LOS ANGELES >> The Los Angeles Lakers fired coach Mike Brown after a 1-4 start to his second season in charge.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak announced the surprising move several hours before they hosted Golden State. Assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff will coach the Lakers against the Warriors while the club’s top brass searches for Brown’s replacement after just 18 months in charge.
“The bottom line is that the team is not winning at the pace we expected this team to win, and we didn’t see improvement,” Kupchak said at the Lakers’ training complex in El Segundo.
Los Angeles began the season with championship expectations after trading for center Dwight Howard and point guard Steve Nash, adding two superstars alongside Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. But the Lakers went 0-8 during the preseason last month for the first time in franchise history before stumbling into the regular season with an 0-3 start, losing to Dallas, Portland and the Clippers.
After finally beating Detroit last Sunday for their first win, the Lakers looked listless again in a loss at Utah on Wednesday, dropping to last place in the Western Conference. Los Angeles’ defense has been largely poor, and the players still haven’t figured out the new offense installed by Brown during training camp.
Combined with their aging core of talent and a massive payroll, Kupchak and owners Jim and Jerry Buss decided they couldn’t wait another game to start winning. Brown was dismissed in a morning meeting.
“We’re not looking five or 10 years down the road,” Kupchak said. “This team was built to contend this year. There’s no guarantee that this team can win a championship, but we feel that it can be deeply in the hunt. We’re also aware that our players … are getting older, so our feeling is that we can contend at this level for another couple of years.”
Brown was hired in May 2011 to replace 11-time NBA champion Phil Jackson, signing a four-year deal worth roughly $18 million in May 2011. Kupchak said the eight-figure payout they’ll have to make on Brown’s contract wasn’t a factor in their decision.
“It’s a pretty direct message to all of us,” Gasol said while leaving the Lakers’ shootaround Friday morning in El Segundo. “There’s no messing around. It’s time for all of us to step it up.”
In a brief news conference, Kupchak did nothing to squelch speculation that Jackson could return for a third tenure with the Lakers. The 67-year-old Jackson walked away from the club in 2011 with few apparent hard feelings, and his health has markedly improved during his time away from the NBA.
Kupchak said he hasn’t reached out to any candidates for the job, but thinks it’s likely the Lakers will hire an experienced coach who isn’t currently working. Kupchak said he hasn’t talked to Jackson, but Jim Buss’ sister, Lakers executive Jeanie Buss, is Jackson’s longtime girlfriend.
“When there’s a coach like Phil Jackson, one of the all-time greats, and he’s not coaching, I think you would be negligent not to know that he’s out there,” Kupchak said.
While Lakers fans had reacted with their usual panic whenever the 16-time NBA champions lose a few games in a row, Kupchak and Buss publicly appeared to stand firmly behind Brown, the longtime Cleveland Cavaliers coach. Brown had pleaded for patience with his integration of several new players into his lineup while everybody learned the new offense.
“I have great respect for the Buss family and the Lakers’ storied tradition, and I thank them for the opportunity they afforded me,” Brown said in a statement issued by the Lakers. “I have a deep appreciation for the coaches and players that I worked with this past year, and I wish the organization nothing but success as they move forward.”
Brown’s players all were fully behind him in public, with Bryant vocally suggesting critics of the Lakers’ new offense should give them time to get it working. Bryant missed a significant portion of training camp while dealing with minor injuries, and Nash has a small fracture in his leg that has kept him out of the lineup since the Lakers’ second game. Nash could be sidelined into December.
Yet the Lakers had given no indication they might pull one of the earliest coaching changes in NBA history until Kupchak gathered the players Friday morning to inform them of the decision.
“He told us the decision was made,” Gasol said. “We didn’t have a good start, and this is a team that was built to win. That’s what we’re all here to do.”
Along with the usual urgency accompanying any Lakers season, Howard is under contract for just one more season before the six-time All-Star center can become a free agent. The Lakers’ core players around Howard are all over 30, and the 38-year-old Nash barely made his debut before getting sidelined.
Los Angeles went 41-25 and reached the second round of the playoffs last season in Brown’s debut, losing to Oklahoma City. Brown received criticism even for that largely successful season, with Magic Johnson predicting Brown would be fired if the Lakers lost to Denver in the first round.
Brown implemented a new offensive scheme this fall that didn’t appear to suit his players’ talents, yet the Lakers also played spotty defense, Brown’s specialty. The Princeton-based offense received ridicule, but Bryant and his teammates largely defended the motion scheme, saying they needed time to implement it.
“I don’t think we lost faith at any moment,” Gasol said. “I think we all believed in what we were trying to do. We also understood it was going to take a little bit of time to do things the way they should have been done. As far as our game, it wasn’t happening as fast as we all wanted it to.”
Brown is a protégé of San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. He led Cleveland to the 2007 NBA finals and went 272-138 with the Cavaliers, becoming the most successful coach in franchise history while compiling the league’s best regular-season record in each of his last two seasons.
The 68-year-old Bickerstaff joined Brown’s coaching staff in September. He was a head coach in Charlotte, Seattle, Denver and Washington, going 415-517.