How long has Luke Walton been coach of the Lakers?
It’s 2018, so to answer this question, you might Google it. But when you do a search for “Lakers hire Luke Walton," Google thinks you’ve made a mistake.
“Did you mean: Lakers fire Luke Walton?”
But maybe Google, in its algorithmic wisdom, knows this: the Lakers have rotated through some coaches since Phil Jackson’s departure in 2011. They let Mike Brown coach for one season, then fired him five games into his second. Mike D’Antoni coached most of the rest of that year plus the next season before getting canned. Byron Scott coached two full seasons before getting fired.
Now Luke Walton has made it exactly eight games into his third season before rampant speculation of his firing has begun. That he’s set the coaching longevity record for this decade of Lakers basketball is probably little consolation after facing an “admonishment” from his boss, Lakers president Magic Johnson, this week according to ESPN.
Johnson is said to be frustrated with the new-look Lakers' 3-5 record to start the season, and is putting “intense and immediate pressure” on Walton to find a quick turnaround, or else his job security is on the line. After doing the legwork to sign LeBron James, Johnson apparently expected the Lakers to be a contender right away.
But if Johnson consulted Google, he might also know this: teams signing LeBron James just haven’t been immediate successes in the regular season. After signing James in 2014, the Cavaliers started with a 5-7 record. The 2010 Heat, with three of the best players of this era, began the season with a 9-8 start. James has one of the highest basketball IQs of any player ever, but still: it takes time to understand and integrate a player of James' unique impact into a system.
Both of those teams ended up going to the NBA Finals in that initial season, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that to happen this time. James has moved to the Western Conference, which is just a significantly harder playoff test than the Eastern Conference presents. Heck, no one knows that better than James: he’s navigated through the East competition nine times, but only defeated the Finals opponents from the West thrice.
Lakers management should also just look at the roster they’ve put together: it’s not contender quality. Who is the second best player on this team? Former Ute Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram can both score, but both can get tunnel vision on offense and are really poor on the defensive end right now. Even beyond all-world Golden State, their Western Conference competition has legitimate no-doubt stars as their second-best players: Chris Paul, Donovan Mitchell, CJ McCollum, Jrue Holiday, Karl-Anthony Towns, LaMarcus Aldridge. Memphis' Mike Conley is a better second banana than what the Lakers have.
I don’t know that Luke Walton is an above-average NBA coach. The book on him in his first season with the Lakers was that he was tactically limited: he didn’t have the anywhere near the mastery of a Brad Stevens, a Gregg Popovich, a Quin Snyder. He makes strange, seemingly politically-driven lineup choices at times. But by all accounts, he’s improved as a young coach; getting last year’s core to rank 12th defensively is a real accomplishment. And he’s still 38, there’s room to grow.
If the Lakers did fire Walton, though, who would they replace him with? Brian Shaw is his lead assistant, but he had a nightmare two seasons in Denver. The Cavaliers just fired Tyronn Lue, who obviously has experience with LeBron: experience enough to lead the Cavs to the second-worst defense in the league last season. There’s a lot of talk about Mark Jackson, who is presented by Klutch Sports Group, the agency ran by James' friend/agent Rich Paul. Jackson, the current ESPN commentator former point guard with a catastrophic stint in Utah, somehow managed to bring down Golden State when he coached them. I am not optimistic about how a Jackson-led Laker squad would end up.
Frankly, most other coaches would recognize they’re being set up to fail: with no training camp, an uneven roster, and sky-high expectations, the Lakers job has earned a reputation as one of the hardest jobs in the NBA. D’Antoni, a well-respected coach, couldn’t last more than two seasons there, remember? Walton is flawed, but the replacement options are worse.
Any coach that would agree to the Lakers job now isn’t qualified to be the coach.
There is promise and potential for this Lakers squad, but it will take patience. The free agency market of the summer of 2019 figures to bring at least one legitimate star to Los Angeles: even if they strike out on Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson, they should be able to lure a Khris Middleton or Kemba Walker. Better center options than Javale McGee will make themselves available too, either by free agency or trade. The Lakers might be able to gain defensive bite in the same way.
And the odds are good that at least one of the Lakers' young pieces — Ingram, Kuzma, or Lonzo Ball — will develop into a contributor on both sides of the ball. That will take time and player development resources, sure, but should be worth it in the end.
Letting Walton go mid-season would jeopardize all of that. Google’s prophecy might well come true, but now is not the time.