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How Andrej Lemanis' exit signals milestone pivot in Boomers head coaching role
Andrej Lemanis was an asset to the Australian Boomers program. He stabilised a squad that lacked elite talent earlier this decade. He oversaw the best basketball ever played by Australian men at major tournaments. He was tactically proficient. He was a coach that could have led the Boomers through the glass ceiling that has plagued the program. He ultimately did not, but that doesn’t mean he could not.
There is a subtle difference. If Patty Mills makes his final free throw against Spain in China's World Cup, or the referees correctly do their job in judging Mills’ actions against the same Spaniards three years earlier in the Rio Olympics, the Boomers would have had their medal. In either scenario, Lemanis is the man who facilitated the legacy-defining moment.
Think about that for a moment. Lemanis was one blown call away from a bronze medal at the Olympic Games. Even more harrowing: he was one free throw - a shot that Mills has made 86% of the time in the NBA since 2011 – from leading the Boomers into a gold medal game at the FIBA World Cup. In both cases, the basketball gods did what they always do with the Boomers: they laughed in the face of Australia’s expectations.
Without a historical accomplishment, Lemanis joins the long list of Boomers coaches that didn’t get his nation onto the podium of global basketball. It’s a truth that could come to define his tenure. While prognostications over legacy are a debate for another day, Lemanis' failing to capture the Boomers' first medal ultimately accelerated his demise. As reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on Wednesday morning, Brett Brown will take over Lemanis' role and lead the Boomers into the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Lemanis was always going to be moved on after Tokyo. For everything he has accomplished, the simple fact is this: the Boomers can do better. Frankly, they need better. The role of leading Australian basketball has changed irrecoverably.
Being a sound tactician is no longer the filtering mechanism through which the Boomers head coach is to be judged. The role has become political. It has become managerial in the truest sense of the word. As the national team becomes flooded with NBA players, expectations aren’t the only thing changing. The personalities of the athletes wearing the green and gold have also changed forever. We are no longer talking about Aussie battlers who come together within a Boomers context and combat basketball nations with more talent.
Those days are over.
Australian basketball has one of the most talented men’s playing rosters in global basketball. Our best athletes all play in the NBA. They are exposed to the best support system available for professional athletes. From sports scientists to dieticians, head chefs to head coaches, NBA players are given every advantage possible. They exist in an ecosystem that mainstream Australian sporting minds cannot understand. They are surrounded by the best, and they rightfully grow to expect these leading resources every time they step foot on a basketball court.
The NBL is growing up before our eyes, but their infrastructure remains inadequate when compared to every level of the sport in North America. Josh Green has more resources at Arizona than any NBL franchise – or the Boomers, for that matter - could ever realistically dream of.
You may be asking how this all relates to the man who coaches the Boomers? It has everything to do with respect and relationships.
Younger members of the Boomers program did not respect Lemanis. Simmons’ relationship with Lemanis has been well-publicised, but Simmons wasn’t the only person inside Australian basketball who wanted a change. There are varying reasons for this disconnect, but it would be negligent to overlook the social reasons that have fuelled the divide: different generations combining, different working conditions and the associated difference in contextualisation of the basketball world.
The Boomers leader now needs experience managing NBA athletes as a prerequisite. This isn’t a comment to denigrate anything local. It isn’t an elitist suggestion that demeans everyone outside the NBA ecosystem. It is just the new reality for Basketball Australia. The person in charge must have experience understanding the young men charged with coming together for their nation. It is quite logical, actually.
Excellent local coaches like Lemanis who have made their name in Australia can’t relate to Simmons. This isn’t a Simmons-isolated conundrum either, as the same logic applies to Jonah Bolden, Deng Adel, Josh Green and every other teenager that will rise up over the next decade. Local coaches haven’t lived the professional existence that confronts NBA stars and that now makes them unqualified to galvanise a group consisting solely of these players. National ideals don’t matter like they used to.
Once the core five of Mills, Joe Ingles, Aron Baynes, Andrew Bogut and Matthew Dellavedova step aside from Boomers responsibilities, the program will be led by athletes that haven’t lived in Australia since they were pre-teenagers. Many grew up within a generation that glorified the NBA above all else - even above playing for their nation. This is an adjustment the sport must live through.
Take Jonah Bolden exiting the Boomers in August as an example. This isn’t a Bolden issue. It isn’t an issue isolated to the Boomers. It shouldn’t be taken as Bolden disrespecting Australia or avoiding his perceived national responsibilities. It is simply the cost of doing business when combining NBA athletes and national teams in 2019.
Bolden’s withdrawal is systematic of NBA players managing their professional livelihood. De’Aaron Fox did the exact same thing ahead of Team USA’s trip to Australia. Bolden and Fox pulling out of the World Cup had everything to do with managing the risk-reward that would come from being a role player within their national teams.
Playing FIBA basketball is a major sacrifice. It takes away the limited time athletes get to work on their craft, and with the infinite wealth on offer in the NBA, it would be downright negligent to do anything that risks your NBA mortality unless the situation is right. Managing the rapidly evolving NBA realities represent the biggest challenge for the Boomers program going forward.
Brown is back in charge and will be entrusted to find that elusive Olympic medal in Tokyo. The Sixers head coach is everything the Boomers need. He knows Australian basketball better than any other foreigner and is a skilled basketball mind who has performed on the biggest stage. He is more respected than the man he replaces, and most important of all, he has better relationships with the people that every Australian sports fan hope will be imported into the Boomers program for Tokyo.
The Boomers have grown to a place where they can do better than Lemanis. Much better, in fact, and that person is now Brown. Just as the Socceroos did in 2005 when looking to elevate their own Golden Generation, the Boomers have dumped their homegrown leader for a high-profile international mercenary. That’s quite the irony, given all the mudslinging between NBL and A League cronies over the past week.
What awaits after Tokyo is more uncertain. Does Brown want the job for another Olympic cycle? By the time Australia gets into training camp for Tokyo, Brown could be coming off an NBA championship in Philadelphia, or be could be unemployed if the Sixers flame out in the NBA postseason. Will Weaver is the logical choice to champion the program going forward. But just like Brown, his professional coaching career will eventually lead back to North America. The NBA coaching ranks await Weaver. When that happens is the only question. For the Boomers, questions over what awaits after Tokyo can remain unanswered until then.
Lemanis is gone as Boomers coach and Australian basketball’s favourite American is back. Expectations are higher than ever and there is now genuine reason to believe Simmons will lead the Boomers’ youth movement into Tokyo. All of this will rightfully create excitement because the Boomers are now led by a head coach with a resume that fits the current job description. That puts them in position to make history in Tokyo, although that is nothing new. Lemanis led them there twice over the past three years. On both occasions, the team fell short. Brown is a familiar face and he is the perfect man for the job, but that promises nothing.
If nothing else, the Boomers' history of heartbreak teaches us that.