Mike Brown followed an 11-time NBA champion coach with the Los Angeles Lakers, taking charge of a roster packed with aging talent and a franchise anticipating more titles.
And after just 71 regular-season games, the Lakers decided Brown wasn't the man for a pressure-packed job.
The Lakers fired their coach on Friday after a 1-4 start to his second season in charge, making one of the earliest coaching changes in NBA history.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak announced the surprising move several hours before the club hosted Golden State. Assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff agreed to run the Lakers against the Warriors while the club's top brass began what's likely to be a swift search for Brown's replacement just 18 months after his hiring.
"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.
'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.'—Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak
Los Angeles began the season with sky-high expectations after trading for centre 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' defence has been largely poor, and the players acknowledge they still haven't figured out the new offence installed by Brown during training camp.
"They either weren't getting it, or they were going to take too long to get it," Kupchak said. "And we weren't willing to wait to see which of the two it was."
With a combination of an aging core of talent and a massive payroll, Kupchak and owners Jim and Jerry Buss decided they couldn't wait even one more weekend to start winning. Brown was dismissed in a morning meeting before the Lakers began a six-game homestand.
"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."
Bickerstaff said he was "shocked" by Brown's firing, echoing the feelings of virtually every assistant coach and player. The 68-year-old veteran coach only joined Brown's staff in September, but agreed to take over on an interim basis when Kupchak, his former player in Washington, asked him.
"We have a professional obligation to come to work and do our jobs," Bickerstaff said. "The emotional part of it has to be set aside. ... I just don't want the guys looking over at the bench tonight. I want them to go play and have some fun. You can't make a multitude of changes in six, seven hours."
In his brief news conference, Kupchak did nothing to squelch speculation Phil 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 after knee replacement surgery during his time away from the NBA.
Kupchak said he hadn'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. Jackson still spends most of his time in Los Angeles, even visiting the Lakers' offices on occasion — and 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.
Mike D'Antoni also is a likely candidate for the job, given the former Phoenix and New York coach's ties to the Lakers' roster. Nash enjoyed a long stretch of success in D'Antoni's up-tempo offence with the Suns, winning back-to-back MVP awards, and Bryant was a big fan of D'Antoni as a player while he grew up in Italy.
Brown, the longtime Cleveland Cavaliers coach, was hired in May 2011 to replace Jackson, signing a four-year deal worth roughly $18 million. 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."
Bryant, in his 17th season with the Lakers, posted his thoughts on Facebook after shootaround.
"Tough day," Bryant wrote. "I've seen coaches as well as friends come and go. No matter how many years I've been playing, it's still hard to deal with. I had a good relationship with Mike and I will continue to have one. ... I'm not sure what direction we are heading in next. All I can do is focus on the here and now."
Brown's players all were fully behind him in public, with Bryant vocally suggesting critics of the Lakers' new offence 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 demolish their coaching staff until Kupchak gathered the players Friday morning to inform them of the decision.
While Lakers fans 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, who had pleaded for patience, saying the Lakers might not hit their stride until January after so many changes.
"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."
Coaches reacted with surprise around the league after Brown's dismissal was announced. He is thought to be the first NBA coach to make it fewer than six games into a season since Dolph Schayes left the Buffalo Braves after one game in 1971.
"When you see one of your coaching peers, part of your fraternity, not getting an opportunity, it's tough," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We know that this business is like. At the same time, really, we just want an opportunity when you're coaching, a full season, health, et cetera, all those factors to be right. Mike is an excellent coach. He's proven it. He's got a track record. That's a shame that it came down to that."
Boston coach Doc Rivers said the firing was "awful," noting he had similar feelings when Orlando fired him following a 1-10 start in late 2003. Pistons coach Lawrence Frank sarcastically suggested five games "was enough of a sample" to judge the Lakers, saying he thought Brown "would have done a great job."
"Look, all of us in coaching understand the drill, so it's not a sympathy card," Frank said. "You just really wish for anyone that you're given a legitimate shot."
Along with the usual urgency accompanying any Lakers season, Howard is under contract for just one more season before the six-time All-Star centre 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 defence, Brown's specialty. The Lakers' Princeton-inflected offence 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."
The 42-year-old Brown has won just about everything except a title. He led Cleveland to the 2007 NBA Finals and went 272-138 over five seasons with the Cavaliers, becoming the most successful coach in franchise history.
Bickerstaff was a head coach in Charlotte, Seattle, Denver and Washington, going 415-517.