Kobe Bryant's Input Critical in Los Angeles Lakers Finding Next Head Coach

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistMay 2, 2014

SAN DIEGO, CA - APRIL 10:  NBA Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant stands on the sideline prior to the start of the game against the United States and China during an international firendly match at Qualcomm Stadium on April 10, 2014 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Kent C. Horner/Getty Images)
Kent Horner/Getty Images

Here's an uncontroversial proposition on which we should all be able to agree. Regardless of what direction the Los Angeles Lakers decide to go when selecting a new head coach, they should probably solicit some buy-in from their best player.

Mike D'Antoni resigned this week after one season on the job with the Lakers, a season that was characterized by anything and everything but success.

Kobe Bryant's guidance will be instrumental to turning this ship around.

Bryant is more than your ordinary team MVP. He's an icon in Los Angeles, a defining image of all things purple and gold. Importantly, he's also been the de facto assistant coach on this team for a while now. He's both emblematic of the Lakers in all things public and leader of the Lakers in all things private. 

General manager Mitch Kupchak will undoubtedly do most of the legwork during this search, but it's Bryant's opinion that should reign supreme. 

This won't be an any decision by any means, not if the list of candidates is any indication.

That's a lot of names, and a lot of good ones.

We'll set aside the question of who would be the best fit. After all, that's really not for us to answer. The best fit is whoever does the best job of keeping Bryant a happy camper.

If you think that's an overstatement, consider the implosion of Bryant's relationship with ousted head coach Mike D'Antoni.

According to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski:

As little as Mike D'Antoni wanted to coach Kobe Bryant in the end, Bryant wanted to play for D'Antoni even less. They had barely communicated for months, steering clear until a permanent parting on Wednesday night. They would've been miserable together, would've inevitably imploded the Los Angeles Lakers locker room.

While we're on Wojnarowski's report, it's worth noting he's added yet another name to the list of L.A.'s possibilities: "As for the Lakers' coaching job, it holds tremendous appeal to [Derek Fisher], sources with knowledge of his thinking told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday night."

That's an intriguing option in its own right, but it's Wojnarowski's rationale worth considering here. Fisher has a history with the organization and namely Bryant. He'd offer continuity with the franchise's glory days, a reminder of a time before it all went south.

The Lakers, meanwhile, are looking for a new direction and someone capable of shaking off all the bad vibes that arose last season. This won't be an overnight, knee-jerk decision—it will be deliberate.

Per ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne, "The Los Angeles Lakers plan a drawn-out and exhaustive search for Mike D'Antoni's successor as coach, but sources close to the process insist the team hopes to 'make a splash' with its eventual hire." 

We might have assumed as much. These are the Lakers after all.

But it needs to be the right kind of splash.

The kind of splash that has Bryant's fingerprints all over it. Stein and Shelburne indicate that's expected to be the case to some degree:

To this point, sources say, Bryant has not made any coaching suggestions, but the Lakers are expected to consult the 35-year-old star on the matter as he prepares to return from a 2013-14 season in which he was limited to six games because of Achilles and knee issues. Bryant's two-year, $48.5 million extension will kick in next season.

"Consultation" is an ambiguous term. Does Bryant have veto power? Will his input be just one of many considerations? Or, is this his decision to make?

There's another nugget in Stein and Shelburne's report that should raise an eyebrow: "Another factor in the team's thinking, sources say, is leaving the position open in the short term in case a potential free-agent target such as LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony tells team officials in July that he would consider coming to the Lakers if the coach of his choosing is hired."

That may sound innocuous enough at first glance, but what if the coach LeBron or Melo wants isn't the coach Kobe wants?

Those thinking long term may be willing to put up with Bryant pouting in the near term, but that's a dangerous gamble.

The Lakers can't afford to get their hastened, quasi-rebuild off to a rocky start. It's already been plagued by a series of non-starts—partly due to injury, partly because of coaches (D'Antoni, Mike Brown) and systems that failed.

Teams conducting coaching searches often have to consider their personnel and whether the two sides will mesh. In this instance, the Lakers don't have much in the way of personnel to consider. With Bryant and Steve Nash the only big names under contract going into next season, the chemistry question becomes a little bit easier.

What works for Bryant?

There are plenty of reasons to put this question first, some reasons pragmatic, others philosophical.

On the pragmatic front, Bryant is still the Lakers' best player for now. Bracketing the possibility of adding another premier star via free agency (something that may not happen until 2015 anyway), the Lakers can't afford to have Bryant giving it anything less than 100 percent. The tone he sets will trickle down to the rest of the team, setting it up to succeed or fail in a large way.

The philosophical reasons matter less from win-loss perspective, but they're every bit as important to the average Lakers fan. Bryant has done more for this franchise over the years than anyone else currently associated with the franchise. There's a sense in which the organization owes him the right to offer significant input into this decision.

Bryant has dutifully stood by throughout the Lakers' woes, defending his coaches and giving the club a semblance of strength and resilience in tough times. While he gets paid a lot to do that and more, it's hard to put a price on what Bryant delivers in return.

Even if you aren't convinced Bryant's in the best position to make this decision, it's only right that he does.

Let's go back to basketball reasons, though. After a 27-55 season, perhaps you'll be more persuaded by concrete bottom lines than sentiment.

Bryant knows the game as well as anyone. The 35-year-old is a student of the game, a lifer who could do whatever he wants when he retires. He knows his strengths, and he knows who will best put him in a position to succeed. From an X's and O's standpoint, it only makes sense to consult him. 

Among the names mentioned thus far, there's a wide range of coaching philosophies. No one has a better grasp on which fits the Lakers than Bryant.

We can certainly make some guesses about Bryant's priorities. They probably aren't all that alien to the rest of our priorities. This team desperately needs a defensive identity. To that end, it's no surprise that Thibodeau's name has come up. 

The Lakers also need flexibility. D'Antoni was so committed to his system that he made inadequate use of big man Pau Gasol, even when Gasol was clearly the team's best healthy player this season. The next coach has to be willing and able to work with whatever ends up on the Lakers roster in 2014-15 and beyond.

In the interest of even-handedness, there's one concern with any appearance of Bryant taking this process over. The next coach needs to be perceived as legitimate. He'll need buy-in from the rest of the team too. 

The last thing the Lakers want is a guy the rest of the world believes to be a puppet. That won't do anything good for a locker room in serious need of rehabilitation and unequivocal leadership. Much as Bryant needs to be involved in this decision, it can't look like it was his alone.


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