In a meeting on Tuesday, following a winless two-game trip, Los Angeles Lakers president Magic Johnson admonished coach Luke Walton for the team’s sluggish start to the season, league sources told ESPN.
Johnson’s cutting appraisal elevated an already acute awareness within the Lakers coaching staff that there are intense and immediate pressures on Walton to deliver the franchise a winner in short order.
Despite Johnson’s prior proclamations of needing to allow time for Walton to develop a young roster surrounding four-time MVP LeBron James, evidence is mounting that Walton’s job security ultimately depends upon his ability to significantly improve upon a 3-5 record to start the season.
Johnson’s aggressive meeting tone circulated to individuals throughout the organization, including to principal owner Jeanie Buss, league sources said. Throughout his tenure with the Lakers, Johnson has earned an internal reputation for an oftentimes volatile management style, including with his handling of Walton and the coaching staff, sources said.
Buss’ support for Walton has remained unwavering since Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka assumed command of basketball operations in 2017.
Walton was hired by her brother, Jim Buss, and ex-general manager Mitch Kupchak less than a year before Johnson and Pelinka took over.
One of the greatest players in the history of the game, Johnson’s business interests often lead him to be traveling away from the team. Johnson relies on Pelinka to run the day-to-day basketball operations and offer reports and analysis up to him.
Those invested in Walton’s Laker staying power felt a wave of relief once Dallas’ frantic comeback fell short in the Lakers’ 114-113 victory at Staples on Wednesday. In the wake of Johnson’s chiding, the prospect of riding a three-game losing streak into this weekend’s games — away at Portland and then the second of a back-to-back against surging Toronto — loomed to those on the staff, league sources said.
The Lakers’ slow start includes the absences of two starters, forward Brandon Ingram and guard Rajon Rondo, to suspensions of four and three games, respectively. Guard Lonzo Ball began training camp on a minutes restriction following offseason knee surgery.
The free-agent arrival of James has intensified expectations surrounding the roster. James has a history of clashing with coaches upon arriving in free agency, including with Miami‘s Erik Spoelstra and Cleveland‘s David Blatt, but there have been no signs of James’ disapproval with Walton. While the Blatt relationship never gained traction, James and Spoelstra built a partnership that led to two NBA titles and four Finals appearances.
So far, James has been publicly and privately supportive of Walton.
In the preseason, Johnson implored patience for his team and coach. While the Lakers have a talented roster of young players surrounding James, a cast of limited veteran role players have struggled defensively.
“As I was talking to Luke [with Pelinka], we said, ‘Don’t worry about if we get out to a bad start,'” Johnson told reporters in September. “We have seen that with LeBron going to Miami, and we have seen that when he came back to Cleveland. He is going to struggle because there are so many new moving parts. But eventually we are going to get it, and we are going to be a really good team.”
One area of discontent among some Lakers veterans is Walton’s repeated shuffling of lineups. Nevertheless, James rationalized Walton’s approach to the roster in the wake of the victory over Dallas on Wednesday.
“I think Luke’s trying to figure out what works best,” James said. “We knew it was going to be like that from the summer when ‘Zo had the knee surgery. We knew we were going to have a lineup change there. Obviously, we had the unexpected one when we had the suspensions, so we had a lineup change there….
“We’ll get to a point where we know how comfortable we need to be with different lineups.”
What’s more, James is still working himself back into elite playing condition.
Across the first seven games of the regular season, the Lakers have utilized 93 different lineups, behind only the Atlanta Hawks‘ 122, according to research by ESPN Stats & Info.