This day was coming the moment word got out that Magic Johnson delivered a tongue lashing to Luke Walton about his coaching methods weeks into the season: Walton would eventually be dismissed as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Everything that’s happened since hasn’t been as much confirmation as it has been shrubbery around the main course, from the confusing to the bizarre to the unfortunate circumstances that have plagued the NBA’s most glamorous franchise in a season that was supposed to be a revival.
What we’ve found out, layer by layer, is the franchise appears restrained by self-made standards, complexities that would be hard for any first-time head coach to navigate. Walton just happened to be the fellow in that spot at the wrong time.
The Lakers can’t even strip things down to the studs and paint with a fresh canvas, as it appears Rob Pelinka will wield a big stick in matters moving forward. When Johnson told everyone at his impromptu resignation as team president that he was prepared to fire Walton, Walton was actually preparing for a game and likely had no clue what was taking place in the back halls of the Staples Center.
Turns out, there were probably so many conversations happening in that building, chess pieces being maneuvered over the last six months, that Walton had very little chance of surviving. From the Anthony Davis fiasco to Johnson and Pelinka apparently not being on the same page to LeBron James’ injury that derailed whatever positive momentum the team was building, there were things above his pay grade, his experience and, perhaps, his interest level.
Walton has been around successful franchises, illustrated by his days keeping the Golden State Warriors afloat in the 2015-16 season while Steve Kerr was out because of back problems. He didn’t reinvent the wheel, but had the temperament to know what worked, who worked and just enough panache to earn the respect of champions.
Walton possesses the profile of a good coach for a normal franchise. He relates to players, understands the stressors they face with social media and doesn’t bog them down in the details. It’s easy to forget: He had the specter of LaVar Ball hanging over him last year and handled it with aplomb, even joking about sitting Lonzo Ball because of his father’s words. Some around the league have criticized his methods as being more reactionary than forward-thinking and that his style is more free-flowing than structured, but young coaches usually learn to figure things out on the fly with proper support in normal situations.
Key word: normal.
Coaching the Lakers isn’t like coaching any ordinary franchise, and coaching LeBron James is no ordinary gig.
James’ fingerprints don’t appear to be over this transaction, but his presence cannot be discounted.
When James was in Miami, it’s been widely reported he wanted coach Erik Spoelstra ousted before Pat Riley pushed back. After some early struggles, Spoelstra not only validated his position with the Heat, but became one of the league’s best coaches.
Walton wasn’t going to be given that opportunity to grow into the job, to grow into coaching James — an aging James, at that — which will make James even more impatient about putting a winnable roster around him and turning the existent roster into a winner.
To coach a player like James, and for a franchise like the Lakers, force of personality is necessary. Or championship credentials. Or outright support from superiors.
Walton didn’t have any of that, and it showed in the events through the season and recently as controversy seemed to swirl around every corner. Tyronn Lue has the jewelry, Monty Williams the general respect and Jason Kidd the general know-how to navigate treacherous waters.
Having a player like James seems to illustrate drama follows him, but his presence appears more mirror-like than anything.
If your house isn’t in order, he’ll find some way to expose it, even by accident.
Walton just happened to be the casualty of the Lakers’ residence not being in order, a house with good bones but sorely in need of reconstruction.
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