The Case for Jeff Van Gundy as the Next Coach of the Lakers

As the media reports speculate about the next coach of the Los Angeles Lakers there seem to a few candidates whose names pop up again and again. Mike Dunleavy, Rick Adelman, Brian Shaw and Jeff Van Gundy have all been floated as possible replacements and chances are it’ll be one of those faces that we see sitting on the bench for the Lakers next year.

Yet even if none of those names carry the same weight as the man they would be succeeding, there is one who I believe would make the best choice. But in order to litigate that case, let’s first take a quick digression.

If you’re a hoops junkie like me you probably spend a lot of time surfing the pages of One of the stats they use at the top of every team summary is something called defensive rating. The d-rating measures how many points a team gives up per every 100 defensive possessions.

Basically, regardless of whether you’re the playing a break neck seven seconds of less tempo (’06 Phoenix Suns) or a snails pace, makes paint drying seem exciting type speed (Mike Fratello’s Cavs of the mid nineties) this metric gives you an idea of just how efficient your defense is playing. Sure, maybe you hold opponents to 90 points a game but you give up close to 50% shooting from the field. Or perhaps you play a high tempo game but actually hold teams to a relatively low percentage from the field. In this way, d-rating knows no bias.

Only once in his career has Jeff Van Gundy had a team he coached for the whole season that wasn’t in the top 5 in defensive rating (the outlier is the 2000 Knicks, who finished 6th). The fact is the Van Gundy has shown a propensity to scheme well on defense and to extract maximum effort from his players. Like his mentor Pat Riley, Van Gundy is a motivator. There is never a question about effort from a Jeff Van Gundy team. And I think that’s exactly what the Lakers need right now, a commitment to defense.

Hiring Van Gundy would be a chance for the Lakers to re-brand themselves as the defensive juggernauts they once were and create a dynamic shift away from the Phil Jackson era. And while his coaching style and philosophy may differ from Phil he has a work ethic and basketball acumen that even Kobe Bryant can respect.

Unlike Dunleavy and Adelman, I would argue Van Gundy has never had elite talent at his disposal. Getting the ’99 Knicks to the NBA Finals was a miracle. In Houston his third best player was Rafer Alston. No offense to Rafer, but that roster was never at a championship level. Compare that to the other two veteran coaches in consideration.

Dunleavy had the Lakers at the tail end of showtime and while he guided them to the finals, he couldn’t close the deal. Likewise, his Portland squad of 2000 was one good quarter away from the finals, and a possible championship, but they too failed when it mattered most.

Adelman has had some of the best teams of all-time that never won a ring. The Clyde Drexler-era Blazers of the early 90’s were dynamic but ultimately defeated. And Lakers’ fans know well how tough the Kings were that challenged them during the Shaq era. Yet they too ultimately fell short.

Then there’s Brian Shaw, who has never been a head coach on any level.

Shaw offers the benefits of a coach the Lakers roster likes and will run a system with which they are familiar. Yet his chumminess with the players worries me. Can they see him as less like a uncle and more like a boss? And as advantageous as it might be to keep a sense of continuity with the triangle, what if the Lakers make a dramatic roster move over the summer (such as trading Bynum). Won’t the newcomers just be learning a new offense all over again? Wasn’t that one of the main complaints coming out of the exit interviews, the lack of practice time and understanding of the triangle?

Now there are some who fear that Van Gundy’s micro managerial style may clash with veterans who are used to doing things their own way.Yet I expect an embarrassed and motivated Lakers team to show up to ready to work their butts off. And I can’t think of a coach who will get more of out a team like that than JVG.

Others say changing systems with a team that has proven championship capable is a mistake. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But that’s just it, the playoffs showed that this Lakers team is broke, and a few band aids here or there aren’t going to do the trick. In order to find a comfort zone again, the Lakers must first step outside of it. That’s exactly what Van Gundy can bring.

In Kobe Bryant’s exit interview he made clear that defense and rebounding had to be the foundation of any championship squad. So why not hire the coach that is synonymous with those concepts? A coach with passion and fire who is willing to, if necessary, literally scratch and claw in defense of his team (just ask Alonzo Mourning).

In short, why not hire Jeff Van Gundy?

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