It’s the best of times, or should be, in Lakerdom, once more the home of the game’s greatest player with the promise that more great stars are coming to join him.
We’re talking about an all-but-guaranteed return to greatness.
On the other hand, what have the Lakers done for anyone around here lately?
Short-sighted as it is, today’s focus is inevitably on the season at hand, which is, and was always going to be, transitionary.
Guess what? With expectations soaring, this season hasn’t prompted local rejoicing.
Nor is it likely to end well for a lot of Lakers, some of whom could be New Orleans-bound in a trade for Anthony Davis … or cut for salary cap space, like the eight of them who are on one-year deals, to bring in more free agents like Klay Thompson … or unemployed like Coach Luke Walton if Magic Johnson holds him responsible for any shortfall.
With Laker tradition comes soaring expectations. With LeBron James comes hyper-coverage. With both together, you don’t have to imagine the possibilities, they’re living them every day.
Actually, the Lakers haven’t under-achieved with James … assuming reasonable expectations, which almost no one does.
The Las Vegas over-under, an objective source, put them at 48.5 wins. Before James was hurt, they were on pace to win 48.
Their projected total tied them with Utah for fourth place in the Western Conference, behind the Warriors, Rockets and Thunder.
If the teams were to finish that way, the Lakers would play Utah in the first round.
If they won, they’d be expected to face Golden State and (despite the Christmas rout in Oakland) lose.
I don’t see a second-round loss going over well with Johnson, not after he read Walton the riot act seven games into the season, then, in as close as he felt like coming to reassuring everyone publicly, said Luke would, “finish this season unless something drastic happens, which it won’t.”
Walton has two seasons after this on his contract, but it didn’t seem like the time to ask Magic about those.
Coaching for your job is hard enough without the bad stuff that happens along the way, like the groin injury that just cost James five games, going on eight with the announcement he will skip their next trip and be re-evaluated in a week.
When LeBron was hurt in the Christmas rout of the Warriors, they were 20-14, 18-9 since their 2-5 start when Walton was invited in to get Magic’s perspective.
Without LeBron, they did what young teams do: look impressive in spurts, lose a lot of games at the end.
In his third season, Walton still looks like a promising young coach. He was the hottest comer in the business when he arrived in 2015 after going 39-4 while running the Warriors on an interim basis with Coach Steve Kerr out.
Walton proved himself with last season’s young team, turning a 12-27 start into a 23-20 finish. That should have been good enough to forgive anything that happened this season. Johnson, himself, noted, “The one thing that we have to do, and the fans have to do, (is) be patient.”
Well, for a week or two, anyway.
Johnson’s eruption at their 2-5 start signaled a different reality. It’s still emerging with last week’s report by ESPN’s uber-connected Adrian Wojnarowski that Magic has wanted a new coach since he took over, but has yet to convince Jeanie Buss, who is “fiercely loyal” to Walton.
“That was her hire in every way and so far she has kept management off of him,” Wojnarowski said. “They’ve allowed Magic and (GM) Rob Pelinka to change everything there. They haven’t been able to touch Luke. …
“Magic’s view of a coach remains Pat Riley. The fiery, old-school (guy). That’s his view. Luke Walton doesn’t fit the mold of what he sees in a head coach.”
I can see one major problem with that: There aren’t a lot of fiery Rileys out there. If Magic wants one brimming over with charisma, like Riles, there are none.
Will the Lakers run Luke off to hire Tyronn Lue, a pleasant, if uncharismatic, former Laker just because he got along OK with James in Cleveland?
Of course, if LeBron has a preference, that will be that. To date, he hasn’t suggested any problem with Walton, as he did with David Blatt in Cleveland. Insiders say he’s staying out of this.
Despite his cachet, James hasn’t been a behind-the-scenes schemer … aside from all his player recruiting … although Riley, whom LeBron left high and dry, late revealed that LeBron hinted that he would like him to fire Coach Erik Spoelstra during LeBron’s first season in Miami without coming out and actually asking him to do it.
This ambivalence is more what insiders see. One calls LeBron “the NBA’s leading passive-aggressive.”
For the rest of the Lakers, this season is an audition to see who’ll be here next season.
If Davis does ask to be traded to the Lakers, as all signs and all involved suggest, they’ll have to put together a package of assets to send to New Orleans.
It’ll be mostly, or entirely, young players. Aside from James and the eight Lakers on expiring deals, everyone on the roster is 23 or younger.
Kyle Kuzma is the universal favorite to stay, as the young player who fits best with James and looks like the one he likes most.
Brandon Ingram is a nice player in his own right but more of an on-the-ball one, a problem alongside LeBron, who is used to having it.
Lonzo Ball is another nice young player in a squeeze, learning to play off the ball alongside LeBron, a neat trick for a point guard.
Ball’s minutes are secure until injured Rajon Rondo returns in February. Nevertheless, Rondo has been so good, you could imagine the Lakers ranking him ahead of Lonzo.
As for Josh Hart and Ivica Zubac, they’ve looked good enough to wind up in New Orleans, too.
As far as we can tell, the Lakers have tuned all this out … which is a credit to Walton. Nevertheless, it’s a long season and a lot easier to be all you can be when everyone’s interests dovetail with the team’s.
Fortunately for the Lakers, they’re only warming up. That is, fortunately for those who will still be Lakers next season.
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