Luke Walton Never Had a Chance With the Lakers
The Lakers and Luke Walton mutually agreed to part ways Friday, which is essentially a way of putting lipstick on a firing. Walton has been L.A.’s lame-duck coach for seemingly quite a while now. The pressure on his job increased tenfold when LeBron James signed with the Lakers, and Walton’s position was already a little tenuous considering he wasn’t the choice of L.A.’s then-front office. That group has undergone its own changes thanks to Magic Johnson’s resignation, and while it makes sense for the new regime to pick its own coach (and that regime appears to be LeBron-led, in light of the Ty Lue rumors), it’s clear now that Walton never really had an opportunity to succeed during James’s first year.
Where do we begin? Walton was successful in his stint with Golden State, though the talent on the roster certainly helped. He joined the Lakers as a well-made hire, taking over a young roster that he managed to sell on playing defense better than most coaches do in such situations. But Walton soon began coaching to the whims of the Johnson-Rob Pelinka front office, which was much more focused on landing stars than developing from within. This was perhaps best symbolized not long after Johnson took over, when he traded former No. 2 pick D’Angelo Russell in a move to shed salary, and Russell has since become an All-Star with the Nets, a playoff entrant in the East.
Johnson and Pelinka also spearheaded the Lakers’ confounding summer of 2018, letting talent like Julius Randle—another high lottery pick who was actually excelling under Walton—and Brook Lopez walk in favor of over-the-hill veteran signings that were widely panned at the time. I jokingly wrote last summer LeBron should back out of his agreement to sign with the Lakers after Johnson and Pelinka brought in Rajon Rondo, Michael Beasley, Javale McGee, and Lance Stephenson to “bolster” the roster, a thought I now wish he had more seriously considered. Randle is an improving player, while Lopez played a key role on the best team in the league. Meanwhile, Walton was handcuffed with young guys who needed to improve alongside a notoriously impatient (and aging) superstar, and older players whose playing style (a.k.a. their inability to shoot) made no sense next to James.
How exactly was Walton supposed to succeed? Even after James preached patience in the offseason—which turned out to be mostly talk—Johnson gave Walton a dressing down early in the season after a slow start. Walton was in no control of the injuries to James, or Lonzo Ball or Brandon Ingram, nor was he responsible for the public spectacle that was the Anthony Davis saga. Was Walton a perfect coach? No. His rotations were the source of frustration, like when he insisted on pairing James and Rondo. But his issues were seemingly fixable, and in the pie chart of who deserves the most blame for this Lakers season, Walton probably occupies the smallest slice.
Dysfunction is the norm for the Lakers now. After Johnson’s shocking resignation, Walton’s departure registers as nothing more than a light chuckle. Of course, most organizations would have waited for a new regime before deciding on Walton’s fate—unless Walton himself was so tired of the noise, he really did ask to be fired. Instead, the Lakers are apparently still giving some power to Rob Pelinka, who entered the general manager job with absolutely zero qualifications and has done nothing since his hire to prove he’s capable for such a role. It was Pelinka who went along with last summer’s plans, and theoretically signed off on the baffling Ivica Zubac trade. Now, the Pelinka-Jeanie Buss shotgun wedding front office are apparently in the throes of their coaching search as opposed to finding a true leader for basketball operations.
Hiring Lue would be only another uninspiring move. L.A.’s biggest issue is the people in house. The Lakers have no one to check LeBron, and no one who isn’t caught up in the mystique of the organization. The front office and franchise as a whole need to be completely re-done, ideally with someone in charge who can build a proper winning culture. It’s that new front office that should be making the decisions ahead of an incredibly important summer, not the remnants of a failed regime. (Lue’s hire would be a blatant ploy at placating LeBron, and the kind of hasty decision that’s gotten the Lakers into their current predicament.)
In the long run, Walton is probably better off jumping off the Lakers’ ship than trying to salvage whatever the hell L.A. is doing right now. That the team is deep into its coaching search without having a proper front office in place says everything about how little they’ve learned over the course of a disastrous season. Having a talent like James will help whoever eventually does take over here, both in the front office and on the bench. Maybe the aura of LeBron is even still enough to recruit another star and turn this season into a distant memory. It’s become clear now that Walton realistically had no chance to see that plan through.