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Luke Walton out as Lakers coach

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Just a handful of days after Magic Johnson abruptly stepped down as the head of Lakers’ basketball operations — in part because he was not comfortable firing the coach — the Lakers and coach Luke Walton have mutually agreed to part ways, according to the team.

Walton was fired would be a more accurate description. With Magic gone, there was uncertainty around the organization and the perception that Walton would not be let go quickly. However, GM Rob Pelinka is running the show and he was not in Walton’s corner. Walton could read the writing on the wall, he didn’t have the full weight and backing of LeBron James — LeBron’s exit interview was with Magic and GM Rob Pelinka, not Walton — he was never Pelinka’s guy, and Walton knew what was coming.

“We would like to thank Luke for his dedicated service over the last three years,” Pelinka said in a statement released by the team. “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.”

Notice Walton thanked the Buss family and nobody else. Not Magic, not Pelinka, nobody.

Walton was 98-148 in three years as the Lakers coach, but that was seen as respectable considering he was handed a young team that was not going to win much. In his second season, the younger Lakers — Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma — showed development and the team played surprisingly good defense. However, when the Lakers got LeBron this summer the equation changed, the Lakers became much more about winning now, and that did not happen this season for a variety of reasons, only a few of which should be on Walton. Still, Walton was going to lose his job and everyone knew it. Walton included.

Steve Kerr stood up for his former assistant Walton in a statement at the Warriors practice Friday.

Rumors of Sacramento’s interest in Walton were floating around NBA circles before Kings GM Vlade Divac fired their coach Dave Joerger, or before Walton had stepped away. Now with the path cleared, Divac will reach out to Walton, as multiple people have reported.

The Lakers are reportedly considering Tyronn Lue — LeBron James’ former coach in Cleveland — and Monty Williams for the job, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Both of those men would be good hires, both have a history with LeBron (Williams as an assistant coach with USA Basketball), but their hiring raises another question:

Do the Lakers want to hire a coach before hiring a new head of basketball operations? Is all of this, Walton leaving and going after a new coach, part of Pelinka trying to gain power in the organization and cement his place?

If so, it just fits in with the mess that the Lakers have been in recent years as an organization.

If you look at the most successful NBA organizations — Golden State, San Antonio, even down the Staples Center hall with the Clippers — there is a collaborative spirit in the front office and basketball operations. For example, think back to the 2015 NBA Finals, it was the idea of the “special assistant to the head coach and manager of advanced scouting” — a guy who’s primary job was cutting video to show players clips — who came up with the idea of starting Andre Iguodala and putting him on LeBron. Because of how the Warriors are open and share info, the idea made its way to Steve Kerr, he liked it and tried it, and the rest is history.

The Lakers as an organization do not function that way. People are more compartmentalized, information does not flow as freely. “Siloed” would be the business term for it. That is how Pelinka and Magic wanted it.

It’s not how the new head of basketball operations will likely want things, not if the Lakers get an elite guy (they already missed out on David Griffin).

There are some real organizational culture challenges ahead for the Lakers.

But first, apparently they are going to look for a new coach.

Rajon Rondo hopes to return to Lakers next season

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Part of the goal this season for the Lakers was to see how their players — from the young core through the veterans on one-year contracts — meshed with LeBron James. Could they play together? That would determine their future with the franchise. Here are the net ratings of other Lakers when paired with LeBron this season:

Josh Hart: +4.8
Lonzo Ball: +3.1
Kyle Kuzma: +2.9
JaVale McGee: +1.6
Brandon Ingram: +0.9
Rajon Rondo: -5.5

Rondo, finishing up a one-year contract with the team for $9 million, is a free agent this summer but wants to return to the Lakers, he told Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“Absolutely,” Rondo told ESPN when asked if he wanted to come back to the Lakers next season. “Absolutely. I mean, the only way we can go from here is up.

“So, I don’t know what the future holds as far as the summer — if I come back, or who else comes back or if I don’t come back. Those things are out of my control. But at the same time, it’s a great organization. I can’t say enough about the staff and the people who work here. They’re really kind and helpful, so I want to continue, if I can, help this organization grow…

“As far as long term, maybe not like a six-year deal, but you know, I’m only 33.”

