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Coaching Around: The Search for LeBron’s Best Match

A good head coach is hard to find these days (especially in Los Angeles). Here are the most compatible suitors for James if/when the Lakers decide to part ways with Luke Walton.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Lakers are 30-34, on a three-game losing streak, and 10th in the Western Conference standings. To that I say, thanks Luke, next:

According to The New York Times’ Marc Stein, the “prevailing assumption in league coaching circles” is that Lakers coach Luke Walton will be let go after this season. And while most players are at the will of a general manager or president, and your dating life is at the will of a mutual friend or an algorithm, only LeBron James plays matchmaker for LeBron James. There aren’t many worthwhile fish in the available coaching pool, but we do know James’s preferences well—down to which forward position and wine varietal he likes—and we know the games he likes to play. Here are five potential candidates so far, along with their current status and the traits that make them most compatible with LeBron:

Tyronn Lue, 41

Current Status: Available (dumped by the Cavs this season)
Compatible Quality: Not controlling

James is one of the few players with the power to have a large say in who his coaches are; though it’s never been said outright, he seemed to have a heavy hand in a few hirings (and firings), including Lue’s promotion in 2015 to Cavaliers head coach. Because of this, you can say that James’s type is someone who lets him take the lead. No coach wants to be known as passive, and Lue wasn’t, calling out James on occasion, but he did give the king plenty of say in what they ran on the court. As a result, Lue’s contributions were recognized less than those of a typical championship team’s coach. But the two didn’t clash. With James, that’s enough for the job.

John Calipari, 60

Current Status: Unavailable (currently with the Kentucky Wildcats)
Compatible Quality: Good with kids

James needs his new coach to be part guidance counselor. Cal built his Kentucky program on connecting with young adults, to the point that the school became a feeder system for the elite one-and-done players in the country. He’s the ultimate “player’s coach,” especially for those in the age range of Brandon Ingram (21), Lonzo Ball (21), and Kyle Kuzma (23). Say all those young players get traded for Anthony Davis; well, Cal has a connection with him too. (He practically has a connection with one-fourth of the league, which would help L.A.’s recent recruiting problems.) Calipari may never return to the big leagues after three seasons with the Nets in the late 1990s, but with the NBA making a hard push to make 18-year-olds draft-eligible again, the timing could finally be right.

Jason Kidd, 45

Current Status: Available (dumped by the Bucks last season)
Compatible Quality: Likes to fastbreak and chill

Kidd isn’t remembered fondly for his time as Milwaukee’s head coach, but one thing the Bucks did well was allow Giannis Antetokounmpo full freedom. (Kidd couldn’t quite figure out where to put the rest of the roster.) Milwaukee had success in transition under Kidd, which is where the Lakers get buckets too. But for all of Antetokounmpo’s back and forth on fastbreaks, the Bucks still managed to play at one of the league’s slower paces during Kidd’s stint. Los Angeles plays at the fourth-fastest pace, which doesn’t suit James’s aging game. He isn’t walking the ball up the court as often as he did in Cleveland, but he’s already conserving energy when he can, pulling long 3s or passing early and hovering above the break as the rest of the possession plays out. Kidd might not know what to do with the rest of the Lakers any better than Walton does, but James would appreciate the breather.

Mark Jackson, 53

Current Status: Available (dumped by the Warriors in 2014)
Compatible Quality: Gets defensive easily

Jackson’s defense set some of the groundwork for the Warriors’ success. Steve Kerr has said before that Golden State “didn’t change one thing” defensively after his predecessor left, except to switch more frequently. “For the most part,” Kerr said in 2017, “our schemes — everything — stayed the same.” Golden State finished with the third-best defensive rating in 2013-14, Jackson’s last season as head coach. Los Angeles is currently middle of the pack in defensive rating, and its performance on that end has been a weakness over the final few months of the season, when the Lakers need it most. Recently, James in particular has looked like he could use a push.

Of course, you have to work on yourself first before you can be part of a healthy defense. Maybe Jackson would inspire that in James.

Kobe Bryant, 40

Current Status: Available (amicable goodbye from the Lakers in 2016)
Compatible Quality: Similar interests

This would almost certainly be a disaster because of the clash of egos, but both are obsessed with winning and have experience doing so together. Bryant and James brought home two Olympic gold medals together, in 2008 (along with Kidd) and 2012. Even if the losing continued under Bryant, it would take some of the heat off James. Lakers fans can’t chant to bring back Kobe when he’s on the bench.