LOS ANGELES – Nothing has been simple in this joke of a Los Angeles Lakers season, not simple to describe or simple to execute.
So it is with the curious case of head coach Luke Walton, whose level of blame must be assessed through the reality that while he has done a poor job, it was an impossible one from the start.
There are contradictions everywhere. Walton has presided over one of the most deflating seasons in franchise history, more dismal than the 17-65 farce of 2015-16. Yet in one sense he also has presided over absolutely nothing, for can there be another coach anywhere in professional sports more permanently undermined?
The combination of a high-profile team president and a high-profile superstar lit the fuse on Walton’s tenure, which, somehow, was still going as of Wednesday. Don’t expect that to continue much longer.
The ruling hand of Magic Johnson in the front office casts a long shadow over the Lakers, and whatever breathing room remains was swallowed up in the vacuum that surrounds LeBron James. There is precisely zero chance Walton could have emerged with any credit — that much was written before the first game.
Had the Lakers surpassed expectations by going on a run, getting into the playoffs and perhaps winning a series once there, it would not have been Walton receiving the glowing reviews. It would have been James, his name cast as the difference-maker and his leadership skills lauded.
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If anything were to go wrong, however, and it surely has, then it will be the coach who is shown the door, probably at the end of the season but maybe sooner. The fallout won’t be James being offered up for a trade, despite his gloomy moods and subpar play since the All-Star break contributing heavily to the mess, despite what Jeff Van Gundy would like to see happen.
Walton has had to operate under a permanent cloud. Johnson set the tone early, wanting to make it very clear who was boss by summoning him for a meeting just a few games in and insisting improvement was necessary.
And any coach who takes charge of a team with James knows that if the play calls are not to his star player’s liking, they are going to get changed. And it is James who has the most likelihood of swaying upper management on any and all decisions.
Walton is a good guy and, on the overall evidence, a pretty solid NBA coach. He has kept his cool, worked through the situation he has been dealt, and will leave with his head held high, if not much else, when the time comes.
He hasn’t had much luck with injuries, but his tactical shifts haven’t exactly paid dividends either. If the playbook was restricted to what would appeal to James, it surely would have opened up during the three-time NBA champion’s absence. During that period, Walton’s youngsters managed to go 6-11 and slithered down the playoff ladder and eventually out of the picture altogether.
One of Kevin Durant’s comments earlier in the season, boiled down to its simplest form, suggested that few superstar players would be interested in coming to the Lakers because if the team won, it would be James who got the credit. Conversely, if they didn’t, the others would get the blame.
The same thing could apply to coaching personnel. Gregg Popovich will correctly be lauded when he steers the San Antonio Spurs to another playoff spot, as will Steve Kerr once this Golden State Warriors’ dynasty ultimately ends. But James fills the room, and there isn’t much space for anyone. Walton had a losing hand to begin with.
The nature of the situation means Walton has, at times, seemed toothless. He gave cryptic answers on the status of James’ injury during a 17-game post-Christmas layoff, so much so that you couldn’t help wondering how much he was in the loop. When the heads of the youthful backbone of the group dropped as they were hoisted up as trade bait, nothing he said or did was able to lift their spirits to a point where they functioned better.
If a movie of this odd season is ever written, Walton will be a peripheral character, less of a factor even than Anthony Davis, who maybe never will play in purple and gold. And when his firing comes, it will be a somewhat predictable end for a coach who didn’t do a very good job but was never given the chance to do so.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ columnist Martin Rogers on Twitter @RogersJourno