With the defection of Magic Johnson, and the inability to secure either Monty Williams or Ty Lue to replace Luke Walton as head coach, the Los Angeles Lakers are currently mired in a public relations catastrophe. The only figure in all of basketball that may be feeling more pressure than the Lakers at this particular moment in time is University of Arizona head coach Sean Miller. I’m here to make the argument that the Lakers and Sean Miller might just be the solution to each other’s problems.
The Lakers, while always relevant thanks to a rich, championship-filled history, haven’t been competitive since April 12, 2013- the night Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles tendon trying to drive past Golden State’s Harrison Barnes. That injury marked the official end of the Lakers’ decade-plus as a championship contender and sent them into the spiral that the team currently finds itself in.
The Lakers’ Long Road to the Bottom
Here’s a brief refresher on exactly how abrupt and eventful the Lakers’ demise has been:
- In the 2013-14 season, former NBA MVP’s Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash combined to appear in 21 games for the last-place Lakers, and the team finished in last place in the Pacific Division.
- In 2014-15, the Lakers replaced the departed Mike D’Antoni with Byron Scott and had a first-round draft pick for the first time since 2009. They used that pick on Julius Randle, who promptly broke his leg and missed his entire rookie season. They finished last in the Pacific Division for the second consecutive season.
- 2015-16 was the Lakers’ worst in franchise history. In a season that became Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour, the team won one road game in the 2016 half of the season and fired Byron Scott in favor of bringing Luke Walton over from the Warriors.
- Eight of the Lakers primary contributors in 2016-17 were 25 years old or younger, including four of their own first round picks. They replaced part-owner Jim Buss and longtime GM Mitch Kupchak with Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka and finished 14th in the Western Conference.
- In 2017-18, the Lakers started their rebuild under Magic and Pelinka by stockpiling draft picks and shipping former #2 overall pick De’Angelo Russell to Brooklyn in exchange for a pick they’d use on Kyle Kuzma, and Brook Lopez’ expiring contract. They used the #2 overall pick on UCLA PG Lonzo Ball, whose father Lavar’s unorthodox and shameless promotion of his sons’ basketball skills had fostered an extracurricular sports media circus. They improved drastically on the court, but still finished three spots out of the playoff hunt.
- LeBron James sends shockwaves through the sports world by deciding to write his final basketball chapter in the City of Angels. Instead of plugging LeBron into the young, improving core of the previous season, the Lakers commence signing a cast of NBA misfits in Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, and Michael Beasley. Everybody is injured all the time. To make matters worse, players that the Lakers moved on from, like Julius Randle, Thomas Bryant and Brook Lopez, all had fantastic seasons elsewhere. The Lakers finish above .500 when LeBron plays, and go 9-18 without him. During the season, LaVar Ball, father of Lonzo Ball, goes on Phoenix radio stations with the expectation that his son will be dealt to the Suns and openly berates head coach Luke Walton. The team parts ways with Walton, and he’s subsequently accused of sexual assault via a civil lawsuit. Magic Johnson quits his post as the team’s executive vice president in spectacularly odd fashion. The team passes on offering Monty Williams their head coaching position in favor of Ty Lue, who comes away from the three-year contract offer unimpressed, leaving the Lakers without a head coach.
The Lakers wouldn’t be Hollywood’s favorite team without a little bit of drama, but the events of the last six years have jumped the proverbial shark and left the franchise reeling. It’s because this franchise has an appetite for the spotlight, and the stomach for controversy, that I believe the right head coach for them is just 500 miles away, somehow withstanding his own personal tornado of national scorn and scrutiny.
The Ballad of Sean Miller
Sean Miller came to Tucson from Xavier in 2009, hoping to fill the enormous shoes of legendary University of Arizona Lute Olson. By his second year on campus, Miller had made the Wildcats into a 30-win team, knocking off #1 Duke in the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA tournament. Heading into his fourth year on campus, he had secured two top-20 prospects in Nick Johnson and Josiah Turner. The following season, Miller landed three of Rivals.com‘s top-23 players, and returned to the Sweet Sixteen.
The trend of dominating the Pac-12, both on the court and in recruiting, has become a regular occurrence for Miller. In his tenure at Arizona, he’s had 10 players selected in the NBA Draft, signed 18 five-star recruits, made seven NCAA Tournament appearances, and won the Pac-12 conference regular season championship five times.
Most impressively, despite being regularly name-dropped in the mind-numbingly stupid NCAA pay-for-play criminal scandal, he’s managed to sign what might be his best recruiting class yet, featuring Rivals’ #4-ranked point guard (Nico Mannion), #3-ranked shooting guard (Josh Green), #15-ranked small forward (Terry Armstrong), and #8-ranked power forward (Zeke Nnaji).
