By Mike Bresnahan, Los Angeles Times –
LOS ANGELES—The Los Angeles Lakers, long known for making bold moves to remain among the elite teams in the NBA, fired Coach Mike Brown on Friday, five games into the NBA season in a move swift and surprising.
The franchise famously known for its entertaining “Showtime” tendencies announced the decision after Lakers games this season showed an uncharacteristic lack of scoring, defense and, most problematic, victories.
Brown was done in by a 1-4 start amid meteorically high expectations. In search of another NBA title, the team added two big-money superstars in the off-season and wound up with a $100-million player payroll, accompanied by another $30 million in “luxury taxes” for having such steep player costs.
The Lakers said the decision was reached mutually by the three most important people atop their franchise — owner Jerry Buss, General Manager Mitch Kupchak and Executive Vice President Jim Buss. But one person close to the situation not in a position to speak publicly, said, “Make no mistake, (Jerry) Buss is the ultimate decision-maker.”
What Lakers fans saw was more than just the team’s’ worst five-game start since 1993. That came on the heels of eight losses in their eight exhibition games. They failed to show improvement in the regular season, beginning with a surprising home loss to an undermanned Dallas team in the season opener Oct. 30.
The Lakers’ hierarchy was particularly upset at how the team lost a road game Wednesday at Utah, getting out-hustled by a shorter but more determined team in a 95-86 loss.
“After five games, we just felt that we weren’t winning,” Kupchak said Friday. “We made a decision. Maybe it would have changed a month or three months down the road, but with this team we didn’t want to wait three months and then find out it wasn’t going to change.”
The Lakers’ list of replacement candidates was short and included a familiar name, Phil Jackson, who won five NBA championships with the team on two different tours before leaving after the 2010-11 season.
Other possibilities were Mike D’Antoni, former coach of the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks; Jerry Sloan, former coach of the Utah Jazz, and Nate McMillan, former coach of the Seattle SuperSonics and Portland Trail Blazers. Experience as an NBA head coach is a priority for the Lakers.
Brown’s firing marked the earliest in-season removal of a coach in Lakers history. Paul Westhead was relieved of his duties 11 games into the 1981 season with a 7-4 record.
“It’s a pretty direct message to all of us,” Lakers forward Pau Gasol said Friday. “There’s no messing around.”
Kobe Bryant, who had openly voiced support of Brown when fans grew restless this season, weighed in with a post on his Facebook page, calling it a “tough day.”
“I’ve seen coaches as well as friends come and go. No matter how many years I’ve been playing, it’s still hard to deal with,” he wrote. “I had a good relationship with Mike and I will continue to have one. I wish him and his family nothing but the best. I spoke with him today and thanked him for all of his hard work and sacrifice.
“I’m not sure what direction we are heading in next. All I can do is focus on the here and now.”
The Lakers acquired high-profile All-Star players Dwight Howard and Steve Nash during the off-season to complement accomplished holdovers Bryant and Gasol. It was troublesome from the start.
Brown tried to install a new offense this season, based on the structured offense used at Princeton, but the team struggled with it, sitting uncomfortably in a tie for 13th in scoring in the 30-team league.
The Lakers also lagged defensively, 19th in the league, a disturbing trend for them because Brown arrived before last season with a reputation as a defensive-minded coach.
It didn’t help that Nash played in only two games this season before sustaining a small fracture in his left leg, and Howard was still trying to rediscover his dominant style after undergoing back surgery in April.
The losing part was unacceptable for an experienced but aging team built to win now.
The possible replacements for Brown each carry question marks.
Jackson would be the easy decision, and Kupchak said at a Friday afternoon news conference that it would be “negligent” for the Lakers not to contact him.
Jackson, however, was enjoying his time off from basketball, according to people who spoke with him recently, and though he had been intrigued by the Lakers’ roster, was not a slam dunk to return to the team for a third time.
D’Antoni would be a sensible candidate for several reasons. He believes in a high-flying offense and has worked with Nash in the past as coach of the Suns from 2003 to 2008. D’Antoni has also developed a relationship with Bryant over the years, most recently as an assistant coach with the U.S. national team that won the gold medal at the London Olympics in August.
D’Antoni, however, was fired by the Knicks last season after the team stagnated with an 18-24 start. He also recently underwent knee surgery and would not be able to travel with the team for road games until at least the end of this month.
McMillan also has a solid relationship with Bryant. His defense-minded approach, however, doesn’t seem to fit into the Lakers’ desire to entertain fans with a potent offense.
Sloan is 70 years old and has known only one place since 1988 — Salt Lake City. He resigned last year as coach of the Utah Jazz amid a reported clash with All-Star point guard Deron Williams.
Magic Johnson, a Lakers vice president, expressed his opinion on Twitter.
“Feel bad for Coach Mike Brown, who’s a great guy, but don’t think he was the right guy for the job in the first place,” he wrote Friday morning. “I’d love to see Phil Jackson or Brian Shaw….”
It would be complicated to hire Shaw, a former Laker and assistant coach under Jackson, because the team would need permission to talk to Shaw, currently an associate head coach with the Indiana Pacers.
Lakers assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff guided the Lakers in their Friday night game against Golden State but was not considered a long-term solution.
Kupchak informed Brown of the decision at 9:30 a.m. Friday, half an hour before the team’s morning “shoot-around” that typically takes place on game days. Instead, an impromptu news conference was set up on the court where players usually practice at the Lakers’ training facility.
Brown got off to a bad start last season, the Lakers setting a team record for futility after failing to score 100 points in 13 consecutive games last January. They finished 41-25 in the regular season and lost in five games to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference semifinals after struggling past Denver in seven games in the first round.
Brown, 42, has about $10 million left on his contract. He has another guaranteed year remaining and a partial guarantee in 2013-14. He was “caught off guard” by the firing, according to a person close to him. He professed thanks to the Lakers in a statement released by the team.
Kupchak tried not to sound any alarms in an interview Thursday with the Los Angeles Times.
“Expectations are high, there’s no doubt. The city is impatient,” he acknowledged. “At what point do you lose patience? Is it 1-15? Is it a higher number? A lesser number?”
It turned out to be a lesser number. A substantially smaller one.