Lakers coaching candidates: 25 possible options — from the obvious to ridiculous — to replace Frank Vogel

With Frank Vogel officially out as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, I think it would behoove us to take a look at this team’s last few coaching searches:

  • In 2019, the Lakers chose Ty Lue as their head coach … but couldn’t sign him to a contract. They offered just a three-year deal and insisted on control over his coaching staff. He declined and they settled on Vogel.
  • In 2016, the Lakers hired Luke Walton, and in 2014, the Lakers hired Byron Scott. The process was pretty normal, which by Lakers standards, is absolutely not normal.
  • In 2012, the Lakers fired Mike Brown five games into the season. They approached Phil Jackson about returning, but when he asked for a weekend to think about it, they hired Mike D’Antoni before he could give them a response.
  • A year earlier, after Jackson’s retirement, Kobe Bryant publicly lobbied for assistant coach Brian Shaw to be promoted. The Lakers hired Brown.
  • In 2005, the Lakers rehired Jackson after parting with him only a year earlier. They tried to hire Mike Krzyzewski in 2004. Rudy Tomjanovich coached them for 43 games between Jackson stints.

All of this combines to paint a picture of what a typical Lakers coaching search looks like: ambitious, nepotistic and downright weird. 

Above all else, the Lakers chase winners. Lue, Jackson and Tomjanovich all won championships before their dalliances with Los Angeles. Krzyzewski was the best coach in college. Brown and Scott reached the Finals. Vogel and D’Antoni reached the conference finals. The Lakers practically never hire coaches without extensive resumes. They also very heavily favor coaches with ties to the Lakers. Lue, Walton and Scott all played in Los Angeles. This isn’t surprising considering most of the power brokers behind these hires either played for the Lakers themselves (Jerry West, Mitch Kupchak, Kurt Rambis) or were closely associated with the team in other ways (Rob Pelinka was Kobe’s agent). 

The Lakers like to stay within the Laker family when possible. They also lack any semblance of shame. They’re prepared to walk away from the right candidate if they can’t hire him on their terms. They’re willing to go back to a coach they once fired with their tail between their legs. Do not expect this to be a quiet process. So before things get too wild, we’re going to cover every conceivable candidate to replace Vogel as the next coach of the Lakers.

The currently employed big names

Seven playoff teams have changed coaches after the postseason over the past two years. That does not include the Boston Celtics, who promoted their coach to the front office after last season, or the Brooklyn Nets, who fired Kenny Atkinson in the middle of the 2019-20 season and hired a replacement only after the Orlando bubble. This is going to be a trend that continues during the all-in era. As more and more teams chase immediate contention, those that don’t need scapegoats. Changing coaches is easier than changing players, so teams typically look to them as fall guys. Two veterans stand out with the postseason looming.

Doc Rivers oversaw another collapse last postseason. His 76ers, who looked so promising prior to the James Harden acquisition, have slumped badly since the trade deadline. President of basketball operations Daryl Morey did not hire Rivers, and the two of them approach basketball fairly differently. If Philadelphia flames out early in the playoffs, Rivers, despite the three years remaining on his contract, is the likeliest scapegoat by far. He is also exactly the sort of candidate all of the major decision-makers in Los Angeles could compromise on. He’s a big name that has coached in Los Angeles before and is known to be player-friendly. His questionable rotation choices and aversion to 3-pointers are meaningful arguments against his hiring, and he has no meaningful ties to the organization. Still, he is the sort of splashy hire that this team tends to favor. If he is available, he will be among the favorites.

Quin Snyder should be the favorite if he does become available. He lacks Rivers’ championship pedigree, but has worked in the organization before and has much more modern coaching philosophies. He’s a rumored candidate to replace Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, and the Jazz really shouldn’t let him go, but change is coming to that organization in some fashion if they suffer another embarrassing playoff defeat. If it’s Snyder, he will be highly sought-after. 

The former Laker coaches

Most Lakers coaches will be considered on the basis of what they can do with a roster that does not include Russell Westbrook. In all likelihood, he will be traded. But if he isn’t? Mike D’Antoni is one of the few offensive coaches innovative enough to build a system around his shooting deficiencies. Westbrook averaged 27.2 points under D’Antoni in Houston two seasons ago. But D’Antoni’s last Lakers tenure didn’t end all that well. Watch for him to emerge as a possible replacement for Rivers in Philadelphia if the Sixers seek a change.

