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How Hot Is Luke Walton’s Hot Seat?

Magic Johnson has said that the Lakers coach is safe this season … provided nothing “drastic” happens. As the Lakers take one step forward and two steps back, questions are arising: What exactly does “drastic” mean? How does LeBron James’s addition increase the scrutiny on the head coach? And who made this mess in the first place?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Votes of confidence can be tricky stuff. Timing matters. So does controlling the message. A little luck never hurts either. None of those things worked out the way the Lakers probably hoped this past weekend.

Following an ESPN report that president of basketball operations Magic Johnson rapped head coach Luke Walton on the knuckles for the team’s slow start, the Lakers spent much of last week addressing the story and Woj’s underlying interpretation that “the pressure’s on the coach to win sooner than later.” There were other reports that, during the heated meeting, Johnson wanted to see an offensive system that “had yet to be implemented” and might also want “a more experienced staff” installed. (Consume all the grains of salt when considering the source on the potential coaching staff changes.) With a storm swirling, the Lakers somehow beat the Blazers in Portland on Saturday, something they hadn’t done in nearly five years. That seemed to momentarily depressurize the situation and drop the drama barometer.

For someone who was supposed to be a dead man walking, Walton appeared lively enough when the Lakers returned to Los Angeles on Sunday to host the Toronto Raptors for the second leg of their brutally timed back-to-back. He smirked and smiled his way through the pregame media session, insisting that the leak about Johnson lecturing him “doesn’t change what I’m doing as far as coaching this team and coaching the players. It doesn’t influence that at all.” LeBron James also weighed in—because how could he not?—and praised the coaching staff for “[putting] us in a position to win” in Portland.

“Luke can care less about what’s going on outside,” James said. “We could as well. I’m the last person to ask about scrutiny or anything of that nature.”

David Blatt and a host of discarded former teammates might have pushed back on that, but LeBron and the Lakers were clearly trying to present a unified front coming off the Blazers win. Which meant the front office had two options: say nothing and let Walton twist while the story lingered, or attempt to walk it back a bit with some careful choreography. The Lakers, or at least Johnson, went with the latter.

Not long before tipoff against the Raptors, three Los Angeles Times reporters cornered Magic in the tunnel that leads to the Staples Center court near the Lakers locker room. Johnson could have spoken off the record or not at all, but instead he gave the journos exactly what they were looking for: his thoughts on the palace intrigue. That wasn’t an accident. That was a calculation.

Though Johnson and the Los Angeles Times crew were out of earshot, my guess is that Magic delivered the “I said it, Luke took it, and we’re all good” line with the usual pleasant, Mr. Rogers, won’t-you-be-my-neighbor good humor that he is famous for. The man is charming. And if he didn’t want to be charming and had a different message in mind, he surely wouldn’t have stopped to chat in such a public location, right before a big game, where any idiot [Raises hand.] might wander by and witness the exchange. You have to understand that executives are visible and available when they want to be, and something closer to apparitions when they don’t. If they’re standing on the court while players hoist shots before tipoff—or, in Magic’s case, suddenly materializing in a hallway trafficked by journalists right after pregame media availability—there’s a good chance you can pull them off to the side to talk. Or, in this specific instance, that a certain Lakers president planned to be pulled off to the side for that express purpose.

The scene had all the makings of preplanned propaganda. Indeed, in an ensuing column about how it unfolded, Bill Plaschke revealed the interview wasn’t scheduled and Johnson “clearly wanted to send a message” through the Times.

But if the ultimate takeaway was intended to be that Walton’s job security was not in question, then Johnson botched part of the rollout. For starters, and forgive my cynicism, the year ends in December—but the regular season runs through April. Beyond that, just 10 minutes after the first Times tweet, there was another that added important context.

The “unless something drastic happens” component was also relayed in the full Times story and is the sort of Shaq-sized caveat that presents all kinds of future wiggle room for the Lakers front office. As votes of confidence go, it wasn’t exactly unassailable. And then there was the timing. Right after the “all good” declaration, the Lakers got ruined by the Raptors. The final score made the proceedings look closer than they were, and they weren’t close at all. Making matters worse, Kawhi Leonard didn’t even play. The optics were ugly. Maybe that doesn’t qualify as “something drastic,” but it was enough to make the massive media assembly look at each other sideways and whisper about Walton’s job security all over again.

This is a story of the Lakers’ making, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. There are just too many people circling the team these days. There were so many local and national reporters in the Lakers locker room after the Raptors loss that the crowd around LeBron was four and five deep. From my spot waaaaay in the back, I could make out the ice bags wrapped around James’s right knee, his feet submerged in a giant ice tub, and a portion of a towel. Nothing more. Through the crush of bodies, I heard his faint voice admit that Toronto “came out and hit us right in the mouth.” James said he tries to stay “even-keeled” about these things and cautioned that a bad month can round into “a great month or two.”