For the last 15 months, Sean Miller has been caught up, fairly or unfairly, in the ongoing NCAA pay-for-play scandal that has seen several coaches and assistants investigated and/or fired for their involvement in funneling cash to recruits or their family members. The goal of those involved was to use cash payments to influence both the athletes’ school decisions, as well as who they select as financial representatives once they made a move toward the NBA. It doesn’t look great for Sean Miller that his long-time assistant, Book Richardson, has pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit bribery for taking money from aspiring sports agent Christian Dawkins. It doesn’t look good for Miller that Book Richardson admitted to paying family members of Arizona players and prospects out of his own salary and savings on a Federal wiretap. It definitely doesn’t look good for Sean Miller that those same wiretaps seem to indicate that Book Richardson had no problem painting Deandre Ayton as being one of the players Arizona paid, and that Sean Miller was handling those payments himself. It doesn’t bode well for those who wish to claim that Sean Miller runs a tight, clean ship, that another of his assistants, Mark Phelps, was recently fired for completely separate NCAA violations, reportedly involving the transcripts of one-time Arizona commit and current UCLA forward Shareef O’Neal.
So is Sean Miller Dirty, or Not?
Sean Miller might very well be guilty of funneling cash to high profile recruits like Deandre Ayton. If we’re honest, he looks guilty. The man looks like he stepped right out of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, having helped Al Capone build and expand his prohibition-era bootlegging empire. It’s not enough, however, to simply look guilty. The truth is, there isn’t one shred of prosecutable evidence that Miller is anything more than a victim of an assistant’s desperate attempt to keep up appearances and prove he could meet the program’s high standards without getting his hands dirty, and an over-zealous media, hungry for the high-profile pound of flesh that this scandal has, thus far, has failed to deliver.
Both ESPN, and Tucson’s hometown newspaper, the Arizona Daily Star, have seemingly jumped the gun on attempting to convict Sean Miller over the course of this scandal. Last spring, ESPN’s Mark Schlabach reported that Sean Miller was caught on a federal wiretap discussing payments to Deandre Ayton with Christian Dawkins. ESPN personalities Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale came out strongly in support of Schlabach’s report, despite the fact that the report quickly began to unravel as Sports Illustrated and others pointed out that Schlabach’s dates for the supposed wiretaps that didn’t correspond with the government’s investigation, which caused Schlabach and ESPN to subsequently change the reported wiretap dates in their report multiple times. To make matters worse for ESPN, Christian Dawkins recently joined Miller and Ayton in making on-the-record denials that any conversation on this subject ever occured. Long time Arizona Daily Star columnist Greg Hansen reacted to Schlabach’s report by going on Phoenix sports radio and claiming that he spoke with Book Richardson, and that the player Sean Miller was actually caught on wiretaps attempting to pay was Brian Bowen. Hansen later apologized, claiming he had not actually spoken to Book Richardson, but that he believed Miller would either quit or be fired anyway. Miller, in the midst of those media missteps, went on to coach the Wildcats last season anyway.
The Lakers and Sean Miller Need Each Other
So that brings me back around to my original point- Sean Miller needs to be the Los Angeles Lakers’ next head coach. It’d be a new chapter for a franchise that hasn’t won more than 37 games in a season in six seasons, and simultaneously, a fresh start for a successful college coach who’s spent the majority of the last two seasons circumstantially tied to a major scandal. It’s a match, seemingly made in hell, that might just provide heavenly results. You have an NBA franchise consistently wrapped up in self-imposed dubious circumstances and a college coach who has stood tall like a deep-rooted oak tree through a potentially self-imposed, but certainly media-enhanced earthquake. Sean Miller’s time at Arizona has been nothing if not perfect preparation to be the ringmaster in the purple and gold circus. While there might be detractors amongst the spoiled-with-success Laker fanatics due to the fact that Sean Miller hasn’t taken Arizona to a championship during his tenure, much less a Final Four, Miller does have plenty of experience managing top young talent. Plus, Sean Miller is a serious coach- you won’t find any John Wooden-like quotes or inspirational soliloquies attributed to Miller. In the twilight of his career, LeBron James might appreciate Sean Miller’s businesslike, no-frills approach to running a team. Sean Miller also has a history of attracting the top available talent, and no one in the NBA bats an eye if you show up in a free agent’s living room with a promise to overflow their bank account. If Sean Miller really is the bag man that so many people believe he is, then the Lakers would be fools to not take advantage of his recruiting skills in their pursuit to re-emerge as title contenders.