The Lakers are expected to undergo a full roster overhaul this offseason, and that will likely extend to head coach Luke Walton. Despite having some meaningful advocates within the organization, Walton has been on the chopping block for some time, and may have to take the fall for what has been an overwhelmingly disappointing season in Los Angeles.
Setting aside the question of whether Walton should be given the opportunity to coach this team through next season and beyond, it’s probably time to start thinking about what the Lakers should be looking for in their head coach of the future.
The most important quality of a head coach in the current NBA is someone who is on the same page as the front office. Because Walton predated the Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka regime (by less than a year), the front office reportedly felt that Walton “doesn’t fit the mold” of what they want in a head coach, leading to some disagreement in player evaluation and roster construction. This should be an easy fix, because Magic and Pelinka will have full control of hiring the next head coach. Whatever plans they have for building the 2019-20 roster should be part of the discussion during the interview process, hopefully creating cooperation and cohesiveness from the front office down.
That leads us into the specific qualities a coach will need for this specific Los Angeles team. The first criterion is LeBron James’ approval. James hasn’t been outwardly critical of Walton, but there have been rumblings throughout the year that his camp would prefer someone else to be leading the Lakers, and it’s hard for a coach to feel comfortable in his role if his best player isn’t a fan.
The problem is it is hard to figure out who James would support as head coach. The two coaches he has had success with — Erik Spoelstra and Ty Lue — had very different paths to the top job, so that doesn’t exactly paint a picture of who else could earn LeBron’s approval. Ultimately, the front office will probably have to consult with James before their next hire.
If this job were to open up, it is not for the faint of heart. The head coach of the Lakers has to deal with unending media scrutiny over their job security in an environment in which every single action is hyper-analyzed, and seemingly trivial matters become bigger stories. This is not a role for someone to grow into; whoever coaches this team has to be ready to lead a contender from day one.
On the court, a new head coach would have to improve upon Walton’s shortcomings. In nearly three years on the job, Walton hasn’t been able to create an identity for the Lakers. A new coach would ideally be able to install a discernible offensive system, one that utilizes James’ offensive gifts more than they have been this year.
Furthermore, Los Angeles needs to hire someone who has a strong handle on rotations. Too many games have been given away this season due to suboptimal lineups that put players in situations that didn’t optimize their talents and fit. If the Lakers decide to move on from Walton, the next hire has to be someone who is better able to manage lineups and make decisions in real time in response to the flow of the game. Despite the number of young players on the roster, player development isn’t a priority at this point — the next head coach needs to contribute to wins immediately.
The list of coaches who have been connected to the head coaching job has been uninspiring. Both Mark Jackson and Jason Kidd fail most of these conditions: they both have poor schemes that didn’t take advantage of the players on their teams, and they failed miserably at staggering their players, resulting in extended minutes of bad bench lineups.
Lue at least has been able to coach a LeBron-led team, and Cleveland was consistently one of the best offenses in the league, even if the system the Cavaliers ran was pretty simple. The Cleveland teams were pretty lousy on defense, though, and restoring a defensive culture in Los Angeles is important. Giving Lue a defensive coordinator, perhaps poaching a strong defensive assistant coach from another staff by giving them a promotion to associate head coach could get the job done.
If the Pelicans decide to move on from Alvin Gentry now that Anthony Davis is theoretically on his way out, he has the offensive acumen to really unleash the potential of the Lakers’ young core.
Beyond options like the names above, it’s unlikely that the organization would try anyone from the college ranks considering the pressure the team has to succeed right away, so an NBA retread is probably the most likely scenario.
The Lakers could still throw a curveball and decide to let Luke Walton coach the final season on his contract. But it’s pretty clear that this team was capable of more this year, and Walton was one of the contributing factors towards their failure. How the front office fixes that problem will be one of the most critical decisions for the future of this team moving forward.