Kobe Bryant usually reserved his most menacing, mandible-poking, nostril-flaring glares to intimidate the opposition after hitting yet another lethal jump shot. But last week in Utah, as the Los Angeles Lakers were sinking toward yet another loss, Bryant had an angry, 10-thousand-dagger death stare reserved for his coach, Mike Brown.
The look was part frustration but mostly irritation and signaled the end for a coach who was hired without Bryant’s counsel two summers ago and had proved to be a poor fit long before the Lakers decided to fire him last Friday after a 1-4 start put them in last place in the Western Conference.
This season is meant to return one of the NBA’s most storied franchises, and Bryant, back to championship glory. Patience was eliminated from the discussion for a team with a combined three most valuable player awards and 35 all-star appearances. When the Lakers sputtered and looked discombobulated against every team except the lowly Detroit Pistons, Brown abruptly became the scapegoat, as coaches not named Phil Jackson and Pat Riley often do in Los Angeles.
Jackson, and Riley before him, made coaching the Lakers one of the most glamorous, glorious position in professional sports; one that requires charm, savvy and salesmanship in addition to a sharp knowledge of the game.
Brown possessed the latter but not the former, which was apparent when he showed up at Staples Center for his first preseason game with the Lakers carrying an ironing board and an iron. No matter how much Brown enjoyed ironing shirts – that have already been dry-cleaned – before games because it helps him relax and focus, the scene didn’t fit with the image of his predecessors.
The Lakers tried to use Brown’s implementation of the Princeton offense on a team that features Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol as the reason for his outster. That argument is incredibly flimsy since Nash is currently out with a leg fracture and the Lakers’ desired lineup of Bryant, Howard, Nash and Gasol played a grand total of 45 minutes together.
Brown become the most hastily fired coach since the ABA-NBA merger not because of offense, defense or anything in-between, but because the Lakers’ brass and the player who mattered most – Bryant – entered this season lacking trust in his ability to connect with the squad and direct it to the top.
Taking over a team with aging, rigid superstars on the back end of their primes is never an easy task for a coach. The Lakers had begun to show decline before Brown arrived. Jackson stepped away after a second-round sweep to Dallas in 2011 once it became clear that the championship window was closing with Bryant in a lead role.
Brown had a proven track record when Lakers Executive Vice President Jim Buss made the stunning decision to replace Jackson with someone other than his groomed assistant, Brian Shaw. With LeBron James leading the way, Brown helped lead Cleveland to its only trip to the NBA Finals, had two 60-win seasons and was arguably the most accomplished coach available.
But in his first year, Brown took basically the same team back to the second round, where the Lakers lost in five games to a rising Western Conference power in Oklahoma City. Players spent the entire season quietly grumbling about Brown’s lengthy practices and were slow to embrace a different system and a more hands-on and demanding coaching style.
Since Riley took over in 1981, the Lakers have had 13 coaches (Jackson had two different stints). Riley and Jackson were around for 20 seasons and won nine championships. The other 11 – including current coach, Bernie Bickerstaff – and have won none.
Mike Dunleavy led the Lakers to the NBA Finals but was gone after two seasons. Replacing Jackson is an even greater challenge. Rudy Tomjanovich, who won two titles in Houston, lasted 43 games after replacing Jackson in 2004. Brown got 83 regular season and playoff games because he lacked the other intangibles needed to lead the Lakers, and Bryant, in particular.
In other words, he wasn’t that white-haired gentleman with that bowlegged, bad-hip gait, a wry smile and 11 NBA championship rings.
Jackson never got the Kobe glare.