For better or worse, Luke Walton is the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, and it should stay that way.
Before you throw whatever device your reading this on out the window, and call me an imbecile, hear me out. I’m not proclaiming that Walton is the permanent answer, or the matriarch to take LeBron James and company back to the Promised Land.
Quite the contrary actually, I personally don’t believe that Walton is the best coach most suited to navigate a LeBron James led team to the NBA Finals and beyond. After this season, Walton should be handed his walking papers and thanked for his efforts on the way out the door. But it should be after the season, not during.
Listen, I know Lakers fans are upset. You’ve waited nearly six weeks for LeBron James to return to action, and when he does, you witness the Lakers lose by a whopping 42 points to the Victor Oladipo-less Indiana Pacers, 23 points to the new-look Philadelphia 76ers, and then the final nail in the coffin, a lackluster loss to the bottom-feeding Atlanta Hawks, in which the team literally looked like they were lost and unexcited to be on the court together.
Granted, a lot of onus can, and should be placed firmly on Walton’s shoulders. Effort is something he can control, as is the players he chooses to put on the court. One of the Lakers biggest Achilles’ heels all season long has been their absolutely atrocious free throw shooting. As a team, the Lakers are shooting 68.7 percent from the free throw line this season, that is dead-last in the NBA. While Walton can’t take the free throws for the players, or force them to make them, he can control how often they practice the shot, and come up with creative ways to come up with a cure for what ails them at the charity stripe.
Despite Walton’s warranted responsibility for some of the Lakers woes this season, he is not solely to blame for the bevy of issues that have befallen the Lakers. LeBron James missed 18 games this season with a groin injury. Rajon Rondo has undergone two surgical procedures and missed over nine weeks of action. Starting point guard Lonzo ball is currently out with a sprained ankle and is expected to miss four to six weeks. Brandon Ingram has missed multiple games between suspensions and ankle injuries.
The Lakers are one game below .500, but just four games behind the San Antonio Spurs who currently sit in seventh place in the vaunted Western Conference. Gregg Popovich is widely considered to be the best coach in the NBA, and you can only imagine where the Spurs would be had they had similar injuries to LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, and Rudy Gay.
Additionally, the team that was built by president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka was a mismatched bunch from the beginning. The front office constructed a team of misfits and vagabonds around James that don’t enhance his strengths, or put the team in the best position to win games. It took Johnson and Pelinka over half a season to realize what everyone knew from the start: that you need shooters around James in order to space the floor and keep the defense from clamping down on the four-time MVP. Therefore, the front office needs to shoulder some of this burden as well.
Finally, and most importantly, foresight and the bigger picture must also be taken into consideration. After being unable to complete a trade for New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis, or acquiring another superstar to go alongside James before the season, the Lakers are long shots to advance to the NBA Finals in 2019, regardless of who the head coach is.
The Golden State Warriors are by far and away the best team in the NBA, and with a starting five of perennial All-Stars, they won’t be toppled by James and the young guns anytime soon.
Outside of LeBron’s last coach, Tyronn Lue, no other NBA team in recent memory has fired their head coach at the All-Star break and then went on to win the NBA Finals. Even if the Lakers were to fire Walton, the alternatives: Jeff Van Gundy, Marc Jackson, and Brian Shaw, would not be able to right the ship as quickly as Walton could.
Unfortunately, the Lakers are stuck in their current predicament, and must look to finish the season strong, make the playoffs, and hope for a first-round series win before ultimately falling to the Warriors in the second round or in the Western Conference Finals. Walton is more than capable of getting the Lakers to that point before he rides off into the sunset.
In the meantime, the Lakers need to focus on the future: this summer’s offseason. The front office will certainly need to find a replacement for Walton, and an additional superstar to pair with James, not to mention complimentary role players to fit in around them. That should be the focus for the front office, and finding a head coach that can bring out the best in James and whomever they sign or acquire with him. Not firing Walton, promoting Shaw (or hiring someone else), and doing that with 25 games remaining in the season.