Welcome to the portion of the season where members of the Los Angeles Lakers leak issues they have with their coworkers! First, we heard about how Luke Walton wasn’t happy with the way the front office handled free agency, and now it’s come to light that the front office isn’t happy with the way Walton built out his own staff.
According to Marc Stein of the New York Times, either Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka or others from the front office think Walton should have employed someone to help him learn on the job as a head coach in the NBA:
Walton is certainly not blameless in the Lakers’ struggles. His lineups, rotations and responsibility for L.A.’s worrisome drop to No. 22 leaguewide in offensive efficiency have routinely been questioned. Management, furthermore, is said to be dismayed by Walton’s refusal to hire a seasoned former head coach as his top assistant — something young coaches (Walton is 38) frequently do.
Yet the public nature of the heat Walton took from his own front office made Johnson look impatient and, worse, ramped up the pressure on everyone in the Lakers’ locker room — especially the coach — before they even made it to Thanksgiving. With two years left on a five-year deal, Walton is widely expected to be shoved out of his toasty seat for good at season’s end.
A couple things can be right at the same time, here.
It can be objectively hilarious that a front office made up of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka — who between them brought zero experience as NBA executives — are annoyed that someone with little experience as a head coach wouldn’t surround himself with more experience. Remember, Jerry West at one point specifically said he’d like to go back to the Lakers to work with this front office and was turned away.
But while Johnson and Pelinka’s concern here might be a bit hypocritical, that doesn’t mean it also can’t be fair.
Walton’s staff is not particularly inspiring. It features literally no one any team out there is falling over themselves to hire. Technically speaking, Brian Shaw might qualify as the veteran former head coach, but his one stint as a head coach featured:
- Shaw admitting that he had to read a book to try and relate to the millennials on his roster
- Video leaking of Shaw rapping a scouting report to his team in an effort to get them to buy in (it apparently did not work, based on the Nuggets’ record under Shaw)
- A 56-85 record
It’s hard to see that experience as a net positive. While we’re here, let’s take a look at the resumes of the rest of Walton’s assistant staff:
Jesse Mermuys — Really chill bro dude who was put in charge of the system the Lakers run offensively. If you’re frustrated with the system, he’s your guy. His prior experience includes one season as head coach of the Toronto Raptors’ G League affiliate, as well as time as a player development coach, video coordinator and advance scout.
Brian Keefe — Keefe is in charge of the defensive scheme. He started with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator. He then went to Seattle (and eventually Oklahoma City).
Keefe helped develop Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant, the latter of whom spoke incredibly highly of how Keefe helped develop him (via the L.A. Times):
“Taught me everything I know,” said Durant, a seven-time All-Star and league most valuable player in the 2013-14 season. “About work ethic, being a pro. He wouldn’t take any credit for it, but he taught me everything I know as far as how to approach shoot-arounds, practices, games, workout sessions.”
It’s easy to see how Keefe’s defense would be a strongpoint of Walton’s tenure, and hiring a guy that helped so many talented players along the way had to be looked at as one of the positives on this staff.
Mark Madsen — Best known for dancing. Poorly. The lone holdover from the prior staff, Madsen’s prior experience includes an NBA playing career and assistant coaching stints in the G League and at his alma mater, Stanford.
Miles Simon — Won a national championship with Walton at Arizona and eventually worked as an assistant under Lute Olson there. Prior to joining the Lakers, however, he had no experience in the NBA, but had worked in independent player development, as well as coaching stints with Team USA junior teams and at Nike basketball camps.
That is not a whole lot of experience across the board, and it’s fair to wonder if Walton might have damned himself by appointing a bunch of his friends and former teammates to very important jobs.
But once again, the idea that anyone remotely associated with the Lakers might grow tired of nepotism or cronyism is just hypocritical. The Lakers staff that has been made public is littered with either former players, children or family of former players, or close personal friends of the Buss family or front office.
So while this front office is perfectly within its own right to (correctly) point out this specific shortcoming in Walton’s staff, they should also take this opportunity to use their criticism as a type of mirror to notice flaws that pre-date even Johnson and Pelinka — who currently hold the jobs they do because of the Lakers’ propensity for insulated thinking.
Walton has two years remaining on his contract after this season. By the vast majority of accounts — including the one above — he’ll probably be shown the door this summer. But if he isn’t, and Jeanie Buss gets her wish, there could be worse outcomes than the front office demanding Walton hire a former head coach, and preferably with some offensive scheming chops, to help him grow in the role he holds.
The Lakers would be in an even better spot if that’s how this turns out, or if the front office that demands Walton employ others with more experience at least takes some of their own advice.