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The Los Angeles Lakers are nearing a coaching hire after firing Frank Vogel shortly after the regular season, and each of the three candidates represent a different path philosophically for the Lakers.
Per Shams Charania of The Athletic, the Lakers have three finalists in Terry Stotts, Darvin Ham and Kenny Atkinson. The next step will be in-person interviews with the team’s top brass, including governor Jeanie Buss.
Is this the Lakers’ final list? Given Quin Snyder (Utah Jazz) or Doc Rivers (Philadephia 76ers) do not appear to be relocating, it may be. Remember, Los Angeles was on the verge of hiring Lue in 2019 but pivoted to Vogel after talks broke down.
The final decision remains to be seen, but it will probably be one of Stotts, Ham or Atkinson.. What are the pros and cons of each candidate? We polled an assortment of league executives and agents to get an informed read on the Lakers’ looming decision.
Stotts: Safest Decision
Of the three, former Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts, 64, is the safest choice. His body of work is long and clear, starting as an assistant with the Seattle SuperSonics in 1994 (pre-dating Kobe Byrant’s 1996 NBA arrival).
Stotts had a couple of two-year stints as a head coach with the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks, but he’s best known for his nine-season run with the Portland Trail Blazers. Stotts joined the team in 2012-13 with then-rookie Damian Lillard.
Outside of Lillard’s first year, the Blazers didn’t miss the playoffs with Stotts on the bench, making three trips to the second round of the playoffs and one to the conference finals.
Does Stotts get dinged because Portland didn’t win a title over that span? One argument is that Stotts had a roster that was never as balanced or deep as other top Western Conference rivals. Then there is the opposite take: He couldn’t adjust enough to push his team to the ultimate goal.
Asking various executives (current and former) and agents around the NBA, most believe it’s the former. He’s a high-level offensive coach who can get the most out of whatever talent he’s given. Fewer raved about his defensive acumen, though some pointed at Portland’s undersized backcourt and a non-switchable center in Jusuf Nurkic as roster deficiencies.
Stotts may be the opposite of Vogel, a high-level defensive coach with a limited offensive repertoire. If Stotts is the hire, the Lakers should pair him with a high-level lead defensive assistant.
Some sources wondered if Stotts would struggle, like Vogel, to command the locker room’s respect, although he worked well with Lillard for a long stretch.
Ham: The Best Fit
Ham, 48, has the shortest resume of the three candidates, and no head coaching experience. He started as an assistant in 2011 with the Lakers, spent five years with the Hawks and has spent four years with the Bucks. Last season, he earned a ring on Mike Budenholzer’s staff. But overall, Ham is the most considerable risk if a resume is a primary qualifier.
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But don’t make that argument to the Boston Celtics, who are in the Eastern Conference Finals with a rookie coach in Ime Udoka. Ham can’t build a resume as a head coach without an opportunity. In part, Ham has the most significant upside because he’s more of an unknown.
The Lakers may be willing to take that leap of faith because Ham spent two years with the organization. His personality isn’t easily forgotten. Ham brings a lot of energy to a gym. He’s arguably the best fit for the locker room, with veterans like LeBron James, Anthony Davis and possibly Russell Westbrook in need of a coach they can relate to and respect.
“He’s the guy LeBron wants,” a competing source said.
It will be up to Ham to spell out his basketball vision, in general and in context to the Lakers’ roster makeup. He could be the hire if he can sell that side to the team’s front office.
Atkinson: The Wild Card
Atkinson, 54, hasn’t been around as long as Stotts, but he has nearly four years head coaching experience with the Brooklyn Nets. After working as an assistant with the New York Knicks, he successfully developed the rebuilding Nets into a playoff team, getting the most out of young players like D’Angelo Russell, Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen.
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The acquisitions of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in 2019 shifted the Nets’ priorities. Irving played in just 20 games, and Durant sat all year. Atkinson set the team up for a playoff run, but he and the team decided to part ways in early March, a few weeks before the pandemic shutdown.
“Kenny pushed for the parting just as much, if not more than Brooklyn,” per Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports.
Atkinson moved on to coach under Tyronn Lue with the Los Angeles Clippers last season and is currently on Steve Kerr’s bench with the Golden State Warriors. He has a strong reputation around the league for his basketball acumen and ability to develop players.
He also has a reputation for being a bit headstrong or rigid in personality. He’s going to demand respect, but he’s going to need to clarify precisely why he and the Nets divorced in-season. Is he the right coach for star players with strong personalities like James?
Atkinson may have the most outside-the-box style of the three finalists. Per a competing source, he’s similar to Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, willing to experiment with unconventional strategies to win by whatever means necessary.
The answer needs to come quickly. The team doesn’t have a pick in the June 23 NBA Draft, but most of the Lakers’ offseason roster changes are likely to come in late June and early July. Locking in a head coach and style of play is a pressing priority.
Email Eric Pincus at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.
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