SportsPulse: Ahead of the first round, USA TODAY Sports’ Martin Rogers breaks down what to expect in the Western Conference playoffs.
LOS ANGELES – Luke Walton never had much chance of surviving the maelstrom of this Los Angeles Lakers season, but for a couple days after Magic Johnson’s sudden departure it seemed like he might cling on – amid a political jump-ball at one of the league’s most dysfunctional franchises.
In truth, like so much else about the Lakers in this era, it was a smokescreen. So many suggestions, hints and half-promises. So many of them unfulfilled.
Walton left Friday after a 37-45 campaign with precisely two more wins than the previous year, despite the addition of LeBron James. It wasn’t good enough to keep him in his job, but the unfortunate truth is that there was virtually nothing that could have saved him.
Nothing realistic, anyway.
James’ arrival wasn’t as much of a surefire route to championship contention as everyone expected, yet Walton was judged against those false lofty predictions. Looking at the sum of its parts, the Lakers’ finishing position was about right. A squad thrown together with a jumble of over-the-hill veterans and unproven rookies, steered by a defensively disinterested superstar who gets hurt halfway through the season? Yep, that sounds something like 37-45.
“But this is the Lakers” is a phrase that gets thrown out time and again when referring to the purple-and-gold, as if those colors and the banners gathering dust by the Staples Center roof are some kind of medicinal potion to combat failure.
However, this is the Lakers of old no longer. It is a rusty franchise staggering under the weight of mismanagement. Getting one superstar, James, wasn’t the magic elixir. Appointing Johnson, with his myriad of other interests, as president of basketball operations wasn’t either. Trying to tap into the spirit of Kobe Bryant by getting his former agent, Rob Pelinka, as general manager? Nope.
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The torpedoing factor of a season that was never going to be great had nothing to do with Walton. It was the clumsy manner in which the front office handled its failed bid to trade for Anthony Davis, an attempt that seems to have come at the little-veiled behest of James. From that point, Walton was left with a morale-light group of youngsters who would soon fall victim to a spate of injuries.
Yet while offloading Walton offers no guarantee of improvement, it also doesn’t automatically make it wrong. For when Jeanie Buss went down the James route a year ago it tied the team to a certain path, a journey that leaves the owner with a limited set of choices.
There are plenty of people surrounding the Lakers who believe that the biggest problem is James, but cutting him loose is not an option, not after committing all that money and making all those changes to curry his favor.
Instead, there is a necessity to at least try to find a coach who might have a chance of bringing the best out of James and earning his full respect and allegiance. Walton wasn’t that man, and so it is time to try something else.
All of which makes it hard to see where the Lakers go from here. They are locked in on the next three years with James, burdened by the expectation that they should be able to deliver the parts needed for him to create a title charge. Who knows if he even has that left in him?
Amid it all, a promising young coach gets set adrift and finds himself in a peculiar spot. Walton is no longer the flavor of the month in NBA coaching circles, not like he was in 2016 after inspiring big things from the Golden State Warriors when Steve Kerr missed time with back trouble.
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But he is not too badly tainted, either, with no sense that he is untouchable after the way things went south with the Lakers. That’s because the Lakers’ sorry saga is too convoluted for blame to be cast exclusively on one man, or one factor.
These are problems that run deeper than one job title, or one decision. The Lakers organization’s biggest conundrum right now isn’t even who to find to replace the coach they just fired, but how to fix themselves.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Martin Rogers on Twitter @RogersJourno