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NBA Daily: The Placeholder Head Coach?

It should not be surprising that Luke Walton is being questioned in L.A. as he wasn’t hired to coach this sort of team. Combine that with tremendous pressure to be good right away, and the current situation should have been expected.



The Placeholder Coach?

The reports of unrest within the Los Angeles Lakers shouldn’t come as a surprise, after all, current Lakers head coach Luke Walton is hardly a proven championship head coach. When Walton was hired, he was an up and coming assistant that had some name recognition and the kind of personality the Lakers needed to skipper themselves through what was expected to be a protracted rebuild.

With the rebuild turning the corner with the addition of LeBron James and a cast of proven veterans, the idea that Lakers’ president Magic Johnson expected more shouldn’t be surprising — in fact, it should have been expected.

Johnson landed his first domino in James and needed to have a respectable season in order to complete the job next summer in landing a second big fish free agent. The Lakers won’t be the only team major market team with cap money to spend, and in order to win out in free agency, the Lakers need to be able to sell championship aspirations.

Now there is something to be said about not overreacting to the first few weeks of an NBA season, especially considering James isn’t exactly setting the world on fire defensively. And if history repeats itself, James usually kicks it up a notch or two in January, meaning the Lakers have a lot of time to sort things out.

The interesting part of the Lakers coaching dynamic is the idea that Johnson may be unhappy with the supporting staff on Walton’s bench and that may be a harder issue to solve. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities that Walton hires new faces; there are plenty of solid coaches without jobs. What makes this story interesting is the timing.

There has been rampant speculation that recently fired Cavaliers coach Ty Lue, could be a consideration given his history with James, although that seems a little shortsighted. Lue’s ascension to the head coaching job in Cleveland was about James trusting Lue a lot more than he did former Cavs coach David Blatt. It’s hard to imagine Johnson would sign up for a would-be rebellion in his own locker room, especially when James doesn’t seem to have an issue with Walton.

One of the big reasons James felt so comfortable with the Lakers was that he and Johnson see things in a similar way, meaning he wouldn’t have to be the bad guy if something like a coaching change needed to happen.

Again, it’s early in the season. But for now it seems the criticism of Walton is more about Johnson being proactive in addressing areas of concern more than anything brewing in the locker-room, which is why adding Lue wouldn’t make a lot of sense if there isn’t unrest inside the team.

The other big criticism of Walton is the lack of structure and system, and that may not be as easy to change as one would think — especially considering how much has to flow through James. Again, changes to the staff might bring some more creativity, but at every stop in his career, coaches have struggled with how to operate around James, who flourishes as a playmaker on the fly.

In Walton’s defense, it’s easy to say he should be doing more with the group he has, but the Lakers lack consistent shooting, and up until the Tyson Chandler signing yesterday, they lacked a lot of interior defense.

There is no question that some of the Johnson/Walton talk is because they are the Lakers and James brings a magnifying glass to everything his team does.

There is some truth to the notion the Lakers are not functioning like the team they expected to be, but that may be more to do with misplaced expectations than anything else.

That said, there is no doubt that Johnson understands his team isn’t trending in the direction he wants it to be heading, and that has ramifications beyond the current season.

It’s too early to say that Walton is going to be fired. In fact, the Lakers are publicly and privately saying Walton isn’t in jeopardy, and it’s simply that Johnson as a leader wants more than he’s currently getting.

Most teams look at the NBA season in ten game chunks. The first ten games have been a mixed bag, and if things don’t start to shape up in the next ten, speculation on Walton’s future will heat up. After all, he wasn’t signed to coach James and the current gang of veterans. He was signed to skipper the team through a rebuild, with the hope he and his young team would grow into something.

It’s never nice to label anyone a placeholder, however, in Walton’s case, he might end up being exactly that if he can’t appease Johnson and the bigger picture goal of being a playoff team in the West this year.

That’s a lofty goal, but consider the promises Johnson has made. It’s understandable why he’d look at a change if Walton can’t right the proverbial ship.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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