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Jim Alexander: The JJ Redick experiment is a big risk for the Lakers, Rob Pelinka

Jim Alexander, The Orange County Register on

Published in Basketball

Maybe JJ Redick will, indeed, be the next Pat Riley. After all, Riles stepped from his spot alongside Chick Hearn to the Lakers’ sideline all those years ago, serving an apprenticeship to Paul Westhead before sliding over to the first chair when Westhead was fired in November of 1981.

Or maybe Redick will be the next Steve Kerr. The curator of the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty went from broadcaster to coach, too, though he did have experience as the Phoenix Suns’ general manager before the Dubs tapped him to replace Mark Jackson.

Or perhaps … well, there’s two ways the Lakers’ unorthodox hiring of Redick could go.

It could be a rousing success, an unqualified triumph for Lakers executive veep of basketball operations Rob Pelinka (and a reasonably priced one, as well, if the terms of four years at around $8 million per year are accurate). Or it could be a disaster, with the Lakers forced to make another coaching change before Redick’s deal is complete.

If this is a failure, does Pelinka go out the door as well? There’s a lot of risk here, and it’s not all on the new coach’s shoulders.

We will repeat the reservations we expressed since the first moment Redick was identified as the Lakers’ leading candidate. He has no coaching experience beyond his son’s grade school team. He has a very good grasp of basketball’s strategic nuts and bolts, and presumably, he can connect with players, having been one not that long ago.

But can he lead? Can he keep a team together at midseason when it’s struggling and players are grumbling, as they will? Can he look a LeBron James or an Anthony Davis in the eye and deliver the hard truth if and when it’s necessary?

Maybe he can. Who anticipated that Riley, everybody’s favorite guy as a broadcaster and the good cop as Westhead’s assistant coach, would ultimately become the czar of all he surveyed? Who knew that Kerr would take to the job the way he did?

But there’s a huge difference between their stories and Redick’s.

The Lakers that Riley took over in 1982, after 161 games as Westhead’s assistant, had already won a championship and had the main pieces in place — specifically Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Earvin Johnson — to win four more rings before the ’80s were over. The Warriors that Kerr took over at the start of the 2014-15 season already had Steph Curry and Klay Thompson just about ready to break out, and they won the first of their four titles as a group that season.

JJ’s Lakers will have … well, what? Assuming that James opts in to the final season of his contract (at $51.4 million) or signs a new deal, he turns 40 in December. He was still the Lakers’ best player a lot of nights this past season, but how much is left in the tank?

Davis played a career-high 76 games in 2023-24, averaged a double-double with 24.7 points and 12.6 rebounds, and was picked to the NBA’s all-defensive first team. (Without Redick’s vote, apparently. As a voter by virtue of his ESPN commentary gig, Redick reportedly left Davis off his first-team ballot.) Given Davis’ injury history – 36, 40 and 56 games the previous three seasons — can you count on that kind of performance again?

Beyond that, and maybe Austin Reaves as he develops into a third option, how many of the other pieces of this roster resemble championship material? Can you depend on them to play any harder, or better, for Redick than they did for Darvin Ham?

And can you be assured, Laker fans, that Pelinka will assemble a roster around James and Davis that will give Redick a fighting chance? Especially given that the Boston Celtics, of all teams, have set the standard at which the Lakers are aiming.

 

Then there is Redick’s pre-existing relationship with James, as co-hosts of the “Mind The Game” podcast.

Yes, it is a different era and a different environment. During the Lakers-Warriors 2023 playoff series I asked Kerr about Draymond Green doing a podcast during the postseason and whether there was a gray area.

“It’s 2023,” he said, noting that coaches of the past might silence a player’s ringing cell phone by throwing it against the wall. “I trust Draymond implicitly,” he added. “If he wants to have a podcast, he can have a podcast.”

And Kerr has appeared on Green’s podcast. Relationships between coaches and players are different now.

But when Redick addresses his new team, do you think some players might find themselves wondering if LeBron’s lips were moving while Redick was talking? In other words, whose message is really being delivered? That’s a delicate issue to straddle, especially for a first-time coach.

Which isn’t to say it can’t be surmounted. If this is to work, it will have to be.

Part of Redick’s appeal seems to be as someone who can take a key role in developing young players. And for the moment we will set aside the Bronny James question, even as everyone else in the sport seems to be driven crazy over the question of whether Bronny will be picked by his dad’s team, whether LeBron is trying to orchestrate things, etc.

There are two other issues here: The Lakers’ current young talent — Max Christie, Jalen Hood-Schifino, Maxwell Lewis, two-way players Skyler Mays and Colin Castleton — and the 17th pick in the first round of next week’s draft. Does Pelinka package that pick with their next available first-rounders (2029 and 2031) in trade, or might it make more sense to hold onto that pick and pay at least some attention to adding young assets and preparing for a post-LeBron future?

Maybe the Redick hire is a hint that they’re keeping the pick.

Will Redick be a Riley or a Kerr? Or will he be more like Steve Nash, whose first NBA coaching gig lasted 161 games with Brooklyn (and an above .500 record) before the Nets blew him out early in the 2022-23 season?

The composition of Redick’s staff will be critical, and will have to include experienced assistants — plural — who can help Redick learn what he doesn’t know. Stan Van Gundy, who coached Redick in Orlando for five seasons, has been mentioned as a potential lead assistant, and under these circumstances, it’s critical for the young coach to have a Yoda on the staff to lend his experience and wisdom, and also to talk the young guy off the ledge when needed.

But it’s all still a risk, even under the best of circumstances, and we have no way of knowing how this will develop.

We do know there’s a lot on the line. And if this turns out to be a flop, Pelinka might receive his own pink slip.


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