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BILL PLASCHKE

Lakers' next coach should be the voice of reason: Jeff Van Gundy

Van Gundy has had coaching success with the Knicks and Rockets but he's gained a ton of credibility for his work as a television analyst.

May 17, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • Should television analyst Jeff Van Gundy be in the running for the Lakers' coaching job?
Should television analyst Jeff Van Gundy be in the running for the Lakers'… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

The Buss family will apparently be looking everywhere, scouring the Dunleavys, mining the Scotts, digging through the Browns, turning up Adelmans.

Yet for a couple of hours Tuesday night, the next Lakers coach was at their fingertips.

They could have pushed a button on their remote control and brought him to life on their big screen, where he was sitting courtside at the Western Conference finals, bald and brainy and brash enough to pull it off.

As a television commentator on the most important professional basketball games of the last five years, Jeff Van Gundy has become America's NBA coach.

There can be no better pick to lead America's most celebrated NBA team.

His coaching history gives him credibility. His television history gives him presence. His people skills give him perspective.

And, let's face it, the dude has spent years preparing for this job by kissing up to Kobe Bryant.

"I think at the end of the day, Kobe Bryant, with his longevity, his championships, his personal numbers, all those things, I think he'll be the best Laker ever," Van Gundy said during one telecast.

Then there was his defense of Bryant during last year's NBA Finals.

"His critics ... insist his trust with his teammates is an issue," said Van Gundy in another telecast. "Trust me, he has an appropriate amount of trust for his teammates, and the criticism he takes is unjust and unwarranted for a body of work that can truly only be marked by greatness."

Can he coach the superstar? Check. Can he coach the environment? Check out his resume.

Van Gundy, 49, survived parts of seven years with the New York Knicks, leading them to the playoffs in each of his five full seasons there, including a stunning trip to the NBA Finals in 1999. He then made the playoffs in three of his four seasons with the Houston Rockets.

During that time he coached tough guys like Patrick Ewing, assembled a tough staff that featured such future coaching stars as Chicago's Tom Thibodeau, and built a reputation for tough defense and deliberate offense.

At this point I should confess, I have no idea whether Van Gundy is even being considered for the job. Outside of the Lakers offices, nobody really knows anybody who is being considered, which makes me think the Lakers have yet to even draw up their final list.

In a perfect world, of course, this was Brian Shaw's job, but that perfect world exploded on Shaw a couple of weeks ago in Dallas, and everybody's favorite candidate is being encouraged to go somewhere else until the smoke clears.

With Shaw gone, despite what you may have read elsewhere, there is no confirmed favorite, no confirmed order, no leaks, no hints. The only thing certain being that the coach will be picked by Jerry Buss, Jimmy Buss and Mitch Kupchak, with emphasis on the Buss, which makes me believe Van Gundy has a chance, because the Buss' are bold, and Van Gundy defines bold.

Confidence? This is a tiny guy who once came off the bench and hung on the lower leg of Miami giant Alonzo Mourning during a celebrated NBA brawl.

Credibility? Ask Doug Collins about how much today's younger players respect someone they've seen on TV. It is doubtful that any of his Philadelphia 76ers had ever seen Collins play, but his broadcast aura gave him the juice he needed to command their respect.

Deals with superstars? Besides Ewing, Van Gundy also handled the likes of Latrell Sprewell, Larry Johnson, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. And few coaches have paid a higher price in supporting their star. In 2005, he was handed the largest fine in NBA history -- $100,000 –- for accusing the officials of targeting Yao, his Houston center.

Understands the modern game? There are probably few who so thoroughly grasp the league like Van Gundy, who comments on it throughout the season for ABC and ESPN. He knows the last player on every bench. He talks about games as if he is coaching them. By being out of the game, he's never been closer to the game.

Won't be sucked in by Hollywood? Have you seen him? If you thought Phil Jackson was appropriately low key, you'll love this bespectacled suburbanite who was born in Hemet and graduated from New York's Nazareth College.

My favorite Van Gundy story – and there are many – involves the landing of a Knicks charter flight at the suburban New York airport in the spring of 2000. A jet blast blew Van Gundy's car over several other cars, causing extensive damage to star Allan Houston's 1997 Mercedes and assistant coach Brendan Malone's 1999 Lincoln.

But nothing was more dented than Van Gundy's locker-room reputation, when we learned the coach's car was a 1995 Honda Civic. In an appropriate footnote, Van Gundy spent that night on a couch in his coach's office because he couldn't get a ride home.

The Lakers need to rediscover the basics. Jeff Van Gundy has achieved consistent NBA success by practicing and preaching the basics. Pick up the remote and push that button, guys. He's right there.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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