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Lakers vs. Kings Preview: Can L.A. fire Luke Walton again?

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The Lakers might get Luke Walton out of the paint for the second time in less than two seasons.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

For as annoyed as some of you are with Frank Vogel’s coaching in their Tuesday loss to the Phoenix Suns, the Lakers will get a reminder that things could always be worse in their final game before the much-needed NBA All-Star break. On Wednesday, they’ll visit the Sacramento Kings, helmed by their former head coach Luke Walton, whose new team is currently in a free fall out of the playoff race.

The Kings started out 5-10, leading to speculation that Walton’s seat would warm. They then won seven of their next eight games while appearing to turn things around and lower the pressure in the state capitol, but immediately plummeted again, losing 10 of their next 11 to fall to 13-21 overall, only being spared the second-worst record in the Western Conference by the Houston Rockets’ similarly timed plummet down the standings. It all came to a head in their most recent defeat, in which the Kings gave up an eight-point lead in the final minute to lose by one against the Charlotte Hornets.

All of this leads us to the Lakers. Two years ago at this time, Walton was still the head coach of the team, who fired him at the end of the 2018-19 season after the Lakers missed the playoffs in LeBron James’ first year in purple and gold. How much James actively had to do with Walton’s dismissal is a debate we don’t need to re-litigate, mainly because the coach killer narrative is tired and boring, and Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka also clearly didn’t like Walton (the former of whom leaked he was on the hot seat basically all year and claimed he quit when he wasn’t allowed to fire him. The latter let him go the very next day).

Additionally, if the three mostly underwhelming seasons Walton had at the helm in Los Angeles weren’t enough to demonstrate it, his 44-62 record in Sacramento has shown that the Lakers made the right call to look for an upgrade. They needed a better coach as they looked to optimize the rest of James’ prime. Winning the title last year more than justified that decision.

After all, it’s not just Lakers fans who don’t think Walton can coach anymore. Kings fans have joined them at nearly the speed with which their team blows late-game leads, and oddsmakers have him as the favorite to be the next coach fired after the Hawks dismissed Lloyd Pierce. So I asked our own Sabreena Merchant — who also covers the Kings for Sactown Royalty — if she thinks that the Lakers could really show Walton the door a second time in less than two full seasons.

Here is what she had to say:

If you’re looking for reasons for Luke Walton to be fired, those are easy to find. The Kings have the worst defensive rating in league history, though offenses are more efficient now than ever. They’ve had two separate 11-game spans when they’ve lost at least nine games. He’s also had a player’s dad attack him on Twitter.

But the Kings also knew they’d be in a rebuild. Their first-round pick Tyrese Haliburton has shown the ability to be a capable rotation player in year one, and Walton has consistently put him in position to succeed. De’Aaron Fox got some All-Star buzz, Harrison Barnes has had the offensive season of his career, and the Kings have some signature wins over the Clippers and the Celtics, as well as sweeping the Nuggets.

When new front offices are hired, the expectation is that the current coach is on his way out. The problem is that Walton has two years left on his deal, and no one wants to eat that kind of money during the pandemic. It’s also fair for general manager Monte McNair to want more time to evaluate his head coach than 30-plus games during a truncated season with virtually no practice time.

The odds that Walton makes it to the end of his contract are slim, but it would be somewhat shocking for him to not last to the end of this season, regardless of how the rest of it plays out.

So maybe LeBron and the Lakers won’t usher Walton out the door of a second organization in as many years just yet. The Kings having one more game after this also makes a same-night dismissal unlikely. Still, in an increasingly insane NBA that saw the Wolves hire a new assistant coach from another team within hours of firing their previous one on the same night of a game, anything is possible.

And the fact that Walton’s job security is even possibly coming down to this one game should tell you all you need to know about whether or the Lakers can win this one, and the level of team they’ll be competing against. It won’t be easy, but if a Lakers team on the second night of a back-to-back and missing both LeBron James and Anthony Davis beats this Kings team, their ownership group may be left with no choice but the same one the Lakers had just two seasons ago: To send Walton packing.

Notes and Updates

  • The Lakers and Kings are both really banged up. This will get... Interesting.

The Lakers and Kings will tip off at 7:00 p.m. PT on Wednesday in Sacramento. The game will be televised exclusively on Spectrum SportsNet.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.