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The Men who Led the Lakers
Del Harris (1994-99)

Dec 2 2011 7:03PM
Armed with the insight of Lakers lifer Bill Bertka, who remains with the team to this day as the Director of Scouting/Basketball Consultant, we continue our Lakers History series on the teams head coaches with Del Harris:

DEL HARRIS (1994-1999)
A turbulent 1993-94 campaign saw the Lakers fire head coach Randy Pfund after 64 games, then finish the season under his replacement, Magic Johnson, on a 10-game losing streak. The man asked to step in and rebuild the Lakers who had missed the playoffs for only the fourth time in franchise history was Del Harris.

An experienced basketball man, Harris got his start at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana before becoming an assistant with the Utah Stars (1975), for whom Bill Sharman had coached in the 1960s. The Stars soon folded, but Harris went on to the NBAs Houston Rockets as an assistant before taking the head job in 1979. Hed last until 1983, and then became an assistant at Milwaukee before serving as head coach from 1987 to 1991.

I'd known Del for a long time, and he's one of the fine teachers of the game of basketball, said Bill Bertka. He's authored a lot of books and is a very detailed basketball coach whose preparation was second to none. He knew exactly what he wanted to do when he came to Los Angeles.

The team Harris inherited won only 33 games the previous season, though GM Jerry West added Cedric Ceballos and rookie Eddie Jones to a team featuring Vlade Divac, Nick Van Exel and Elden Campbell, but Harris had some new ideas.

Del liked to push the ball, but it was a controlled fast break, explained Bertka. He didn't want a bad shot at the end of the break, which makes a lot of sense. He was more of a balanced coach; he didn't go overboard with set plays, and gave the players some freedom. If the offense broke down, hed just say, Play basketball! In other words, use your skills. As Harris implemented his system, his team did lose five of its first eight games. That, however, was followed by a torrid 17-4 mark from Nov. 18 to Jan. 8. Paced by 22.4 points per game from Ceballos and 16.4 points with 10.6 boards from Divac, L.A. went on to finish the season with an impressive 48-34 record, a 15-game improvement from the season before.

Del was very demanding as a head coach, said Bertka. He was a master at finding and exploiting mismatches that would occur because he'd recognize the weaknesses in opponents, what they could and couldn't do.

The Lakers exploited their mismatches well enough to defeat Seattle 3-1 in Round 1 of the playoffs, before they fell to a solid San Antonio team, 4-2, in the Western Semis.

With largely the same roster for the 1994-95 season, Harris took the Lakers to 54 wins, a 6-win improvement, and second place in the Pacific Division. Ceballos again led the team in scoring (21.2 ppg), Nick Van Exel was quite effective in the backcourt (14.9 ppg, 6.9 apg) and a big story line from the season was Magic Johnson coming out of retirement to play 36 game, plus the playoffs. And while Magic averaged 15.3 points, 8.3 boards and 6.5 dimes in the playoffs, L.A. fell to eventual champion Houston, 3-1.

Under the watchful eye of Harris, the Lakers continued to have success in the regular season in the two subsequent seasons, winning 56 and 61 games, respectively, but werent able to get over the proverbial hump in the playoffs against some excellent opponents. The 1996-97 team fell Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Jazz (4-1), and the 1998-99 team was swept by that same Utah team in the Western Finals. The following year in a lockout-shortened season, Harris was fired after 12 games (6-6), replaced by Bertka (1-0) and Kurt Rambis (24-13), who was on the bench as the Lakers were swept by the Spurs in the Western Semis.

In 1999, Phil Jackson signed on for his first season in Los Angeles.

Regular Season: 224-116 (.659)
Playoffs: 17-19 (.472)
Total: 241-135 (.641)