“You never let the outside noise get to you,” James cautioned. “You do that, that can cause problems.”

These are the Lakers. The outside noise isn’t going anywhere. That’s why the “nothing to see here, move along” strategy never works for them. There’s always something to see here, and why would any of us keep it moving when another plot line—new or recycled—is likely to present itself at any second? And with the dysfunctional Timberwolves coming to Los Angeles on Wednesday, the circus will only balloon. I can already hear anti-Lakers Twitter groaning.

That’s the thing with the Lakers—they’re a moment-to-moment team with a built-in recency bias. Whatever happened last is what will dominate the conversation next. They are 4-6 through 10 games, and the story lines have oscillated in accordance with their record. A win in Portland meant Walton’s seat is safe; a bad loss to the Raptors means it might not be. (Imagine where we’d be if they had blown a big lead to the Blazers and lost, which almost happened.) Check in after the Minnesota game for the latest narrative. That’s the way it goes and the way it will continue.

Meanwhile, we don’t have to wonder too hard about what the Lakers brass believes this team, as currently constituted, can reasonably achieve. The Johnson-Walton confab wasn’t just a warning shot, it was a tell. Any suggestion of patience by Magic and the front office was just a pump fake. What the Lakers want is what they’ve always wanted: to dunk on the rest of the league.

Rob Pelinka told a story. It got a good reaction in the room. This was a few days before the Lakers opened training camp. The story went like this: The Lakers general manager said he and Johnson were up in the office at the team training facility in El Segundo one afternoon “going over some training camp stuff.” He didn’t specify exactly what stuff, but that was less important than the conclusion they reached while going over said stuff.

“A lot of people have said, ‘Hey, this is one of the deepest rosters in the NBA,’ and that is an extreme strength to us,” Pelinka said. “If you look at the road to winning a championship, there’s obviously a dominant team that’s been in the Finals the last four years and won three. And you have no shot of beating them unless you’re deep, and you can keep coming at them in waves. And so, that’s an extreme strength for us.”

There was serious chatter thereafter among fellow reporters about Pelinka’s declaration that “a lot of people have said” the Lakers have “one of the deepest rosters in the NBA.” While snarky NBA fans mocked the Meme Team, Pelinka looked at his cast of characters and, before they’d played a second of meaningful basketball together, saw strength. Extreme strength.

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers
Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson, and Rob Pelinka
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

That statement probably should have told us all we needed to know about the organization’s supersize aspirations. Even when the Lakers have struggled, periodically prompting LeBron to call the season “a process” and say he knew what he got himself into, it never felt like the front office was content with a gradual transition.

Pelinka and Johnson didn’t so much hint at their desire to fast break into the future so much as shout it. Magic said they constructed the roster “based on what we saw in the playoffs”—indicating he thought this team is capable of making the postseason. Pelinka and Johnson really like their team and have from the very beginning.

Various media outlets recently recirculated comments Johnson made during a preseason press conference when he said he told Walton “don’t worry about if we get out to a bad start” and acknowledged the team might “struggle” early on because there are “so many new moving parts.” The implication was that Magic was trying to have it both ways—telling Walton before the season that he could take his time, only to reverse course and rush him now that things are underway.

Except the part of that quote that I found most telling—then and now—came at the end: “Eventually,” Johnson said, “we are going to get it and we are going to be a really good team.”

“Eventually” did a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence, and it’s already given way under the weight of expectations. Consider something else Johnson said that same day before training camp began: “When you look at our roster, one through 14 and the talent that we have, the coaching experience of coach Walton and his staff, we should be excited. We brought in champions, too. People forget about that. We brought in JaVale, Rondo. People know what LeBron has done. That’s what our young players needed, not just bringing in veterans, but the right type of veterans.”

That sounded like a man who was pretty pleased with the team he’d constructed and was confident it would immediately tower over a portion of his NBA neighbors. But when pressed on how all those new pieces might or might not fit together, Johnson preemptively laid that responsibility at Walton’s feet and said “he’ll know how to put them in a winning position.”

“We just put the team together,” Magic said, “we get out the way.”

If that initially came off as an executive promising not to micromanage his coach, in retrospect it reads like something else: We did our job, now go do yours.

That position is not unique to the Lakers. You don’t have to look too far to find other front offices around the league that were confident their teams would succeed only to be subsequently confused that they haven’t. The Wizards’ commitment to their core has reduced them to a soap opera, while the Cavs evidently and irrationally believed they could compete this season. The Lakers are obviously in a better spot than either of those teams. They have LeBron, after all. But that might be part of the trouble when it comes to how many wins Johnson and Pelinka believe they can wring out of this team without having to wait.

