It took all of two weeks for Luke Walton to learn the hard way what it means to coach LeBron James, the one NBA player who comes with immediate and often unreasonable championship expectations.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Dave McMenamin, Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson “admonished” Walton for his team’s 3-5 start to the season in a meeting on Tuesday, roughly six weeks after telling his coach not to “worry about if we get out to a bad start.”
While the ESPN report described Johnson’s managerial style as “volatile,” it also suggested the Lakers legend-turned-executive isn’t the only one frustrated with Walton. The coach’s inconsistent lineups have generated “discontent among some Lakers veterans,” according to Wojnarowski and McMenamin.
Is LeBron James among the unhappy Lakers veterans?
James does not appear to be one of them — at least, according to his public statements.
“I think Luke’s trying to figure out what works best,” he told reporter’s after Wednesday’s narrow victory against the Dallas Mavericks, via ESPN, acknowledging that Lonzo Ball’s midsummer knee surgery and early season suspensions to Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram have precipitated the roster shuffling.
Still, James knows full well that his presence leaves coaches on shaky ground. Often, he is the direct cause of that instability. He played his hand in the firings of Mike Brown (twice) and David Blatt in Cleveland. He unsuccessfully urged Pat Riley to replace Erik Spoelstra in Miami. Former Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue lived on that shaky ground for the last two years, catering to James’ every whim.
Couldn’t Magic Johnson see this coming?
So, it is no surprise that Walton finds himself in the same situation after the Lakers posted the worst record through seven games for any team featuring James since his rookie season. What is perhaps most surprising is that the impatience came from Johnson’s office, given his comments in September.
“As I was talking to Luke [with GM Rob Pelinka], we said, ‘Don’t worry about if we get out to a bad start,’ ” Johnson told reporters at media day. “We have seen that with LeBron going to Miami, and we have seen that when he came back to Cleveland. He is going to struggle because there are so many new moving parts. But eventually we are going to get it, and we are going to be really a good team.”
The Lakers have not been a really good team through two weeks. They started 2-5 before avoiding a disastrous collapse against their fellow Western Conference bottom feeders in Dallas on Wednesday. According to ESPN, that victory came with a sense of relief from some members of the organization who would like Walton to continue coaching the Lakers, but the coaching staff is reportedly no less relieved entering a back-to-back against the Portland Trail Blazers and Toronto Raptors this weekend.
Didn’t Jeanie Buss endorse the coach?
Lakers owner Jeanie Buss has been the organization’s most vocal supporter of Walton, telling The Los Angeles Times in August, “Luke is a coach that can be part of a long Lakers future.” Johnson and Pelinka, on the other hand, notably took their time before eventually coming to Walton’s defense after Lonzo Ball’s father LaVar said publicly last season, “You can see they’re not playing for Luke no more,” LaVar said. “Luke doesn’t have control of the team no more. They don’t want to play for him.”
Walton was hired in 2016 by the previous regime — former president of basketball operations Jim Buss and ex-GM Mitch Kupchak. Saddled with recent draft picks in need of development surrounded by talent-starved veterans, Walton’s Lakers won 26 games in his first year on the job and 35 last season. Walton famously coached the Golden State Warriors in Steve Kerr’s absence to a 39-4 start in 2015-16.
Is Luke Walton really to blame?
If Johnson’s volatility subsides, perhaps he will come to the realization that he is responsible for saddling Walton’s roster around James with the likes of Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley. And maybe Walton wouldn’t have to shuffle the lineup so much if his “discontented” veterans weren’t predictably underperforming or their teammates hadn’t gotten suspended.
Who could’ve possibly predicted this? If you ask me, the admonishment for the Lakers’ early struggles sure seems misdirected. I’m just shocked that James isn’t the one pointing the finger. (Yet, anyway.)
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