The Los Angeles Lakers announced that they have mutually agreed to part ways with head coach Luke Walton in a Friday news dump.
“We would like to thank Luke for his dedicated service over the last three years,” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said in a statement. “We wish Luke and his family the best of luck moving forward.”
”I want to thank Jeanie Buss and the Buss family for giving me the opportunity to coach the Lakers,” Walton said in the same statement. “This franchise and the city will always be special to me and my family.”
The Lakers posted an 37-45 record in Walton’s third season with the team, missing the playoffs in the first year of the LeBron James era, and it seems that — as is the norm with these things — the front office is pinning most of the blame for that failure on the coach they didn’t hire, even with Magic Johnson now gone.
Before the season, things couldn’t have sounded more different than they ultimately ended up.
“As I was talking to Luke, we said, ‘Don’t worry about if we get out to a bad start,’” Johnson told reporters back in the fall, when addressing the press the week before Media Day. “We have seen that with LeBron going to Miami, and we have seen that when he came back to Cleveland. He is going to struggle because there are so many new moving parts. But eventually we are going to get it, and we are going to be a really good team.”
When rumors of Johnson’s discontentment that the Lakers weren’t a really good team right away initially came out, Walton said he wasn’t fearful for his job.
“I feel like I have a great relationship with management,” Walton said when pushed by reporters after an early November practice about initial rumors that Johnson had “admonished” him for the team’s early-season struggles.
”I feel like I’m coming down here to do my job and coach, and I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere,” Walton said then, a sentiment he doubled down on as recently as last month.
But while Johnson leaving appeared as though it might save Walton’s job, it seems like this was untenable enough after the year that it makes sense that Walton and the team would want to part ways, especially given that Walton seems to have other options.
So after a season of whispers about his job security — including tons of talk while he was still employed about who the team was looking at to replace him — Walton leaves the Lakers with just one final guaranteed season left on his contract, as the team originally signed him to a five-year deal — with only four years guaranteed — “at an annual salary believed to be between $5 million and $6 million,” according to Marc Stein (then of ESPN).
It’s unknown how Walton agreeing to exit affects that dead money, but regardless, it won’t affect the Lakers’ cap situation. However, it does mean they’ll be paying Walton for the next year to not coach, unless he gets a new job immediately to offset that pay.
Walton leaves a polarizing legacy with the Lakers, as he helped develop some of their best young players and was well-regarded by the organization for his skill at managing various personalities.
Want to thank Luke and the rest of the coaching staff for allowing me to be me from day 1 they say opportunity is everything in the league and they gave me that right from the jump. https://t.co/CcvHJRr7TH— kuz (@kylekuzma) April 12, 2019
However, Walton’s critics would point out that he often made curious decisions with his substitutions — sitting players when they seemed to be hot in order to stick with his planned rotation, not staggering his best players, playing favorites at times even if the players he liked weren’t playing all that well — and struggled to find solutions when he couldn’t play his preferred lineups.
Walton’s offense also too often failed not just to advance past the first option, but to even have any choices beyond the initial attack, leaving players to go one-on-one after those sets failed (when they were even called at all). Even if he wasn’t dealt the best hand, he played it poorly.
What the Lakers do now, though, is a mystery. The market isn’t exactly flush with promising head coach candidates, and it seems as if Tyronn Lue is the odds-on favorite for the job. Given that it was fairly clear from the get-go that James wasn’t Walton’s biggest fan, the Lakers should try to find someone he does buy in to, whether that’s Lue or an as-yet unreported name.
All things considered, though, moving on from Walton is an understandable decision if Pelinka and the team weren’t totally satisfied with his coaching, and not a totally unexpected route to go given the team’s struggles. Someone was always going to get scapegoated for how poorly this year went, and Walton seemed especially likely from the moment it leaked that Johnson admonished him early on — even if Johnson isn’t here anymore.
Still, it has to be acknowledged that Walton wasn’t necessarily dealt a winning hand. The front office signed James last summer, but while the roster they assembled around him may have been more talented than initially given credit for, and might have been better if it hadn’t been ravaged by injuries, this team was at the same time clearly flawed. The supporting cast lacked any semblance of shooting threats, or the types of defenders the team would need to cover up for its weaknesses in the interior throughout the year.
Those issues were exacerbated by how ugly and public the team’s trade-deadline negotiations for Antony Davis went, with nearly every player on the roster being floated in trade rumors and the team-wide defensive collapse that followed.
Walton didn’t make that mess, but he couldn’t clean it up either. Now it’s not his problem anymore, and while this decision may work out, it also goes down as the front office using one of its lifelines, because one can only point the finger for failure somewhere else so many times.
The Lakers deserve the chance to try and execute their grand vision of adding a second star alongside James, something they always indicated might take two summers. Still, they — and their next head coach — have their work cut out for them moving forward, because Walton isn’t around for them to blame when things go wrong anymore. Now we get to see how much of this was his fault, and how much the front office can learn from their role in how badly this season went.