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Evaluating the Fit Between the Lakers and Tom Thibodeau

Chris Sweda/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

With Kobe Bryant playing his 2oth  and possibly final season in the NBA, there is a strong motivation for the Los Angeles Lakers to try to give one more final push to win a championship before moving into the new era of Lakers basketball. But this is problematic, as Bryant appears to be just a shadow of his former self and the rest of the roster is filled with young, inexperienced players and aging veterans.

This Lakers team is probably not even a playoff contender, much less a title contender. After an 0-4 start to the season that has seen them allow 116.8 points per game, there are beginning to be whispers that head coach Byron Scott, who doesn’t exactly carry a championship pedigree, could be on the hot seat.

The latest buzz—and granted, it’s merely a fan idea that has spread like wildfire—is that the Lakers should replace Scott with former Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. Thibs was fired by the Bulls following a disappointing secound-round playoff exit against the Cleveland Cavaliers last season and has elected to take his money and run, sitting out this season and doing whatever it is that Tom Thibodeau does when he’s not coaching (eating Chinese food and lifting weights?).

Thibodeau is a defensive-minded coach with a knack for pushing his players extra hard in practice to get them used to how hard he expects them to work on a game-to-game basis. Thibodeau’s Bulls teams were known for effort and intensity, something that might have made the late-Bulls legend Norm Van Lier tear up a little. His teams out-won their expectations in the regular season before fizzling out in the playoffs and looking exhausted in the process. He made the postseason every single year he was in Chicago, even through many seasons where his team was decimated with key injuries.

And there’s the downside of Tom Thibodeau, head basketball coach. He is stubborn, set in his ways, and somewhat deaf to the needs of those around him. Bulls players always said the right things, but it’s clear that they weren’t exactly upset that Thibs was gone after last season. After all, this is the coach that fought against minutes limits on injured or recovering players. He pushed back against new technology that could monitor players bodies in the hope of preventing injuries. On more than one occasion, he put a player (Joakim Noah and Omer Asik) back into a game with a severe leg injury.

This is the guy that Lakers fans are clamoring for? It’s understandable that fans are disappointed in the Lakers poor start to the season, of which no one involved in the process is blameless. Bryant has been awful, shooting 32.3 percent from the field and 20.6 percent on three-point attempts (he’s taking 8.5 attempts per game from downtown). Rookie D’Angelo Russell is promising, but he has yet to get it going either.

And then there’s the defense. Their team defensive rating of 114.8 ranks second-to-last in the NBA, and that’s no fluke. This team is legitimately bad at defense, and that falls on the head coach. In fact, the last time Scott coached a team that wasn’t awful on defense was his last full year in charge of the New Orleans Hornets, back in 2008-09. Going forward with a roster full of young players, it could certainly be in the Lakers best interest to look into other coaching options.

That may even mean this season, but will a coaching change really matter? Not even Phil Jackson himself could save this Lakers squad and turn them into a championship contender, but it’s possible that they could be shaped into a playoff team. Knowing the playoffs are a best-case-scenario, I think that Lakers management would be wise to think about what goals are achievable this season. Wouldn’t it be nice to transition from the Kobe era to Russell and fellow youngsters Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson with a final playoff series?

Which brings us back to Thibodeau. Could he be the answer to this complicated equation? I’m not so sure he fits, actually. First of all, Bryant is well known for having a difficult personality. Jackson was very open about the tactics he needed to use to get the best out of Bryant, who demands to be the star of the team and to be treated as such. Back when he was one of the best players in the game, this was less of an issue. But now? While Scott has openly allowed Bryant carte blanche, the idea of Thibodeau being asked to cater to a washed up superstar is good for a chuckle.

Oct. 28, 2015 - Los Angeles, CA, USA - The Lakers' Kobe Bryant and D'Angelo Russell get some rest on the bench during the Lakers' 112-111 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves in their season opener Wednesday night at Staples Center, Oct. 28, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

Oct. 28, 2015 – Los Angeles, CA, USA – The Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and D’Angelo Russell get some rest on the bench during the Lakers’ 112-111 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves in their season opener Wednesday night at Staples Center, Oct. 28, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

Thibs doesn’t care about player status, how much money a guy makes, or what popular opinion may be. My vision of Tom Thibodeau coaching the Lakers in 2015-16 involves Bryant sitting on the bench in the fourth quarter because he’s too slow and can’t play defense anymore. I wonder how that will sit with Kobe?

Thibodeau is the guy that sat Carlos Boozer for Taj Gibson in the fourth quarter of games in the very first year of Boozer’s big free agent contract with the Bulls. Boozer doesn’t exactly have Bryant’s clout, but at the time he was the Bulls consolation prize during the 2010 Summer of LeBron. For all the money that the organization paid for Boozer, it was shocking—albeit refreshing—to see a rookie head coach benching him in the final period of most games.

But that’s part of how Thibodeau wins. Gibson was clearly the better defensive player and he got the nod in the fourth quarter frequently over the last several years. Noah got the same treatment last season, when his knees were failing him and he was no longer the same player as even just the year prior. Thibodeau doesn’t care who you are or what you’ve accomplished, he just wants to win today’s game.

So let’s just pretend that everyone is okay with completely alienating Bryant for the sake of making the playoffs and the young players learning the merit of hard work and defensive intensity. There is still the issue of Thibodeau running his players into the ground.

It’ll never be proven that Thibodeau was responsible for Derrick Rose’s injuries, the various injuries and ailments of Luol Deng, or the deterioration of Noah’s knees. But if the Lakers did hire Thibodeau, this is a very real concern. Would he ride Clarkson hard like he did with Deng and Jimmy Butler, to the tune of 38 minutes per game? Would he encourage players to play through injuries, as he reportedly did in Chicago?

As great of a defensive wizard as Tom Thibodeau is—and a basketball savant, in general—I don’t see any way that dumping current head coach Byron Scott to make this switch is good for the current goals of the organization. Everyone should know by now that this team isn’t winning a championship, and they’re probably not making the playoffs either.

In reality, if you’re going to bend over backwards for your 37-year-old former star and cater to his every whim, it’s probably best to do it in a season that matters little in the standings. Then the Lakers can put the real focus on making sure they have the right coach for their young core next offseason—whether that coach is Thibodeau or not.

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