Despite an uplifting Christmas Day victory against the Golden State Warriors, the Los Angeles Lakers’ fall from grace sans LeBron James appeared inevitable to everyone but the team’s front office. As a result, Sunday’s dreadful loss to the woeful Cleveland Cavaliers has staged another potential showdown between Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and coach Luke Walton.
Following the loss to the tanking Cavs, which came nine days after a loss to the tanking New York Knicks, Walton told reporters that he is considering a lineup change in advance of Tuesday’s game against the tanking Chicago Bulls. Should that adjustment result in an eighth loss in 11 games without James, there is increasing speculation that Johnson could present this string of defeats to Lakers owner (and Walton supporter) Jeanie Buss as evidence in support of the case for firing the coach.
Johnson’s skepticism of the incumbent coach that preceded his regime has been no secret. He reportedly “admonished” Walton for the Lakers’ 3-5 start to the season in a November meeting, and even when Johnson tepidly supported Walton in the aftermath of that report by saying, “He is going to finish the season,” the team president included the caveat: “unless something drastic happens.”
Losing to the league’s three worst teams in a span of two weeks may very well count as drastic.
That is why Tuesday’s game against the Bulls now seems to be carrying a must-win tag for anyone interested in seeing Walton stay with the Lakers. The coach is also taking matters into his own hands, mulling an adjustment to the starting lineup before his team hosts the Bulls. Walton said on Sunday, via The Los Angeles Times, “Every game feels like we’re giving up 30 points-plus in the first quarter, so we’ll take a closer look at that. … We’ll take a look and possibly make a change before Tuesday.”
With James nursing a groin injury that is slated to be reevaluated on Wednesday and veteran point guard Rajon Rondo also out following finger surgery, the Lakers have been forced to field a starting lineup of Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and JaVale McGee the past few games. That unit has allowed 112.4 points and been outscored by an average of 22.1 per 100 possessions.
We can argue the merits of McGee’s resurgence and the Lakers’ young core, but most everyone outside L.A. would agree that any coach should struggle to regularly compete with that group. The question remains: What options does Walton have at his disposal? The Lakers brass, which also includes general manager Rob Pelinka, saddled the coach with Lance Stephenson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Svi Mykhailiuk as his only other wing options (Michael Beasley is also nursing a hand injury).
Ball and Ingram, a pair of No. 2 overall picks who have been the subject of much trade discussion, had drawn most of Walton’s ire. The coach called for “more passion” and “more fight” from them after a 22-point loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves last week, and following a brief rebuttal from Ball and Ingram, Walton said of his starters on Sunday, “I really thought we’d come out with better energy.”
Kuzma, who has been the Lakers’ best player in James’ absence, added, “As a team, we need to be more engaged in the sense of have an effort. And that starts with me. I played like crap today.”
Ingram and Ball may both be in danger of a benching were Rondo and James healthy, but with a dearth of capable wings and no other point guard options, their starting jobs appear safe. Caldwell-Pope is a theoretical 3-and-D wing who hasn’t been great at either for the Lakers this season, so the most logical adjustment would be to replace McGee with former Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler as a last line of defense behind a porous perimeter. That does not boost much confidence.
What does it say about the roster that a player acquired through an early season buyout might be their best shot to avoid losing to yet another single-digit win team? What did the Lakers expect when they signed Stephenson, Beasley, McGee and Rondo to one-year deals in hopes of pushing their pursuit of big-name free agents to July 2019? They’re not building a team. They’re biding their time.
Even if Walton earns a stay of execution with a win over the Bulls, his tenure in Los Angeles might still be on death row. There is no guarantee James is cleared when he is reevaluated on Wednesday or that he can carry as significant a burden when he does return, and the Lakers are headed for a brutal stretch of the schedule after playing Chicago, with 10 of their final 12 games before the All-Star break coming against playoff contenders. Their current 23-21 record could fall below .500 with or without LeBron, meaning they would lose hold of the eighth seed two-thirds of the way through the season.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported in mid-December, “If they’re going to be able to go to Jeanie Buss and sell her on replacing Luke Walton, they better be trying to do it off a season where they missed the playoffs or off of a long losing streak. Because she has been fiercely loyal to Luke Walton.”
So, Johnson may have his opportunity to pitch Buss on bringing in his own guy in the coming weeks. Walton knows this and insinuated as much in an interview with The Athletic’s Sam Amick last week:
“At the end of the day, you either get fired or you don’t. But when you get fired and you tried to do it to please other people, then you’re going to have regret. If you get fired, but you went out and you did it your way and you coached what you believed in, then you can live with that. You can sleep at night, and you move on to what’s next.”
Then what? You lose a promising young coach who has improved the team’s record in each of his first three seasons and had the Lakers hunting a home playoff seed before James went down, and you replace him with whom? A retread like Mark Jackson, Jason Kidd or Tyronn Lue, or another promising young coach, like Jerry Stackhouse, who might require an even greater learning curve than Walton?
The more you think of candidates who could both command a LeBron-led team and be the sort of player development coach the young Lakers so desperately need, the more you realize that the coach isn’t the real problem with the Lakers this season. It’s a roster problem, and that is on Johnson and Pelinka. They won’t fire themselves, so Walton is their scapegoat. Such is life as LeBron’s coach.
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