James hasn’t missed the playoffs since he was 20 years old. He’ll be 34 in December. He’s good. (I reviewed his work. It checks out.) But he can also do only so much. Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart are young, talented, and promising—but promising is the kind of hopeful placeholder you use when you’re still not sure exactly what you have. Each of them has shown flashes, but none of them have been reliable contributors. As Walton explained, “consistency” and “bringing it every single night” is the hardest thing for young players. “We do rely on LeBron to do a lot,” Walton conceded after the Raptors pummeled them.

And while Johnson hypes his veteran additions as champions, it’s worth remembering that they’ve been passed around the league like hors d’oeuvres—just appetizing enough to sample, but rarely satisfying enough to keep people from looking for something more.

Toronto Raptors v Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

As my colleague Dan Devine pointed out, the problem with the idea of Lakers exceptionalism is that they aren’t so exceptional after LeBron. Justin Verrier, another Ringer teammate, summed up their specific issues pretty well.

As of Tuesday, the Lakers were 10th in offensive rating but just 23rd in defensive rating. Nearly everyone in the league is struggling on the defensive end, but it’s been a particular problem for the undersized Lakers. It appears that the team guessed right on McGee, who leads the league in blocks per game and has held opponents to 45.6 percent shooting, according to NBA.com. (For reference, that’s the same as Anthony Davis, and just off Joel Embiid’s performance.) McGee has played far better than anyone could have anticipated, and he’s also on a sweet one-year deal for just $2.39 million. But while that move made the Lakers look smart, the void behind McGee is a huge issue. It was obvious from the beginning that the Lakers were thin in the middle—something that created rotation snags early on, forced James and Kuzma into emergency center duty at times, and recently prompted the team to sign Suns cast-off Tyson Chandler at the reported urging of Walton.

While the Lakers wait for reinforcements and hope to course correct, they’ve periodically been bodied by bigger, more physical teams that present matchup issues. They want to play fast and are third in pace. Surprisingly, given the full-throttle approach, they’ve done a good job moving and taking care of the ball and are 12th in assist-to-turnover ratio. The tradeoff for going quick and small, though, is that they’ve gotten pushed around on the glass and are 22nd in rebound rate. On defense, they’ve given up 120 points per game. Only the Wizards and Pelicans have been worse. The Lakers’ opponents also have a 53.4 eFG percentage, which puts L.A. at 17th, according to Cleaning the Glass. (For context, that’s exactly where the struggling Rockets are, and well off the mark set by the Celtics’ league-leading, suffocating defense that’s held opponents to a 48 eFG percentage.)

Serge Ibaka feasted against the Lakers the other night, making his first 14 shots en route to a career-high 34 points to go with 10 rebounds. Earlier in the season, Denver’s Nikola Jokic gobbled up similar counting stats (24 points, 11 rebounds), albeit in a Nuggets loss. Before that, San Antonio’s LaMarcus Aldridge ate them alive inside (37 and 10) in an overtime win for the Spurs, while Houston’s Clint Capela (19 points and 12) did the same in a win for the Rockets. The Lakers are like a double-double buffet that has every big man in the league salivating.

It should be noted that under Walton, the Lakers went from being abysmal on defense during his first season (30th in defensive rating) to pretty good a year ago (13th). But it’s not just the organizational edict that’s changed since last season. The personnel has too. Walton went from being charged with developing young talent for the future to trying to win now with a host of new, older faces. Johnson and Pelinka might think they provided Walton with depth and extreme strength, but any honest front office audit would reveal that they either miscalculated the time it would take for the team to get good or overestimated the sum of the parts they assembled. Either way, it’s hard to blame the bottom-line results on Walton alone.

Of course, the NBA isn’t always a meritocracy, and fair doesn’t necessarily factor into expectations. That’s especially true in a big market like Los Angeles, where the spotlight has gotten only more intense now that LeBron is in town. As Fred VanVleet astutely noted at Raptors practice Saturday, “They have their own kind of hype show here in L.A. That’s just the nature of being in L.A.”

Which is precisely why we’ll likely keep bracing for more Walton-related job drama while the Lakers try to smooth over an otherwise rough start—despite Magic’s assurance Sunday that his coach shouldn’t sweat it. Before the Raptors game, Walton was asked about the support he received “in the wake of all that happened” last week. Walton didn’t want to play along at first, but eventually relented and called the support “nice” whether “it’s coming from my dad or it’s coming from another coach.” The dad part was catnip for reporters, and we rolled around in it before someone followed up and asked what, exactly, Bill said to young Luke. Walton’s reply was good for a laugh. Germane, too.

“That he loves and supports me,” Walton said, “no matter what.”