So, that was a weird night, huh?
The Los Angeles Lakers played some actual basketball on Saturday night. They predictably lost to the Golden State Warriors without LeBron James who was being rested due to “load management” after playing 40 minutes in his first game back from a strained groin.
Nothing about the game was notable. The Lakers played hard, came back from an early deficit, took a third-quarter lead but ran out of steam and got blown out by the Warriors.
Somehow this predictable February game with some positive takeaways turned into the wildest night for the Lakers, who according to multiple reports had a dustup in the locker room with several veteran players having a heated exchange with head coach Luke Walton.
It’s unclear who was involved. Michael Beasley and JaVale McGee seem to be the consensus parties in the struggle. The Athletic’s Shams Charania initially reported that Lance Stephenson was another instigator but the guard and several beat writers refuted that while some said that Josh Hart became part of the issue.
— Lakers Outsiders (@LakersOutsiders) February 3, 2019
The most detailed recount of the exchange seems to come from ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, with additional details from his colleagues.
From his account, here’s what happened:
Sources told ESPN that Walton criticized veterans for contributing to the Lakers’ downfall by not playing a team game and making poor decisions in crunch time. Michael Beasley and JaVale McGee, in particular, took exception with the feedback.
The veterans — both signed to the Lakers on one-year contracts this past offseason — countered Walton’s criticism by expressing frustration with Walton’s inconsistent rotations this season, sources told ESPN.
The confrontation, earlier reported by The Athletic, was “heated,” according to a source but calmed down rather quickly. Beasley, who also got into a verbal spat on the sideline with Walton during the Lakers’ 138-128 overtime victory in Oklahoma City just more than two weeks ago, repeatedly referred to Walton as “bro” during the exchange Saturday, which touched a nerve with the coach, a source told ESPN.
Less than a week before the Thunder game, McGee publicly called out Walton’s lack of defensive adjustments in the Lakers’ 113-95 loss on the road to the Utah Jazz. Walton and McGee met privately not long after to quash the issue.
ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Ohm Youngmisuk reported that it was an ordinary emotional outburst after a loss and that it was “way overhyped.”
But even if that’s true, and it probably is (although it could very much be the Lakers as an organization trying to tell everyone to turn away from the burning fire), it is notable that something like that got leaked. Arguments between players and coaches happen all the time in a high-pressure setting like the NBA. Ask anyone who has ever had anything to do with the league and they will tell you that. But how often do we as fans get to hear about it?
It’s not surprising that things boiled over in the locker room. Everyone is rightfully frustrated with injuries, losing, trade rumors. There’s a real chance that many of the players involved in the small kerfuffle won’t be in purple and gold in less than a week.
Does it mean Walton has lost the locker room? Maybe, but it would seem odd for this to be the timing of when everyone mutinied against him with rumors swirling around the team every day and night.
Everyone reported to be frustrated tonight has every right to be. McGee played only 11 minutes in his first return to Oracle Arena (he was out when the Lakers faced the Warriors on Christmas) where he received his championship ring and has had previous disagreements with his coach. Beasley has been in and out of the rotation. Hart has been dealing with a knee injury that has affected his game for the past month and led to a shorter leash for him from Walton.
Luke also has every right to make the decisions he has made. JaVale has been in mostly poor form since he returned from his illness. Beasley is a one-dimensional player. The Lakers desperately need any shooting they can get and Hart has not hit the broad side of a barn since the start of the new year. He has every right to lash out at Beasley for calling him “bro” as he tries to take control of his team (no matter how funny that is). And for clarity’s sake, here’s Walton’s comments from after the game, via McMenamin:
“Everything we talk about, everything we work on, we have to even do that much better,” Walton said. “The ball movement, it’s natural when guys, if the other team is on a run or they step up their defense, to try to go 1-on-1. But that just makes the other team’s defense better. So we got to continue to be aggressive, attack but also to create for others.”
I don’t find any issue with anyone involved in this situation. When players are signed to one-year deals, coaches are on the hot seat and trade rumors take turns unsettling everyone on the roster, there are bound to be frustrations. Should Walton be held accountable for not keeping everyone in line? It’s hard to say but he’s generally had the right temperament to handle these things in his young coaching career.
The more interesting part of this story is figuring out where it leaked from. Was it Klutch trying to embarrass the team into either firing Walton (LeBron’s camp reportedly feels that that’s best) or pressuring them into making a blockbuster trade now? Was it Walton trying to save his job by showing the dysfunctional group that the front office put around him? Was it players trying to tell management that Walton has lost control of the locker room?
Most people will probably – and fairly – lean towards LeBron James and Rich Paul. It’s the price teams have paid for the greatest player in the world and it has usually paid off for them even if it can be distracting when gone unbalanced. And if you’re into conspiracy theories, Mark Jackson, who called the game for ABC and felt the need to be very adamant about the team trading anything and everything for Davis, is a Klutch client.
The ramifications from whatever happened on Saturday could be all over the map.
Would it shock you if LeBron returned and everything returned to normal, with the Lakers taking on the form they had before he was injured, with or without Davis accompanying him?
Would it shock you if Luke was canned for losing the locker room or the Lakers missed the playoffs because of a toxic situation surrounding the organization?
The Lakers’ front office played with fire in the offseason. They landed their big fish but brought in a ton of loud personalities because those were the guys they could get to sign one-year deals. Not only have their fits on the court been predictably clunky, but now they have become a big story about something that should have remained internal.
Now, they pay the price of becoming a league-wide embarrassment with the arguable need to make some sort of change to direct the outlook to a more positive future, both for this season and beyond.