As we reach the last quarter of the regular season, much of the inaugural season with Lebron James has been derailed by injuries for the Lakers. Inconsistent play, effort, and coaching has come to a boiling point for the team. Throughout the season blame has shifted from individual players to coaches and back again reaching a level of vitriol that hasn’t been seen in years.
The dysfunction within the roster and Luke Walton is not by accident. It is the result of a plan that backfired this season for the Lakers that resides at the feet of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka.
Luke Walton’s grasp on his coaching role has been written about as a stand-off between Jeanie Buss and Magic Johnson. Every time there has been speculation about Walton’s job security, Lakers brass has quickly shot down any notion of it. Outside of the speculation it seems as though Walton, who was doing well with a healthy roster, has increasingly lost voice with his players. This is not by chance. There is a significant contrast between the younger players and veterans in effort that has become even more apparent post trade deadline.
The easiest way to understand what Magic and Pelinka tried to do this season involves accepting a simple and completely conspiratorial premise:
The Lakers had advanced knowledge that Anthony Davis’ was going to make a trade demand before the season started and were planning on offering their young players in effort to acquire him.
When we look at the free agent signings by the Lakers, there was tons of head scratching going on as to how disjointed the roster construction looked. Adding a ton of ball dominant players seemed like a recipe for disaster UNLESS you were operating on the premise that Anthony Davis was going to be available and you were going to need playoff tested veterans to replace the young players you were going to offer for Davis.
That means that the players the Lakers were looking at in free agency had to fit three specific criteria:
1) They would be willing to take a 1-year deal
2) They had playoff experience
3) They were role players that “fit” alongside Lebron and Davis
That means Rondo, KCP, Lance, and Javale were meant to take up the minutes that the Lakers would need to fill in event of the trade being completed.
What adds some weight to the conspiracy are the statements made by LA Times writer Brad Turner.
On December 18th, 2018 Turner published an article regarding the Lakers pursuit of Trevor Ariza with an important line buried in the middle: “The Lakers will not give up any of their young core unless its for a superstar player”
One month later on January 28th, 2019 Boston Celtics enthusiast Adrian Wojnarowski broke the news that Anthony Davis wasn’t going to sign an extension with the Pelicans.
Brad Turner would be firmly entrenched as a “quality source” of the Lakers front office during the Davis trade conversations. One of the original reported offers for Davis involved: Lonzo, Ingram, Kuzma, Zubac and a 1st Rounder.
The conversations around the Anthony Davis trade are well documented and the constant flux of uncertainty involving so many of the young players definitely affected their performance.
What the Lakers front office didn’t account for was Luke’s coaching preferences. As the season continued on and the Lakers battled through different key players being hurt, one thing became incredibly apparent. Luke began to trust his veteran bench less as he was desperate for quality play that would translate to winning basketball.
Luke Walton’s lack of trust in his vets from a resulted in him playing Zubac and Svi more minutes much to the chagrin of the front office. While the young Lakers struggled to collect wins in Lebron’s absence, their spirited play was still appreciated by the fans. The lack of wins immediately led to calls for Luke’s incompetence as a coach which was countered quickly by observant fans with chatter about the lack of floor spacing due to the roster construction.
Rondo, Pope, Stephenson, and McGee were meant to take the minutes of the young core when the Lakers executed the trade for Anthony Davis.
After the the front office’s hail-mary attempt for Davis failed. The Lakers moved in quickly before an approaching deadline to try and correct the mistakes that were plain to see. After assembling a poor shooting roster in the off-season the Lakers acquired both Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala with the latter coming at a steeper cost.
The Lakers were only a few games behind a playoff spot but the damage had been done. What added further to the Lakers troubles involved Luke doubling down on his coaching principles. Instead of inserting Rajon Rondo into the starting lineup for an injured Lonzo Ball, Luke inserted in Reggie Bullock instead.
For the next three games Luke continued to start Bullock as the Lakers would build leads with their starters only to have them completely wiped away by poor bench play resulting in a 1-2 record
Not until a conversation about trust between Luke and Rondo did Luke finally relent and re-insert Rondo into the starting lineup resulting in opposing teams completely ignoring Rondo on offense and a 1-3 record overall
That trust has now disintegrated. Rondo’s penchant for randomly roaming on offense taking away cutting lanes and being a defensive sieve hasn’t outweighed his offensive contributions. Teams have become more bold with their defensive schemes and just go double team any Laker not named Rondo in effort to funnel plays back to him and the Lakers are struggling offensively as a result.
With Luke unable to find any consistent lineup among all the injuries to the young players, he is forced to rely on the veterans of which he has a broken rapport.
The end result will be losses and a lottery bound Lakers team that fell far below expectations even with their injuries and ultimately the blame will fall on Luke’s shoulders.
If and when Magic Johnson signs the second star to pair with Lebron James much of his well deserved criticism will be forgotten by fans.
But for the observant fans, this season will serve as a reminder of what hubris can do to a team and how devastating it can be to the very kids you raise as your own.