Now that the Los Angeles Lakers have all but waved the white flag on the 2018-19 NBA season, placing a minutes restriction on LeBron James and shelving his young teammates, it is no secret that third-year coach Luke Walton is on the hottest seat.
We can argue whether Walton is the most deserving target of the Lakers’ inability to make the playoffs in the inaugural season of the LeBron James era in Los Angeles, but he is the odds-on favorite to take the fall, since team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka appear less likely to spill on the sword themselves.
With 16 games to play in this holding pattern between Johnson making good on his tepid commitment to keep Walton on for the remainder of the season and fulfilling expectations that he will ax the coach by year’s end, the first leaks in a finger-pointing game that will be adjudicated for years to come are starting to trickle out.
Lakers owner Jeanie Buss is straddling the fence between supporting the coach she called a longterm solution at the position and the front-office tandem she entrusted to resurrect the franchise, blaming the media instead. But others inside the organization are bound to take sides, and at least one source in Bill Oram’s column on the matter for The Athletic most definitely came out in favor of Walton.
The goods, via Oram:
After delivering James in July, Johnson ignored the pleas of the coaching staff that he retain Brook Lopez and Julius Randle. Instead, he signed controversial and limited journeymen JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley and Lance Stephenson.
Whoever spilled the beans on this bit of news — that Walton’s staff pled with Johnson to keep Lopez and Randle — surely wanted it known that the issues with this team began well before they convened in training camp. And they’re not wrong.
The Lakers let Lopez walk for $3.38 million, much to the former All-Star’s surprise, and Johnson signed McGee instead. While McGee has unsurprisingly proven incapable of shouldering a heavy load at center, Lopez emerged as an ideal floor-spacing companion for Giannis Antetokounmpo on a Milwaukee Bucks team that leagues the lead in wins. He could have filled the same role alongside James.
Likewise, Johnson and Pelinka renounced their restricted free agency rights to Randle in hopes of maintaining future cap space. The former lottery pick instead signed with the New Orleans Pelicans for what will likely end up being a one-year, $8.64 million deal — or less than the Lakers paid both Rajon Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope this season. The 24-year-old Randle is averaging 20.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and three assists per game in New Orleans — numbers that would have made him the Lakers’ second-most productive player behind James this season.
It doesn’t take a genius to determine that losing Lopez and Randle for nothing were mistakes, but it’s enlightening to see the Lakers coaching staff remind us of the front office’s failures. Expect these leaks to turn into a deluge in the coming weeks.
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