What happens to Rondo — and McGee, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and everyone else on one-year contracts (and even guys on longer-term deals) — is completely up in the air. The Lakers are going to go big game hunting in free agency (or via trade) this summer, looking to get another star to pair with LeBron, then every other roster decision will come after that move. Plus, the Lakers almost certainly will have a new coach, and they would be smart to get bench and role players that fit with the style-of-play that coach prefers.

Injuries — and a suspension for spitting in the face of Chris Paul — have limited Rondo to 42 games this season with the Lakers, where he averaged 8.7 points and 7.9 assists per game. Luke Walton has praised Rondo’s decision making and leadership on the court, and he’s improved to shoot 35.6 percent from three. That said he struggled with his shot inside the arc and has a troubling true shooting percentage of 47. His defense is an issue, he was once an outstanding defender but those days are gone. Rondo is, at this point, at best a replacement level NBA player.

The Lakers might bring him back anyway. This front office is unpredictable.

LeBron James on Lakers’ roster construction stylistically: [fart noise]

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After signing LeBron James, the Lakers emphasized tough-mindedness, playmaking and defense in building his supporting cast. Complementary shooting was deemphasized. That meant signing players like Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley.

The results have been horrendous. Those players just aren’t good enough, even at the skills the Lakers coveted. Exacerbating the problem, those players also fit poorly with LeBron, who predictably took the ball back into his own hands.

The Cavaliers and Heat showed how well shooters complement LeBron. He’s lethal with space, and his forceful drives/passing ability creates numerous open long-range looks. If those shooters can also defend, that LeBron-led team is on the path to contention.

Instead, LeBron’s floormates shot just 33% on 3-pointers this season. That’s by far the lowest in the last dozen years, as far back as NBA.com has data. Here’s the 3-point shooting of LeBron’s floormates by season:

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Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

What did James think of the Lakers’ grand experiment? How did he view the idea of prioritizing playmaking over shooting.

“That experiment?” James said of the roster construction for his first season in L.A.

James stared out onto the court for a moment, turned his attention back to the conversation, pursed his lips and stuck out his tongue as he trumpeted air out of his mouth, making a raspberry sound.

“THBPBPTHPT!”

Before signing with the Lakers, LeBron put out word he wanted to play off the ball more. Lakers president Magic Johnson said LeBron signed off on the team’s additions last summer.

And this is the response now that the plan (predictably) failed?

This is the difficulty of managing LeBron. He sometimes has roster input, but he’s not there to take blame when moves go wrong.

He has earned that power. LeBron brings so much positive to an organization, the people around him must deal with the drawbacks. It can just be frustrating.

It’s Johnson’s job, though. He must get the Lakers to the next stage.

On the bright side, the Lakers signed all these ill-fitting players to only one-year contracts. As I wrote last summer about the Lakers’ plan for this season:

I’m doubtful.

At least the Lakers have the young players (Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart) and cap space next summer to re-tool if this plan fails.

Rumor: LeBron James didn’t fully engage with young Lakers teammates

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LeBron James signed with the Lakers for many reasons. They play in sunny Los Angeles, where he has a home. They’re near Hollywood. They’re arguably the NBA’s most prestigious franchise.

I doubt it was because of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart. Especially because LeBron-to-the-Lakers became viewed as an eventuality before the Lakers got any of those young players.

And maybe LeBron’s interest in that quartet didn’t change much even after arriving in Los Angeles.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

One team source told ESPN that they didn’t feel as though James fully engaged with the younger teammates prior to the trade deadline.

That’s only someone’s opinion, man. You or I could look at the same interactions between LeBron and his teammates and deem it healthy.

But there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence McMenamin’s source’s view is accurate.

LeBron repeatedly questioned his teammates. He openly courted Anthony Davis, which led the Lakers to offer most of their roster for the Pelicans superstar and disrupted chemistry in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, LeBron showed hypocrisy.

LeBron has sounded more pleased with his younger teammates lately. He even went out of his way to (over)emphasize their importance.

He better hope its not too late to instill positive working relationships with them.

Which star is coming to Los Angeles? How much trade value do these young players hold anymore?

Though they will and should continue to hunt for proven stars, the Lakers might be stuck developing from within.

Three Things to Know: Celtics project confidence after fourth straight loss… should they?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Celtics continue to project confidence as defense falls apart weeks before playoffs. The Boston Celtics have eight games left before the playoffs begin — playoffs that almost certainly will start on the road in Indiana. This is when Boston should be building momentum and confidence for a deep playoff run…

The Boston Celtics have lost four games in a row. In that stretch their defense is fourth worst in the NBA, clustered around Memphis and Washington and other teams missing the postseason. In their last 10 games, their defense is bottom 10 in the NBA.

