The Los Angeles Lakers finally did what they were largely expected to do after falling out of playoff contention, pulling the plug on third-year head coach Luke Walton. However, it took less than 24 hours for him to find another job, quickly agreeing to become the next coach of the Sacramento Kings the next day.
If a coach like Walton doesn’t make it a few hours without having another team reach out to him and not even a full day before agreeing to coach a different NBA team in the same conference, doesn’t the word “regret” float in the Lakers’ minds?
The 39-year-old was picked up faster than a former All-Star looking for a new home after a buyout — and that should raise some questions.
Question No. 1: Did the Lakers mess this one up again?
The answer is a lot more complex than a yes or no predicament. Walton at one point was the right coach for the Lakers, but that all changed after he was tasked with changing his entire coaching plan by throwing a superstar of LeBron James’ stature right onto his lap.
While getting a star of James’ caliber is often a welcome sight for a coach — it wasn’t for Walton, who had a roster filled with young faces to which he served as the undisputed leader.
Not only did James suddenly take that leadership position from the young coach, but Walton also was not consulted on the ensuing signings that would bring Kentavious Caldwell-Pope back on a one-year deal and sign non-shooters like Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, and JaVale McGee to give James the “playmakers” Magic Johnson deemed necessary.
To top that off, the Lakers didn’t seem to care about Walton’s disposition to bring back forward Julius Randle, who he had seen bloom since his second year in the league. The Lakers rescinded his rights as a restricted free agent, letting him sign a two-year deal with the New Orleans Pelicans instead.
Suddenly, this turned from a sound hire to a poor match, as Walton was forced to fend for himself and his coaching staff with no help from the front office or anyone to listen to his ideas.
It is always far easier to fire a coach than to account for the changes that really caused a subpar season.
Question No. 2: Who is to blame for Walton’s firing?
As it’s often the case with managerial changes, it always starts from the top down, as it was controlling-owner Jeanie Buss who first made the decision to bring in Lakers legend Magic Johnson to run the front office, despite having no experience at the executive ranks.
To further compound that problem, she hired Rob Pelinka, Kobe Bryant’s sports agent, as the team’s general manager shortly after — who also had no knowledge of what it takes to run a front office.
The two largely underachieved during their two years together, quickly pointing their failures to the youth of this roster and later on Walton, who was quickly put on notice early in the season, as the Lakers faced a poor start to their 2018-19 campaign.
To have such a disconnect between the front office and the head coach is a crime in itself, but to act with differing interests is a cardinal sin, as Magic and Pelinka never cared to cater to Walton’s coaching vision, instead going off of their own instincts.
Such is the grueling process of going through an 82-game regular season and reaping only 37 wins, only a two-win improvement from the 2017-18 season, which the Lakers played without LeBron.
To say the fault for Walton’s firing falls solely on the front office is to partly speak the truth, as a greater blame falls on Buss for making a pair of inept hires run the franchise’s basketball operations.
Question No. 3: Why the Kings?
Sacramento was a no-brainer choice for Walton, considering he’s under the same precedent that initially got him hired with the Lakers. Los Angeles was initially impressed with his ability to coach and mentor young players in Golden State, which the Lakers had when hiring him in 2016 — the same is now true for the Kings.
With a roster led by young stars like De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, and Marvin Bagley III, Walton will have strong pieces to work with this time around, though his hire has strong implications of making the playoffs next season under newly-extended general manager Vlade Divac.
The Kings got off to a 30-26 start to the season, but tailed off during the last stretch, going 9-17 the rest of the way, falling nine games short of the playoff berth under former coach Dave Joerger.
However, the aforementioned pieces are much more of a nearly-finished product than the Lakers were back then, especially considering the front office gave up on D’Angelo Russell, their lone young star in the making.
Coaches in the NBA are a matter of fit more so than prestige and reputation. The Kings needed a coach that could get along with young players, nurture them, but also teach them the ways of becoming a professional — something Walton has great experience in from his time as an NBA player and years as a coach since his retirement.
Question No. 4: What now for the Lakers?
This is an onion with multiple layers to peel. Magic Johnson’s sudden resignation was more than a shock to the Lakers community, but forced a quick teardown of the executive ranks of the organization. However, rumors that Rob Pelinka will not only stay, but possibly grow into his role as an executive make this question so much more mind-boggling.
Pelinka has proven to have only two years of experience with the Lakers and has nothing to show for it besides LeBron James’ acquisition this past summer — most of which is attributed to Magic Johnson’s charm and strong rapport with the star.
Rewinding to February, as the Lakers desperately hoped to trade for Anthony Davis, reports indicated that former New Orleans Pelicans GM Dell Demps would not pick up the phone for Pelinka, only doing so once the Hall of Famer got into the discussion as the trade deadline neared.
This isn’t to say that the trade would have gone through if Johnson spoke from the start, but there are rumors that front offices have a bad taste in their mouths from dealing with Pelinka as a player agent, and he’s not earning himself any favors as an executive of one of the most storied franchises in the league.
Considering his stay as general manager of the Lakers, it’s tough to envision a front office progressing unless a new president is hired and he is given the power to name his own staff to run basketball operations.
Though only Jeanie Buss can do that, if she chooses to go outside the model that his late father, Dr. Jerry Buss, put in place — one based on family ties. That same vision has proven awry after her first massive fail as the lady in charge since ousting her brother Jim from his position at the front office.
All in all, Walton didn’t deserve to be fired, but both sides had to move on given the radical change of direction the Lakers took upon starting this season and failing to make the necessary adjustments to give Walton a capable roster.
Walton surely has the talent to be an NBA coach, but he is especially better at coaching young teams that require a spry brain, eager to show players hands-on.
The Lakers needed a complete reconstruction, now with James in the picture, now seeking a star-manager, rather than a young players coach. Yet this turn of the page doesn’t take away from how organizational dysfunction can suddenly ruin something that was once so promising.