The position of head coach in any professional sport offers little job security. Luke Walton may be the youngest head coach in the NBA at age 38, but as he prepares for his third season at the helm of the Los Angeles Lakers, he is the only head coach who has survived more than two seasons with the franchise since the legendary Phil Jackson retired.
Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni and Byron Scott were all veteran coaches who had success with other franchises, but their respective tenures with the Lakers were short. When Walton was hired in April 2016, the team was in a dark place.
They had won a franchise-low 17 games the season before he took over, and the front office compounded the problem by signing Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng to massive long-term contracts, depleting salary cap space and the talent pool.
Kobe Bryant had retired, leaving the Lakers without a star. They were still 10 months away from a purge which left Jeanie Buss in charge of the franchise and Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka running basketball operations.
Johnson and Pelinka did not hire Walton, just as they did not draft D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. Players who were deemed expendable over the last two years.
Bill Walton, former UCLA and NBA great, reportedly recommended that his son pass on the job, but Luke couldn’t resist the opportunity. He did well mentoring the young core his first two seasons when there were no expectations, but things are about to change for Walton in a very big way.
The roster that Walton will coach in his third season bears no resemblance to the team of the last two years. He may be excited about the changes, but it would be normal for him to be nervous as well.
The first reason Walton has his work cut out for him this season is because of LeBron James. He is the best player in the world and arguably the best NBA player of all-time. James is the team’s biggest free agent signing ever, or at least since Shaquille O’Neal.
How does one coach James who is entering his 16th NBA season? How do you tell him what to do and what style to play? James has played in eight straight NBA finals, which no one has done since the 1960s.
Walton spent the last two seasons firmly in control of the young roster. He called all the shots. The players did it his way or they didn’t play much. His job was to mentor the young core and try to help them improve.
Now those players will look to James. When the going gets tough, they will ask James for guidance. If James wants something done it will be done. If he doesn’t want something done it probably won’t be done.
The perception that’s followed James is plays, coaches and serves as general manager of a team. Of course, if things don’t go as planned, Walton will be viewed by the general public as the fall guy. If things go well, James will get the credit.
This is not an easy position for a head coach to be in.
Another reason Walton faces a difficult task is because of the new composition of the roster. Last season, the focus was on the young players. When healthy, they played big minutes.
Veterans Brook Lopez, Corey Brewer, Andrew Bogut and Isaiah Thomas were the supporting cast. Everything has changed this summer.
The Lakers still added several veterans on one-year contracts, but they are a different breed of veterans. Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley and JaVale McGee are all coming off successful years with other teams, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had one of his better seasons.
They are used to playing a prominent role, and may expect to do the same this season. Where does that leave the Lakers’ young core, which now includes two more rookies? Where will Walton find the minutes to keep everyone happy?
Unlike in past years, when the Lakers had fringe NBA players at the end of their bench who were not expected to play, those on this year’s roster could become unsettled if they aren’t receiving opportunities.
Finally, there is the question of managing expectations. Until now, there were none. Before each of the past two seasons, Walton was able to proclaim that success would not be measured by wins and losses but by how the young players improved.
Now, it is all about wins and losses. The expectations are through the roof. That is what happens when your team signs a player who has gone to eight consecutive NBA finals.
Realistically, the Lakers do not appear ready to compete for a championship. They are one star and a couple of shooters away. But the media and the fans won’t care.
The Lakers should make the playoffs, but even that is not guaranteed in a talented and deep Western Conference.
Big-time competitors look forward to tough challenges, and Walton is a competitor. He is also very popular in most circles.
But he is facing a defining moment in his young coaching career. People will expect the Lakers to win, and if they don’t, management can’t afford to be patient with James turning 34 years old in December.
In sum, there will be plenty of expectations this year where before there were none. The stakes are high and the pressure will be intense. Lakers fans hope that Walton will handle it well.