Rambis trades guessing game in L.A. for security of Wolves job
A possible Phil Jackson successor, Kurt Rambis left L.A. to coach the Wolves
After playing for Lakers, Rambis served team as coach, assistant GM and analyst
Rambis turned down a two-year offer to coach the Kings earlier this summer
Good for Kurt Rambis for finally getting back to the No. 1 chair, and good for the Timberwolves for finally resolving months of coaching mystery. And good luck surviving the season ahead with the uncertainty of Al Jefferson working back from a serious knee injury, Jonny Flynn as a first-year point guard and a chance of an all-rookie backcourt with Flynn and Wayne Ellington, plus the potential Ricky Rubio distraction.
Oh, yeah. And Rambis may have just walked away from his shot at replacing Phil Jackson on the Lakers' bench.
It would have been his dream job. A lot of people's dream, job, actually, but his in particular after 10 seasons as an assistant coach and seven as a player in L.A., as well as two roles in management, one as interim coach and a turn as TV commentator. The gritty power forward of the Showtime era remains hugely popular in Los Angeles, just as he was a favorite in other stops as the NBA's Clark Kent. Rambis is held in high regard by owner Jerry Buss and the front office; his wife is best friends with Jeanie Buss, Jerry's daughter and potential successor and the team's executive vice president of business operations. Rambis would have been, at the least, a very credible candidate to take over when Jackson steps aside.
It was within range, too, with Jackson year-to-year on his contract and openly admitting health is an issue. He had to take time before committing to return for the 2009-10 title defense, and someone questioning his stamina at age 63 will have the same inner debate at 64 and 65. There have been enough concerns -- two hip replacements, swelling in his leg that prompted Jackson to skip a one-game trip in April, an angioplasty -- that it couldn't be considered a surprise if he retires during the season.
That's how close Rambis could have been to getting the job he wanted with the franchise he wanted in the city he wanted. He had passed on the Kings' low-ball offer of two guaranteed years earlier in the summer to stay with the Lakers, obviously aware it would be foolish to leave for a losing team providing minimal security, even with the understanding that the L.A. bosses made no promises about a line of succession. If Rambis was definitely their guy, the Lakers would have looked after their interests and told him. He would have loved hearing it, probably would have gotten a pay bump for turning down the Timberwolves, and waited while knowing his future. But none of that happened.
While Mitch Kupchak undoubtedly has a mental list of potential replacements -- all good general managers do, and Kupchak is a good general manager -- the Lakers are not committing themselves to anyone. No one knows if Jackson is staying eight months or two seasons, no one knows if the roster will still be title worthy whenever he does leave, and so declaring undying love to anyone in August 2009 is both impossible and foolish.
The certainty is that anyone outside the front office who claims to know the next move is working with a blindfold and a dart board. The coaching hire will be a Buss call and there is no pattern to read. Rambis will always be a personal favorite, but good work with the Timberwolves keeps him in Minnesota for years, a bad outcome makes him a difficult sell and, besides, the decision may come before anyone has a chance to grade his work there. Brian Shaw, another highly regarded assistant who has long been considered future head-coaching material, will get a lot of buzz as the presumptive front-runner, but a first-time coach taking over a team planning a long playoff run is a huge step up.
Buss' coaching hires (excluding interim coaches) since Paul Westhead was fired in 1981:
Pat Riley. Lakers player, broadcaster and assistant. No previous experience as coach.
Shaw, former Laker Byron Scott, Mike Krzyzewski (getting the full-court press from Kobe Bryant and going back on his pledge to retire a Dookie) -- guess away. Rambis would have been somewhere around the top of the list and he just gave that up for the Timberwolves.
But he also gained the security of the top job in Minnesota as opposed to the guessing game in L.A., and there's a lot to be said for that. Plus, there's the real commitment of the reported four-year, $8 million deal, much better than the offer from Sacramento, even if it is about 125 miles from where Rambis grew up and an hour flight from Los Angeles if his family chose to stay there. Rambis knew he would some day be a possibility to succeed Jackson, refused to jump at a head-coaching job just to have a head-coaching job, and held firm until he heard the numbers that would get him to give up his place in line. Well played.
No one needs to tell Rambis about unpredictability. He was the Lakers' interim coach for 37 regular-season games and two rounds of the playoffs in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, and he would have gotten the permanent job if not for the availability of one Phil Jackson. It was a setback, but everyone regarded Rambis as one of the bright coaching prospects, so his chance would obviously come somewhere. Except that it didn't. A few interviews and that's it, until he moved back to the forefront this summer with interest from the 76ers, Kings and Timberwolves.
If the Timberwolves are going to stand behind him with a long deal and the support of the new personnel boss who needs the hire to work out for both their sakes, there are a lot worse places to be. Last place in the Northwest Division appears inevitable and last in the Western Conference is a possibility, but they have promise with Jefferson -- depending on his recovery -- Flynn, Kevin Love and either the asset or promise that is Rubio. There are possibilities. Kurt Rambis knows all about weighing the possibilities.
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