Luke Walton Is Not to Blame for the LA Lakers' Slow Start with LeBron James

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterNovember 3, 2018

Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton questions a call in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Minnesota Timberwolves Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, in Minneapolis. The Timberwolves won 124-120. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Jim Mone/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Is Luke Walton's job in trouble? It shouldn't be.

On the heels of the Los Angeles Lakers' 3-5 start to the season, a Friday report from ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski and Dave McMenamin detailed a Tuesday meeting in which team president Earvin "Magic" Johnson "admonished" the head coach after back-to-back road losses in San Antonio and Minnesota.

With the summer acquisition of LeBron James, Walton and the Lakers clearly face higher expectations than last year's 35-win squad. The early results have been mixed, as the Lakers have competed in every game but fallen short more often than not.

But blaming Walton is premature. After losing on opening night in Portland to the Trail Blazers, the team fell at home to the Houston Rockets in a game that saw Brandon Ingram and Rajon Rondo throw punches with Chris Paul. All three were suspended, throwing Walton's rotation into turmoil without Ingram for four games and Rondo for three.

The rotation remains a bit of a mess, but understandably so. The team wasn't initially ready to start Lonzo Ball as he worked his way back from knee surgery. Rondo's days off hastened that inevitable switch.

Ingram's suspension stifled Walton's ability to use the Lakers' version of the "death lineup" with Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, James, Ball and Ingram. That group has played all of four minutes together all season.

A lack of production from the team's initial starting shooting guard, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, hasn't helped matters. The veteran guard is shooting just 22.2 percent from three-point range while averaging 5.9 points a game.

Walton quickly benched him for Hart, and with Ingram back from suspension and Kuzma thriving as a starter, Caldwell-Pope is behind both Ingram and Hart in the rotation.

But these are normal issues for a coach who is working in new players. Walton needs to settle into a primary rotation while remaining flexible enough to adjust to matchups, foul trouble and injuries. Lack of cohesion has contributed to the team's slow start defensively, but some of the issues are above Walton's pay grade.

Johnson, along with general manager Rob Pelinka, didn't bring back last year's starting center, Brook Lopez. They had the restricted rights to Julius Randle but released him to sign with the New Orleans Pelicans, where he's averaging 18.3 points and 7.6 rebounds a game.

The Lakers are missing exactly what Randle brought last year: a big who scores, rebounds, switches and can contest smaller guards defensively.

Johnson and Pelinka prioritized star-chasing with cap room next summer over a better roster this season. That may be the right decision if they land another superstar, but in the short term that doesn't help Walton.

Instead, he's relying on an undrafted rookie on a two-way contract in Johnathan Williams to fill valuable minutes. Under the circumstances, Williams has performed well, but Randle, Lopez or a true veteran backup center would help the Lakers tremendously.

Imagine the Lakers with Minnesota's Taj Gibson off the bench or Phoenix Suns center Tyson Chandler to back up JaVale McGee.

Walton doesn't have anyone like that, so he's asking McGee to carry the team as the defensive anchor for 27.1 minutes a game (almost triple the time from his stint last year with the Golden State Warriors) and then playing small ball with Kuzma or James at center (if not Williams).

None of this is to suggest Walton is blameless or beyond reproach. Johnson needs to carefully evaluate every aspect of the franchise to get it back on a winning course. But it's also important he doesn't react emotionally to a situation he helped create while implementing his long-term vision for the Lakers.

According to Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times, Walton's position is secure:

Tania Ganguli @taniaganguli

Magic Johnson was angry in the meeting he had with Luke Walton (first reported by @wojespn and @mcten) but he doesn't make rash decisions. Several sources told me and @BA_Turner that Luke Walton's job is not in danger. Further, ownership still very much believes in him.

Brad Turner, also of the Los Angeles Times, tweeted more detailed criticism of Walton and the team's offense:

Brad Turner @BA_Turner

Sources close to Magic said he was stern with Luke Walton during the meeting more about not having a system in place than the wins and losses. Magic wants to see Luke have the Lakers run an offense that he has yet to see. Sources said that maybe the meeting opened Luke’s eyes.

To that end, Johnson would have a point. The Lakers seem to be treating James like Kobe Bryant in end-game situations, giving him the ball and getting out of the way.

It's not ideal for a team to play with ball movement and pace for most of the game only to revert to isolation ball in the closing minutes.

This is an area Walton needs to improve. Against the Mavericks, the team went to Ingram for late-game scores. While they were unsuccessful on those possessions (the Lakers held on to win), getting the ball out of James' hands is an important step toward making the team's offense less predictable.

So far, James has been publicly supportive of Walton, but he's been known to speak up when he doesn't trust his coach (Erik Spoelstra, David Blatt, etc.). Should the All-Star forward lose faith in Walton, that would certainly impact the front office's view on the coach.

Regardless, don't expect opponents to go easy on the Lakers while they learn how to play together. The Western Conference is extremely competitive. A handful of losses in November could have significant implications in April.


Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.