So much for building momentum.

Yet even after LaMarcus Aldridge dropped 48 on them and the Spurs beat the shorthanded Celtics (no Al Horford or Jayson Tatum) on Sunday, Boston was projecting confidence. Marcus Smart, Kyrie Irving, and Brad Stevens all were. (Via A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston).

“I know we’ve been here plenty of times before saying the exact same thing — ‘We’re gonna get it, we’re not worried about it’ — but we can’t put extra extra extra stress and more weight on ourselves,” Smart said… “”We got to take a deep breath, breathe, just relax — and then go out there and have fun and play basketball.”

“I never worry about how we’ll respond,” said Irving. “We’ve proven that. We just have to be consistent with that and be committed to it, that’s all. We have a lot of great guys in this locker room and they are committed to winning. We have winners in this locker room as well, so I’m never worried about trying to go back and respond with these guys. They are a resilient group who have proven that for the last year and a half we’ve been together.”

“I don’t think we’ve given any reason to suggest that [Boston can figure it out] right now,” said Stevens “But I think, ultimately, we’ll see how the rest of this story plays itself out.”

It’s better the Celtics are confident than panicking… but if Celtics fans wanted to panic, I wouldn’t blame them.

When Boston made it’s unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season (despite no Irving or Gordon Hayward) it was on the back of an elite defense. Tatum and Terry Rozier got deserved credit for stepping up and taking on the offensive load, but what kept the Celtics going through all of that was a defense that could slow any team down, anchored by Al Horford playing elite ball in the paint. That was the foundation of their success. It should have been again this season.

Now, that Celtics foundation seems built on sand. Boston was up 18 on Charlotte with less than nine minutes to go Saturday then gave up 30 more points the rest of the way and lost. The Celtics’ four straight losses are to three playoff teams and a Hornets team playing with the desperation of a team trying to hang on to its playoff hopes (keep reading down to item No. 2). Give those teams credit —  and give

the Spurs credit for doing what they do and executing the game plan, and for LaMarcus Aldridge for just going off.

I can envision a scenario where Boston, playing a shorthanded Pacers team in the first round, gets pushed six or seven games but starts to find its groove and by the end is playing with the confidence and teamwork we saw last season. Those kinds of leaps can happen in the playoffs. Then the Celtics bring that increased level of play up against a Bucks team without that playoff experience (and maybe without Malcolm Brogdon) and suddenly Boston is dominating like the team we expected preseason. That absolutely could happen.

But watch the Celtics the past week or so and it’s hard to envision that scenario. We’re 74 games into the season and it feels a little late for “We’re gonna get it, we’re not worried about it.”

2) Charlotte will not let its playoff dreams die, even if it takes a Jeremy Lamb prayer to keep them alive. Saturday night the Hornets came from 18 points down to the Celtics to stay within two games of the Miami Heat and the playoffs.

Then on Sunday, Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard looked like the closer the Raptors need him to be. Toronto was down 13 midway through fourth but went on 18-3 run to take lead, with Pascal Siakam (10 points in fourth) making plays Leonard hitting the shots when it mattered, including the apparent game-winner.

Then Jeremy Lamb did this from 48 feet.

Unreal. Siakam even made a good defensive play to tip the ball into the backcourt.

Watch Kemba Walker’s reaction in the last angle of that video — he had popped out from the far side and the hope was likely he would get the ball, but he was well defended. When Lamb took his shot Walker turns his back and throws down his arms in disgust. That was never going to go in… until it did.

Charlotte is still two games back of Brooklyn and Miami, who are tied for the 7/8 seeds in the East, and fivethirtyeight.com gives the Hornets just a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs. It’s still a longshot. But so was Lamb’s shot. Sometimes desperation heaves work out.

3) LeBron James drops triple-double, “I will not cheat the game.” The Lakers are out of the playoffs. There is more interest in who will coach the team next season (and who will be on the roster) than there is in the remaining games. For the sixth straight year, the Lakers are just playing out the string.

That didn’t stop LeBron from dropping a 29-11-11 triple-double on the Suns in a Lakers’ win Sunday night (Kyle Kuzma had 29, too).

LeBron is not going to cheat the game. He would never anger the game gods like that.