It has been 20 days since LeBron James last stepped on the court for the Los Angeles Lakers. Since defeating the reigning champion Golden State Warriors on Christmas in the game that saw James go down with a strained groin, the Lakers are just 3-7, losing by an average of more than four points per game.
Frustrations have boiled over with players and coaches alike lamenting what they could have done better to avoid disappointing losses to the Knicks and Cavaliers. Fans have also been taken over by disappointment as the team continues its free fall in the Western Conference standings, now tied with the Utah Jazz for the eighth best record in the conference at 23-21.
The inconsistency of the past three weeks has led to one consistent reaction from Lakers fans: Luke Walton is to blame. The third-year head coach has worked through plenty of flaws and mistakes in his first gig as the lead man on the bench and this year has been no different. But how logical is it to blame Walton for this stretch?
Walton’s tactical deficiencies come on the offensive end. Since he took over for Byron Scott, the Lakers have had the 23rd, 23rd and 22nd most efficient offense in the league. It is an issue that has plagued the team no matter the roster, even with James taking his talents to Southern California.
This is a pronounced problem on several fronts. Walton’s offensive strategy is lacking and he has often put his important, young players in positions where they do not excel. For example, Brandon Ingram has often been used as a primarily ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, especially in James’ absence, something he continues to struggle with, as his 0.729 points per possession rank in the 30th percentile in the league, per Synergy.
But Walton has also been dealt a poor hand: a team built around one ball-dominant superstar who is out with injury. The constant changing of roles has been difficult on both players and coaches as it would be with any team. But on a team featuring LeBron James, that issue is exaggerated far beyond measure, as three of his last four seasons in Cleveland show:
In a sense, the Lakers 2018-19 campaign mirrors that of James’ first year back in Ohio. A young rebuilding team suddenly signs the biggest star in the game, changing everything for several developing players. The numbers are similar, as well. The 2014-15 season was the last time James missed an extended stretch of games (eight in a row in December and January) and the Cavs offensive rating in those games (and in ones where James did play) is eerily similar to this year’s Lakers.
(Note: James’ missed games this year account for more than 20 percent of the season so while the team’s offensive rating as a whole is low, it is disproportionately impacted by his absence.)
That’s not necessarily where the Lakers want to be. The Western Conference is unforgiving and even one ten-game stretch of struggling can make or break a season. The Cavaliers made the Finals that year. The Lakers do not have the same outlook.
Magic Johnson talked a lot about making this team different than the ones James took to four straight Finals. He wanted less offensive burden for the 34-year-old James, signing playmakers like Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson to shoulder the load. But that experiment was over almost as soon as it began. In doing so, the Lakers completely forgot about one of the most fundamental parts of the game: shooting.
The league-worst free throw struggles are real and the 3-point shooting has been just as impactful, if not more. The Lakers shoot 33.5 percent from behind the arc, the fourth-worst mark in the league, and are making only 34.9 percent of their “wide-open” and 32.7 percent of their catch-and-shoot 3-pointers.
The Lakers signed no shooters while Kyle Kuzma (29.9 percent) and Josh Hart (34.6 percent) have regressed from deep. It has essentially been a perfect storm affecting the Lakers’ ability to effectively play modern basketball.
All this is to say that Walton’s weaknesses and struggles don’t seem to be the biggest cause for concern for the Lakers. This is an organizational issue. The front office did not sign any shooters to play next to arguably the greatest drive-and-kick player of all time. The front office has cheaped out on its coaching staff with a lack of quality assistants and shooting coaches (Walton shares some blame here but ultimately it falls on the Lakers for not using their massive financial advantage to bring in the best of the best to assist their head coach and players). The front office promised a different LeBron-led team while delivering the same.
These issues aren’t unfixable but fans will likely have to wait until the offseason to see wholescale changes. Could that mean Luke Walton will be fired? Yes, his job should and will be under question given the pressure to succeed in Los Angeles with LeBron James. But is that the right decision? Probably not.
For all of Walton’s flaws, there hasn’t been much discussion about his strengths.
Do you think he hasn’t developed young players? D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle both worked through struggles and became much-improved players under Walton’s leadership before leaving the Lakers. Lonzo Ball’s finishing and defense have improved. Brandon Ingram’s numbers spiked from year one to two and his defense has become a legitimate asset in his third season year. Kyle Kuzma has become a better passer and defender in his second season.
Do you think his in-game adjustments are lacking when the team falls behind early? The Lakers -0.1 net rating in the first half spikes to 2.1 in the second half (and 8.8 in the third quarter).
Is he unimaginative and uncreative? His defensive schemes against the Warriors and Mavericks were direct causes of arguably the team’s two best wins without LeBron (James played effectively one half against the Warriors).
Walton isn’t free from criticism and blame. His offensive deficiency and his hiring of assistant coaches are important issues that must be discussed and fixed. But firing Walton solves nothing for the Lakers, especially with no home-run hires available on the market. Firing Walton would be the exact type of overreaction that a “patient” organization promised it would not make.
If the Lakers want to succeed, they should surround Luke Walton with the right type of personnel – both on the bench and on the court – and watch their team break out of its shell. The blueprint is there for the taking if the front office makes the correct decisions.