LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers fired coach Mike Brown on Friday 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 was 272-138 with the Cavaliers, 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.
A few hours after the Los Angeles Lakers’ top brass abruptly fired coach Mike Brown and threw their season into turmoil before mid-November, Brown’s former players demonstrated why there’s still ample reason to think this team can be saved.
The Lakers should find out soon whether Phil Jackson gets the chance to do the saving — again.
Kobe Bryant scored 27 points, Pau Gasol added 14 points and 16 rebounds, and the Lakers doubled their win total with a 101-77 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Friday night.
Jordan Hill scored 14 points for the Lakers, who were uniformly stunned by Brown’s dismissal after just 18 months on the job. Following a bumpy first half against Golden State under interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff, they pulled away in the third quarter with a 25-9 run led by Bryant, who also had nine rebounds and seven assists.
“I think everybody didn’t know how to react to it emotionally,” Bryant said. “Everybody had to just go about their business and play basketball. ... A lot of the emotion that was picked up was kind of unleashed when we played.”
The comfortable victory capped one of the most tumultuous days in recent history for a franchise that’s never short on drama. With the high-priced veteran club off to a Western Conference-worst 1-4 start following a winless preseason, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and owner Jim Buss abruptly dismissed Brown, informing players during their morning shootaround.
Bickerstaff ran the Lakers as the interim coach, but the veteran NBA bench boss isn’t likely to be a candidate for the full-time job. Kupchak is searching for a replacement, possibly making a selection before the Lakers’ next game on Sunday against Sacramento.
The Lakers’ crowd quickly made its choice known: A chant of “We want Phil!” rose out of the stands while Bryant shot a free throw in the third quarter, and echoed a few more times later in the half.
“I can understand why,” Bickerstaff said. “The guy’s got the rings.”
Jackson, the 11-time NBA champion coach who won five rings in two previous stints running the Lakers, is near the top of Kupchak’s list again, the GM acknowledged. Mike D’Antoni, the former Knicks and Suns coach, also is thought to be a prime candidate.
Bryant said he would be thoroughly happy with Jackson, D’Antoni or former Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw in charge. Bryant’s injury struggles during Jackson’s final season would give him particular motivation for a third stint together.
“I wasn’t able to give him my real self because I was playing on one leg,” Bryant said. “It’s always kind of eaten away at me that in the last year of his career ... I couldn’t give him everything I had because I was playing on one knee.”
Dwight Howard had six points and eight rebounds while playing just 24 minutes for the Lakers in his ongoing return from offseason back surgery. Steve Nash, the other major addition to the club, watched from behind the bench, missing his fourth straight game with a small fracture in his leg. Nash will be out for at least another week, the Lakers announced after the game.
After the protracted drama between Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy and the six-time All-Star center, Howard met questions about the Lakers’ coaching staff with a smile and silence.
“I’m going to keep that to myself,” Howard said. “I learned my lesson last year.”
Brown never got the chance to integrate the two stars into his new offense while they were dogged by health issues. Kupchak and Buss still needed to see more progress than the Lakers managed in the past six weeks, particularly on defense — and they saw it against the Warriors, who managed just 33.7 percent shooting and made 19 turnovers.
“We were just out of sync, no excuse,” Golden State coach Mark Jackson said. “If you’re going to beat a good team on the road, you’ve got to take care of the basketball. We came in with the mindset to run, and they outscored us even in fast-break points. Just disappointed overall.”
Stephen Curry scored 18 points and Klay Thompson had 15 for the Warriors, who have lost five straight to the Lakers overall, and nine in a row at Staples Center since March 2008.
“I think we played well, but the score doesn’t say that,” Curry said. “Defensively, we did a pretty good job. We’re just undersized down there, trying to battle the boards and the paint.”
The Lakers’ offensive struggles evaporated in the third quarter while they leaped to an 18-point lead over the undermanned Warriors, who struggled to contend inside without injured center Andrew Bogut.
Darius Morris had career highs of 10 points and five rebounds while playing the majority of the Lakers’ minutes at point guard. Los Angeles’ reserves have been largely ineffective during Brown’s tenure, but Morris and Hill led a spirited effort against the Warriors, outscoring their counterparts with Golden State 37-17.
NOTES: Lakers F Devin Ebanks was inactive after getting arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs early Friday morning. Rookie Darius Johnson-Odom made his NBA debut in the final minutes. ... Warriors C Andris Biedrins came up roughly 2 feet short on an airballed free throw in the first half. The Latvian veteran has a career free throw shooting percentage just over 50 percent. ... Brown went 42-29 with the Lakers, coaching them to the second round of the playoffs during the strike-shortened season before his abbreviated start to this fall.