The Los Angeles Lakers have gone 1-5 since LeBron James and Rajon Rondo went down with injuries in the team’s Christmas Day win over the Golden State Warriors, and fans of the team are (understandably) not happy.
That lack of happiness has led to nearly endless criticism of Lakers head coach Luke Walton over that time frame, and countless calls for his job. But no matter how lifeless and inept the team has mostly looked for the last week since losing James and Rondo (and later, Kyle Kuzma), asking for Walton’s head would seem to be premature.
But don’t take my word for it, listen to Lakers legend Kobe Bryant.
After Bryant’s Philadelphia Eagles won their playoff game on Sunday, he sent a tweet referencing the Ariana Grande song “Thank U, Next” (file that under sentences I didn’t learn to type in journalism school). It was an innocuous enough missive, but because he’s Kobe, it led to a Lakers-related reply:
Tell that to Luke Walton.— Bun C (@Raud_MDM) January 7, 2019
But Kobe wasn’t having that:
And as weird as it still is to hear Bryant — not exactly known for his ability to “relax” when the Lakers were struggling during his playing career, no matter the reason — tell people to chill about how bad the Lakers have looked, he’s absolutely right.
Look at the leftover roster in the wake of these injuries. Walton has made some questionable decisions, sure — most notably starting Ivica Zubac and JaVale McGee together on Sunday, which he said to combat Minnesota on the glass — but you can’t watch a team lose their two leading scorers (James and Kuzma) and two leading assist-getters (James and Rondo) and expect them to be just fine. No NBA team would come out of that okay.
Yes, this team hasn’t fought very hard in their last two games, and they’ve expressed repeated frustration — Walton included — about continually losing in the same ways. On some level that’s on the coaching of the team, but at the same time, if the remaining healthy Lakers just realize they have no shot to win and aren’t going all out, that’s hardly something Walton can do anything about.
It would obviously be nice to see the team giving more effort, but that would be a somewhat pyrrhic victory, risking injury to win games they can’t win anyway. In trying to get his team to try harder, Walton is on some level battling against human nature.
The other elephant in the room is that at some point, effort issues have to be pinned at least a little on the players — who are in general compensated far more highly than Walton — as well.
So look, I’m not going to tell anyone how to react. You can get all worked up about the Lakers’ struggles right now if you want, yell about the team’s about sets, rotations, overall scheme issues, minutes, the whole shebang. But the bottom line is that even with maximum effort, Walton can’t be expected to win with the roster as it currently stands. It’s just not reasonable to expect him to given all the team’s issues right now.
On that front, the Lakers front office reportedly doesn’t even see this stretch as Walton’s fault, and that’s coming from the same people that chewed him out for a slow start after spending all summer saying the team was going to have a slow start. If people like that and Kobe Bryant are preaching patience, it’s probably worth considering it as an option.
None of this absolves Walton as a coach, or is an argument he should without a doubt be retained at the end of the year. It’s just an acknowledgement that no NBA team would look good while battling the issues the Lakers are facing right now, and that it’s hardly Walton’s fault that a roster with shaky depth is struggling when asked to do more than they should be being asked to do.
Put another way, you wouldn’t get upset at your car for not starting if you replaced its engine with a moped motor, so you shouldn’t get mad at the Lakers for not looking good when they try to have Brandon Ingram replace LeBron James on a roster with very little else in terms of scoring options. That’s not on the mechanic for doing the procedure, that’s on the situation that made him desperate enough to try it.