Nine years ago, the Lakers and Suns were at war in the Western Conference finals. It was six games of pre-NY Amar’e Stoudemire and pre-L.A. Steve Nash vs. no. 24 Kobe Bryant, and, by the end of the postseason, Kobe had enough rings to fill an entire hand, Nash had missed another chance at making an NBA finals, and Stoudemire had had enough, period, and signed with New York that summer. It’s been mostly downhill for both franchises ever since.
The Lakers, as the story’s gone for the past six years, didn’t make the playoffs this season. Neither did Phoenix; in fact, the Suns haven’t played a postseason game since Kobe’s 37 points eliminated them in 2010. Yet in the spirit of a near-decade anniversary of the last time they met in May, Phoenix and L.A. are pitted against each other once again. Both are in the hunt for new head coaches, and the two franchises have at least one overlapping candidate: Sixers assistant Monty Williams. Only this isn’t a fight to the death for the chance at a title, it’s a fight to prove their team’s job sucks less than the other one’s.
In one corner is Phoenix, as messy and unstable as we left it last round. After just one season with Igor Kokoskov on the job, the Suns fired him. Like the coach who came before him, Kokoskov had no NBA head-coaching experience; unlike Earl Watson, god bless him, Kokoskov did have more than one year as an assistant in the league before getting hired. Under Kokoskov, Phoenix tanked by pure coincidence, finishing dead last in the West with a 19-63 record—the worst win percentage since the franchise’s inception in 1968.
Former Suns GM Ryan McDonough, who hired Kokoskov, called the firing “business as usual for the Suns, unfortunately.” Reckless hiring and firing does seem to be owner Robert Sarver’s modus operandi; Phoenix’s next head coach will be its fourth in five years. (McDonough himself was let go nine days before the season began, though with five full seasons in the position, McDonough was the longest-employed GM since Sarver purchased the team in 2004. Seven other men have filled the title in the other 10-odd years.)
So you could say Sarver has Mad King vibes. Any coach who goes to Phoenix will never know if their job is safe, or if the job of whomever who hired them is safe, either. The expectation might not be to win right away, but to simply show signs of improvement. Whoever takes over will inherit a young roster with no experience winning, but that is brimming with potential: Devin Booker is only 22 and entering his fifth season, rookie Deandre Ayton quietly dominated late in the season, Josh Jackson is returning, and Kelly Oubre Jr. is coming back as a restricted free agent. Phoenix is also among the three teams with the best odds at the first overall pick for the 2019 draft. The odds—just 14.0 percent—are slimmer than last season, but even miniscule odds of landing Zion Williamson make the gig worth considering.
The Suns’ job is reportedly Williams’s, if he wants it. It’s been a long time coming for Williams, who’s been an associate head coach/assistant coach with the Thunder and Sixers since the Pelicans let him go in 2015 after five years, a 173-221 record, and two postseason appearances with the Pelicans. Injuries held Williams’s New Orleans teams back, but he left the organization with a reputation as a well-respected “player’s coach.” Phoenix and L.A. were smart for calling.
Williams has interviewed with Los Angeles twice, as has former Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue. After three years with Cleveland, Lue was let go following an 0-6 start. On April 16, The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported that the Lakers favored Williams because of the fear that “hiring Lue would be giving LeBron too much control.” By May 1, Stein said Lue should be first option, as “James would be at his happiest and most engaged playing for Ty Lue.”
The perks of the Lakers job are easier to identify. Beyond the esteem of the franchise (which, let’s be real, is suspended at the moment) and its location, L.A. has the roster to be great. LeBron James will be with the organization for at least two more seasons (he has a player option in 2021). There’s enough cap space to sign a maximum-contract player this summer. And though the stock of the young guys has never been lower, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma do hold some trade value.
But each of those pluses comes with a caveat. James struggled with injuries and effort this season, and was unable to carry the Lakers home to the playoffs after missing 27 games. There is no evidence of any stars in this year’s free-agent crop wanting to come to L.A. That was true even before Magic Johnson peaced out, suddenly retiring from his post as president and confirming that the Lakers front office is powered by little more than fronting and chest-puffing. Owner Jeanie Buss has given no indication that she’ll hire a new president rather than promote GM Rob Pelinka to head shot-caller, just as Pelinka, who is manning the coaching search, has given no indication that he can run an organization.
Any coach with the Lakers would have to accept a hit to their job security too. Outside of Erik Spoelstra, James’s career has never been shaped by a coach’s so much as the coach’s has been shaped by his. James’s success is the franchise’s success. Before the Lakers, he was the man who could get to the Finals on any roster. Had he not gotten hurt, that may still have been the case. Now there’s even more pressure to make something of his Lakers experiment. With the Suns, a coach has to show upward movement; with the Lakers, a coach has to make it to the top.