Six coaches in 13 years: What's behind this constant churn for the Los Angeles Lakers

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Saturday, May 4, 2024

More than a decade after he was fired five games into the second year of his Los Angeles Lakers coaching career, Mike Brown admitted he regretted taking the job in the first place.

"If I could do it again," Brown said in an interview with Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes on the "All the Smoke" podcast, "I probably wouldn't."

NBA Hall of Famer Phil Jackson was just too tough to follow, Brown explained. No one could live up to the standard he had set in L.A. (five NBA titles) and Chicago (six titles).

Brown had known that when he took the job in 2011. He had said as much during his introductory news conference.

"I have great respect for Phil Jackson and all of his accomplishments," Brown said. "I'm not sure what size shoe he wears. But I'm not here to fill his shoes. I'm here to help this team and this organization carve our own path to success." But acknowledging how much pressure there is on the head coach of the Lakers and actually living through that pressure are two entirely different things.

Six coaches have tried to fill Jackson's shoes in the past 13 years. None has lasted more than three seasons. Darvin Ham became the latest to take that fall when he was fired Friday after just two seasons, despite a 90-74 record and a Western Conference finals appearance last season.

Of those six, two went on to win NBA Coach of the Year awards in subsequent jobs -- Brown with the Sacramento Kings last season and Mike D'Antoni with the Houston Rockets in 2018 -- suggesting it's not the quality of the coach that determines success or failure on one of the NBA's biggest stages.

It's how the coach manages everything else that comes along with guiding the NBA's glamour franchise. The star-first culture. The magnified lights. The pressurized history.

Ham excelled at that in his first season with the Lakers, deftly navigating the franchise through the awkwardness of the Russell Westbrook era while forging a strong bond with the team's superstars, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and leading the team to an unexpected run to the West finals.

But his tenure unraveled quickly in his second season.

James bristled at the idea of restricting his minutes at the start of the season, sources said -- an idea that was noticeably scrapped after just a few games.

Throughout the season, James, Davis and other key rotation players barely bothered to conceal criticisms of Ham's schemes, rotations and in-game adjustments.

After Game 2 of the Lakers' first-round series loss to the Denver Nuggets, Davis said bluntly: "We have stretches where we don't know what we're doing on both ends of the floor."

Ham told ESPN he spoke to Davis privately before defending himself and his staff publicly. But the damage had been done. Five nights later James underscored the lack of faith in Ham by stomping his feet in frustration when Ham refused to use his coach's challenge on a play where James insisted they would win.

They were just two examples in a season long on barely-beneath-the-surface griping. But they were exceptionally visible displays from the team's most visible stars, and ultimately there was no coming back from it.

And so another summer of churn begins. The question the Lakers must ask themselves now is why -- and how to come back from yet another short, failed coaching stint.

Years ago, Lakers governor Jeanie Buss told ESPN that it's important to find a coach and stick with him long enough to grow and develop an identity and style of play.

That was several coaches and countless roster iterations ago. Each hiring and firing was different, but the pattern has remained the same.

After last season's playoff run, general manager Rob Pelinka emphasized re-signing the team's own free agents --Rui Hachimura, Austin Reaves and D'Angelo Russell-- rather than trading for a third star or pursuing more high-profile free agents.

L.A. brought back Ham and his staff and hoped they'd build off of last year's run. Early on, it seemed possible, as the Lakers won the inaugural in-season tournament.

Then, once again, the season unraveled. Injuries mounted. Ham tinkered with his lineups to try to recapture the defensive intensity that had driven last year's success. But instead of sparking a resurgence, Ham sparked resentment. Players started venting their frustrations publicly and privately.

Eventually it became obvious Ham would be the one to pay the price if L.A. lost early in the playoffs.

It was so obvious that Nuggets coach Michael Malone tried to put in a good word for Ham at his news conference after Denver's series-ending win Monday night.

"I think Darvin Ham is a hell of a coach," Malone said after Game 5. "That's not an easy job. I think Darvin does it with class. He's a good man, good coach, and I wish him all the best. Hopefully, he'll be around there for a long time because he deserves to be."

Four days later, Ham was fired.

Malone had faced a similar crossroads back in 2018, when the Nuggets lost Game 83 to the Minnesota Timberwolves and missed the playoffs. The Nuggets came close to firing him after the season, sources said. But ultimately the team decided to run it back and give him another chance. It still took two more seasons for Malone and Denver to make a conference finals and five more for them to win a championship, however.

The Nuggets are now the class of the NBA with soon-to-be three-time MVP Nikola Jokic, the NBA's fourth-longest-tenured coach and a championship core that's mostly under contract for two more seasons.

Continuity matters.Fourteen of the team's 17 championships were won by three coaches.

That kind of patience and stability is a luxury in the NBA. Everyone strives for it, but very few franchises achieve it.

The Lakers have tried and failed to find it six times since Jackson retired in 2011.

Everyone who has taken the job says they know what they're getting into. From Kobe Bryant to LeBron James, and everyone and everything in between, no one the franchise has hired has been able to withstand it.

Before the Lakers hire their next coach, they need to figure out why.

Related Video