The Los Angeles Lakers suffered arguably their worst loss of the season on Sunday night, falling to the Cleveland Cavaliers, 101-95, at home. Somehow, that might not be the worst thing to happen to head coach Luke Walton this week if things continue to trend this way.
The Lakers are obviously without LeBron James, and there was a report last week that the front office wouldn’t blame Walton for struggling to win without their star, which would make sense. However, Bill Oram of The Athletic — who is as plugged in as anyone on the Lakers beat, and thus worth listening to on this — wrote early on Monday morning that even James’ absence from the lineup may not be enough to save Walton, who Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson had previously said was safe “unless something drastic happens” (via The Athletic):
Still, there is a growing uneasiness around Walton’s job security. Johnson is unpredictable, highly competitive and has already been outed as having doubts about the coaching staff.
“A growing uneasiness” doesn’t necessarily mean fired, but it remains to be seen what Johnson defines as “something drastic.” A loss to the Cavaliers — who even with their win against the Lakers have yet to crack double-digits in the win column this season, even though we’re already in January — is pretty embarrassing. Still, the Lakers have also proven they shouldn’t really be considered the favorites to beat anyone as long as James is out.
Walton, frustrated with Sunday’s loss, told reporters after the game that a change to the starting lineup could be coming when the Lakers take on the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday. If it doesn’t work, it sounds like the starting lineup might not be the only thing that eventually could change, according to Oram:
If the Lakers lose to the 10-33 Bulls, who have already made a coaching change of their own, the pressure on Walton will really begin to ramp up.
Look, I am not going to sit here and tell you this reporting isn’t true, because I have literally zero reason not to believe its accuracy, but man does this ever feel dumb.
Look, I get that it’s frustrating to watch the Lakers lose to maybe the worst team in the league. That frustration level is probably double considering the defeat came at home, and that it happened to be at the hands of the team James left to come to the Lakers. Plus, the Lakers have too often looked like they’re barely trying for large stretches of games since James went down.
All of that is on some level tied back to Walton, but it feels like not having LeBron freaking James is a pretty large asterisk here. As Walton noted last night when discussing why he still believes in this team despite their recent struggles, this roster with James healthy just went to the Bay Area and handed out a serious seasons beatings to the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day.
Defeating the Warriors once with James isn’t necessarily enough of a reason to keep a coach employed indefinitely — shouts to David Blatt — but it would feel like a serious overreaction to let Walton go because a team built around LeBron James (gasp) struggled without LeBron James.
We have years of evidence that teams constructed around James have issues when he’s out of the lineup, in large part because of how impossible his impact on games is to replicate. Teams get used to playing a certain way, and it’s not always easy for players to adjust on the fly, especially while facing more defensive attention than ever in the absence of their star.
For a Lakers team that openly spent all of training camp focused on defense — a defense that is currently ranked SEVENTH in the league in defensive efficiency, which Walton deserves some credit for — and let James’ greatness and the opportunities it creates for others dictate their offense, it was always going to be difficult to find a rhythm offensively without him, which has been borne out by the team looking lost on that end without their engine.
This is also where we note that Walton isn’t the one who assembled this team bereft of shooting. The front office targeted playmakers over shooters, looking to ease the creative burden on James and zigging when the league is zagging. As a result, the Lakers have struggled to get their offense going anywhere outside of transition because of how little space they have to operate in because of all the different players that can be sagged off of on the perimeter.
Some of that is on Walton for not spicing up his offensive attack a bit — he’s not blameless for the team’s weaknesses — but even if he did have some more cutesy stuff in his playbook, that’s like saying that an omelette made with rotten eggs tastes better because it had a bunch of salsa on it. That’s not really the point.
If the Lakers were to fire Walton right now, it would be the basketball equivalent of handing someone a bunch of lemons, demanding they make lemonade without sugar or water and then acting surprised when the result was too sour to handle.
If the Lakers are going to fire Walton regardless at the end of the season — which seems more and more likely by the day — then maybe it ultimately doesn’t matter if they do so now, and see if new blood gives this team some extra life, but to do all this during a stretch without James still just feels incredibly shortsighted and reactionary.
Walton hasn’t been perfect this season by any means, and deserves some share of blame for the team’s issues. He just doesn’t deserve to be the fall guy for a LeBron James team looking bad without LeBron James, because that’s what always happens when a roster is so dependent on a singular force to drive it. If the Lakers are going to fire Walton for this, then they never should have kept him going into the season, because he was clearly never going to get a fair shake to begin with.