Mike Brown is a far likelier returning Laker. The organization could easily talk itself into firing him too hastily. After all, he was axed just five games into his second Lakers season. He’s coached LeBron James to the Finals, and a lengthy apprenticeship under Steve Kerr can only help his cause. Brown will be a head coach again if he wants to be, and his defensive reputation is on par with Vogel’s. If he can marry that with some of the offensive principles the Warriors rely on, he’ll be a successful head coach in his next job.

Kurt Rambis was the interim coach of the Lakers for most of the 1998-99 season. After it ended, Shaquille O’Neal gave a message to his agent to relay to Jerry West. “I’m not playing for Kurt,” O’Neal said, according to Jeff Pearlman in his book, “Three Ring Circus.” “Nobody wants to play for Kurt. If Kurt’s coach next year, I ain’t playing.” This captures the essence of Rambis quite succinctly. Nobody wants to play for him. That works out nicely because he isn’t qualified to coach this team. He has coached 192 NBA games without O’Neal or Kobe Bryant on his roster and won 41 of them. The Knicks nearly mutinied against him. On merit, he does not deserve to be on this list. He has to be mentioned, though, because for reasons that remain unclear, he holds an inordinate amount of power within the organization. If he wants to coach the Lakers, it might not matter that nobody wants to play for him. He might have the power to hire himself. Fortunately, it appears unlikely that he takes that seat because, according to Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, he is viewed as an “integral figure in the front office.” That bullet appears to be dodged.

Internal candidates

Don’t expect the Lakers to stay in the building here. David Fizdale auditioned for the job in December when Frank Vogel got COVID and he went 1-5. His underwhelming Knicks tenure won’t do him any favors here either, and while he gets along with James in his current capacity as an assistant, his fractured relationship with Marc Gasol calls into question his ability to coexist with certain stars. Phil Handy might be on a head-coaching track. He’s drawn rave reviews for his work with both James and the younger Lakers, and he has won three of the past six championships in an assistant role. It just doesn’t seem like the Lakers would target a developmental specialist given their desire to win now. The best situation for Handy would be to grow with a younger team, not jump into the deep end with one of the messiest jobs in basketball. No other Lakers assistants are ready to be considered for top jobs.

External assistants

There aren’t many first-time coaches that are going to garner serious consideration here. Very few of them have the credibility to lead a veteran locker room like this one. Sam Cassell might be an exception. He is a widely respected former player who has spent years working under Doc Rivers, and as James knows well from his time with Ty Lue, former Rivers assistants tend to do well in top jobs. If he had his pick of first-timers, though, he’d likely advocate for Jared Dudley. The longtime role player served as a confidante to James and Davis in his two seasons as a Laker, and James publicly grumbled when Dudley wasn’t re-signed this offseason. He went on to take an assistant job under Jason Kidd in Dallas. It’s probably too early for Dudley to get a head coaching job, but he’ll get one eventually, and if buy-in from James and Davis is paramount here, he’ll at least be discussed internally. Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin is another future head coach who should get some interviews this offseason, but without any meaningful connections to the major power brokers in Los Angeles, he’s probably going to have a hard time getting a foot in the door.

Connected to the principles

The Lakers tried to hire Lue in 2019 in part because of his connection to James. That didn’t turn out to be a requirement, as Vogel had coached neither James nor Davis, but given their immediate need to contend, it’s likely going to factor into this search. A long shot to watch here would be Vanderbilt’s Jerry Stackhouse, who briefly crossed paths with James in Miami before a highly regarded run as a Raptors assistant. If the Lakers are going to pursue a former James teammate, Juwan Howard would surely top their list. He both played with and coached James in Miami, but he is also a collegiate teammate of Pelinka’s. He interviewed for the job in 2019 and has gone on to a successful stint as Michigan’s head coach. If he’s interested in returning to the pros, the Lakers would be a sensible landing spot.

