State. One of the brightest young basketball minds in the league's assistant ranks, Collins shined in his first head-coaching interview last summer for the Atlanta Hawks job. James could be confident that when Collins draws up a play out of a timeout or calls for a coverage scheme, it's a well-conceived idea.
The former reserve big man is generally mild-mannered, not unlike Walton -- more Brad Stevens in demeanor than Gregg Popovich. Is that an asset or detriment for a role in the brightest of spotlights?
Anyone who has ever spent a moment of their life in the craft has at some point contemplated what it would be like to coach a talent like LeBron James for a team with the prestige of the Los Angeles Lakers. As awfully as the organization has performed in recent years, a call from the Lakers would still warrant attention, even if the recipient of that call were Krzyzewski.
A pitch from the Lakers (and possibly LeBron) to the Duke coach could sound something like this: The NCAA is about to implode. Now is the time to enshrine your legacy, and name your successor who can grapple with these new realities so that you don't have to. Come to Los Angeles, where you can vest into a share of the most valuable franchise in basketball and coach the generation's best player in his golden years.
It's hard to conceive of James undermining Krzyzewski, the man James has said he'd like to coach his son. James and Krzyzewski would be tethered together in a common pursuit -- the belief that greatness, when compounded by experience, has no expiration date. There's little evidence Krzyzewski has any interest in moving to the NBA at age 72, but this is precisely the kind of narrative the Lakers love to spool.
The more likely scenario is that the Lakers are presented with no perfect options. Apart from James, the composition of their roster is uncertain. There are assistant, G League and college coaches who thrive in player development and would coach up James' teammates, but can they match wits with LeBron, who can recall from memory every play of every opponent in the league? There are coaches who can play horse whisperer to LeBron, but the job of winning with him requires far more than that now, and it's unclear how amenable James will be to a hands-on approach.
Whichever path they pursue, the Lakers should resist the urge to treat their hire like a product that needs to be sold. If the right coach happens to be a big name, then so be it. If it happens to be a member of the Lakers family in good standing, that's fine, too. But too often of late, the Lakers have viewed the task of team-building as an exercise in brand management, an opportunity to win a media conference or fan sentiment, rather than a statement of intent. They have the power to change that.