The Los Angeles Lakers hired Luke Walton just under three years ago in the hope that a young, player-friendly head coach could help usher in a new era. The next great Lakers team would be built around a young core, one that would conceivably grow together as players just as Walton would cut his teeth as an NBA head coach. The vision for the future was one of continued long-term success, especially if an All-Star player or two could be brought in to give the youngsters a boost along the way.
Of course, even the best plans can go sideways, particularly in the world of professional sports where the only true constant is change.
Nothing is official, but it appears very likely that the 2018-19 NBA season will be Walton’s last as head coach. The arrival of LeBron James changed the timeline of the team in an instant and turned missing the playoffs — once a right of passage for a team finding its way — into an unforgivable sin.
As such, Walton will almost certainly take the fall for the lost season, but as justifiable as his dismissal may be, that doesn’t necessarily make it the right choice.
After all, the downfall of the Lakers season hardly rests solely on Walton’s shoulders.
Given the revolving door of players Walton has had at his disposal due to a merciless injury bug, it’s not surprising the Lakers struggled. It’s not Walton’s fault that his four core pieces of James, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma played a total of just 23 games together and the fact they won 15 of those games could be seen as evidence that Walton just needed a healthy team to compete.
It’s also not Walton’s fault the Lakers took the Island of Misfit Toys approach to building their roster after they landed James. With Paul George opting to re-sign in Oklahoma City, the Lakers prioritized preserving cap space so they could pursue max-level free agents in July of 2019, which meant targeting players who would be willing to sign one-year deals.
Even under those restraints, their roster choices were questionable at best as non-shooters like Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, and Michael Beasley were brought in to flank James, who has historically thrived in spacing-oriented systems. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who does possess some skill as a shooter, shares an agent with James and was signed to an oversized one-year deal, then spent much of the season struggling, only finding his form once the playoffs were no longer within reach.
Of course, Walton is far from blameless. Even with a roster that was in a constant state of flux due to injuries, some of Walton’s rotations left many scratching their heads. The team, at times, looked disinterested and veterans who were brought in to help lead the way were among those with poor body language when the season started slipping away. Ultimately, it’s on the head coach to push the right buttons with his players and create urgency on a random Tuesday night in February when it’s all too easy to look ahead to a mini-vacation during the All-Star break.
Those things are on the head coach, just as the X’s and O’s are. Walton, who had learned the ropes under Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, was expected to bring a new, higher-level of offensive basketball to Los Angeles. However, in his three years, the Lakers have finished 23rd out of 30 teams in offensive rating. That’s consistently poor, especially on a team that has James.
If the Lakers are indeed disappointed that Walton didn’t have a more seasoned assistant coach on his bench as was reported, this has to be a big part of why. A more offensive mind may have helped to weather the storm and at least coax an average offensive campaign out of the Lakers, which could have pushed them into the playoffs despite all of their challenges.
Still, Walton’s dismissal at this juncture would be following a pattern that has come along with the mountain of pressure to fix the franchise through action. As a result, talented young players like D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and Ivica Zubac have been cast aside with little or no return.
The Lakers allowed Randle to walk away despite being a restricted free agent, opting to lose arguably the team’s best player in a quest to keep the deck clear for James and pursuing more stars. Randle is averaging 21.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 3.1 assists for the New Orleans Pelicans this season on a team-friendly deal paying him just $18 million for two seasons, which includes a player option in Year 2.
Zubac was shipped across the hall to the Los Angeles Clippers at the trade deadline for Mike Muscala in a move that left many confused. The 22-year-old is now anchoring the back line for the other L.A. team, who relished the opportunity to fleece the Lakers and cast doubt upon their front office’s decisions making.
In Russell’s case, the Lakers actually gave up on two players too soon. They swapped Russell (and the toxic contract of Timofey Mozgov) for a draft pick and sweet-shooting big man Brook Lopez, who proved his worth and then some in one season in Los Angeles. Rather than bring Lopez back as a free agent, the Lakers focused their attention elsewhere and Lopez instead became the best bargain of last summer on a one-year deal with the Milwaukee Bucks. Meanwhile, Russell became an All-Star for the Brooklyn Nets.
This pattern of moving on from assets who are on the upswing could very well extend to Walton as well. He may not fit James’ timeline, but Walton has a reputation as an excellent communicator and bright basketball mind. He isn’t perfect, but just as young players tend to get better, so too do young head coaches.
Having grown up around the league and studied under some of the very best basketball minds of all time, it seems likely that Walton will eventually wind up being a very good NBA head coach and given his history with the Lakers, the potential was there for the marriage between team and head coach to last a long time.
Instead, like Russell, Randle, and Zubac before him, Walton could very well wind up thriving after being shown the door.
Perhaps that won’t matter to Los Angeles if a new head coach is able to push the team to another level, another superstar is added, and the team finds themselves competing for championships again. If not, the Lakers could find themselves lamenting the loss of yet another piece of their former future.