But James is nearing the end of his career. Eventually, the franchise would prefer to hand the reins over to Davis. His last coach in New Orleans, Alvin Gentry, will likely be available as the Kings seek out a full-time replacement for Luke Walton. Gentry is an offensive genius who would fit well on a Lakers staff, but given his up-and-down record as a head coach, likely won’t be atop the team’s list. If the Lakers want to swing big on a coach Davis would approve of, don’t be surprised if John Calipari gets a call. While his job isn’t exactly in jeopardy, Kentucky hasn’t been to a Final Four since 2015. If he feels as though he’s stagnated in his current position, the Lakers represent an appealing short-term escape route. If nothing else, we know he can connect with stars. That’s a big part of succeeding with the Lakers.

James wanted Mark Jackson, represented by Klutch Sports, to take over the Cavaliers when they fired David Blatt. Cleveland wisely said no. Jackson’s isolation-heavy offense held the Stephen Curry-led Warriors back significantly. They won a championship in their first season without him. As long as he is represented by Klutch, though, his name is going to find its way into this rumor mill.

And if Westbrook does return? Scott Brooks coached him in both Oklahoma City and Washington. The Lakers considered hiring him as a Westbrook whisperer this season, but were outbid by Portland. Neither of his last two head coaching stints were particularly encouraging, but if the Lakers do need to get Westbrook to buy in, Brooks is probably their best bet.

Former head coaches looking for another chance

This is the group that Vogel once belonged to. When the Lue hire fell through, the Lakers looked to former head coaches deserving of another shot. The available coach whose profile is most similar to Vogel’s in 2019 is probably Terry Stotts. Like Vogel, Stotts topped out as a conference finalist. He lost his job after the Blazers grew stale in his final seasons. He is much more of an offensive mind than the defensive-focused Vogel, but otherwise, the two share many parallels.

If defense remains a priority, Steve Clifford would be a wise target. If he could coax passable defenses out of underwhelming talent in Orlando and Charlotte, just imagine what he could do with Davis. Speaking of making the most of his talent, Kenny Atkinson’s work with a limited roster in Brooklyn was enough to lure Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to the Nets. Of course, he never built a lasting relationship with those stars and was ultimately fired. Now he’s working as a developmental specialist in Golden State. That skill set isn’t a priority right now, but when this group eventually needs to be rebuilt, Atkinson would be up to the task.

Dave Joerger came closer to taking the Kings to the playoffs than anyone has during their lottery streak. He was fired anyway because … well … the Kings. How he’d feel about joining another dysfunctional organization is anyone’s guess, but he’s ready for another head-coaching stint. Lloyd Pierce could potentially get one as well. While Atlanta thrived after his dismissal a season ago, they’ve since come back to down to Earth. Health played a big part in holding back his Hawks, though health hasn’t been a strength for the Lakers either.

And then there’s Brian Shaw, who had a brief run as Denver’s head coach and has fallen off of the carousel ever since. Currently with the Clippers after a year coaching the G-League Ignite, Shaw would satisfy the team’s desire to stay in the family. Of course, if he wasn’t right for the job a decade ago, it’s worth asking what has changed since?

Non-candidates who need to be addressed

Phil Jackson is 76 years old. That’s three years older than any coach in NBA history. He’s not returning to the bench, though he likely will have influence as an adviser to Jeanie Buss if she seeks his counsel. Similarly, it would be hard to imagine that even LeBron’s Team USA connection could coax Mike Krzyzewski into the NBA after his retirement from Duke. If Coach K wanted to coach the Lakers he could’ve in 2004.

The pie-in-the-sky name that will inevitably be tossed around during this process is Erik Spoelstra, the longtime coach of the Heat who won two championships with James. There would be something fitting about his mentor starting his career in Los Angeles and finishing it in Miami only for his protege to flip the script, and Spoelstra’s recent on-court feud with Jimmy Butler suggests a bit of tension in the Sunshine State.

It just wouldn’t make any sense for Spoelstra to make the move. The Heat are the most stable organization in the NBA. Spoelstra could be in line to replace Riley as team president when the legendary executive retires. Miami is one of the few teams that would side with its coach if he could no longer coexist with a player, and there’s no reason to believe things have gone that far. Spoelstra is trying to win a championship with the Heat right now. He’s not going to be the coach of the Lakers.

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