LeBron James still being out injured sure as heck doesn’t stop the NBA universe from talking about LeBron James, and it doesn’t stop the chatter and speculation about his supporting actors in the ever-entertaining Los Angeles Lakers soap opera either.
The latest plot twist to come out of the Staples Center is a potential cliffhanger involving head coach Luke Walton, who, not for the first time this season, finds his seat of employment trending on the toasty side.
Tuesday night’s victory over the Chicago Bulls might have prevented Walton from being given his marching orders by front office duo Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka (general manager), or it might have stopped owner Jeannie Buss from stepping in to veto his firing, depending on which reports you read.
Regardless, let’s be clear on this. Sacking Walton would be completely unfair, preposterously hasty and totally out of touch with the reality of what he has had to contend with this season.
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But here’s the thing. Not one of those factors will matter when it comes to the ultimate decision on his removal.
Johnson, the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, cares nothing for what others think is fair, or in forgiving a few tough breaks. As you might expect from someone with such a storied resume in basketball and a burgeoning one in business, he cares about winning. Not the kind of 50-32 winning that plenty of teams would be satisfied with, but the kind that nets you a chunky piece of jewelry at the end of it.
For her part, Buss, who according to the New York Times would balk at attempts to get rid of Walton in the immediate term, wouldn’t be doing so because he’s a nice guy with a dry sense of humor that makes you want to root for him. She’d be doing so because she expected things to get better, and because the disruption of letting the coach go mid-season could be counter-productive.
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Either way, the reality is that Walton will get canned eventually if the Lakers’ slide continues. As intriguing as things have been in L.A. since James’ arrival, the outlook for more drama is stronger than the prognosis for a sudden surge in productivity. There have been some positive signs, but plenty of troubling ones, too, including inconsistency and continued clumsy mistakes from young players.
Beating the woeful Bulls 107-100 took the Lakers’ record to 4-7 since James tweaked his groin during an impressive Christmas Day triumph over the Golden State Warriors.
Yet the visuals have been largely miserable: the games came against teams with a combined record of 181-240, and seven of the 11 were at home. The low point was a Sunday setback against Cleveland that allowed the Cavaliers to arrest a league-worst 12-game losing skid.
In Lakerland, fans have gotten worried, with a drop in optimism palpable at recent games. Even the Chicago win turned from being a comfortable stroll into a late nail-biter thanks to some careless lapses, not to mention the cardinal sin of costing the crowd free tacos in a promotional offer when Ivica Zubac committed a pointless foul with a second left and allowed the Bulls to reach 100 points.
“We had to find out a way to scrap out a win, and we did it,” Walton said afterward, in as friendly a spin as he could manage.
To keep Johnson off his case, Walton had to do one of two things. He either had to make the Lakers excellent with James or he had to improve the inexperienced core in a way more obvious than what most people expected.
Either outcome would have raised hopes of a future title tilt, assuming a big free agent comes to play in the summer. Neither has really happened, not with any regularity.
Walton doesn’t get quizzed hard by the L.A. media, which is almost as soft on him as it is on James, but don’t expect Johnson to share any of that reticence.
Meanwhile, Walton seems to have retained plenty of support in the locker room. “Luke has done a great job handling all the adversity we have been through,” Kyle Kuzma said.
“It’s a tough job,” Kuzma added, and he’s right, perhaps one of the hardest in the league.
Walton has done a decent job in a grueling spot, a better one it could be argued than plenty of coaches whose positions are not coming under any kind of scrutiny.
Yet this is Los Angeles, it is the Lakers, and it is the LeBron James Show, where higher standards are expected and different rules apply.
With visits to Oklahoma City and Houston to come, followed by a home tilt against the Warriors, and the schedule on James’ return still not concrete, these are challenging times – and time is a luxury that Walton doesn’t have.