By Larry Bisagni
November 10, 2018.
To most, it is just another day on the calendar during the 82-game grind of the regular season known as the National Basketball Association.
It also happens to be the day that the Los Angeles Lakers square up against the Sacramento Kings.
Circle the date.
In my very humble opinion, that is the game that will determine the future of Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton.
Rumblings out of Los Angeles have already indicated that Magic Johnson and the Laker brass have put Walton on notice, and we aren’t even 10 games in. Given the people breaking the story and having personally worked just blocks from the Staples Center for a few years, I would bet the house that they are legit.
As of this writing, the purple and gold are slated to play the Portland Trailblazers in Rip City this evening (probably a loss), host the Toronto Raptors the next day (hide the women and children), as well as the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday (flip a coin on the outcome – the Wolves are talented but have a whole host of challenges of their own).
Should the Lakers lose to the Kings, it will be the nail in Coach Walton’s coffin. Mark my words. Bad blood still remains from the controversial Western Conference Finals a decade and a half ago, and let it be known that if the Clippers are seen as the red-headed stepchild, the Kings aren’t even worthy of mention in the universe of Showtime.
To sum it up: Luke, if you come up short against Sacramento, swing by your local Costco to grab a few boxes. You’ll need them to clear out the office.
Since the arrival of LeBron James, we have repeatedly heard Magic Johnson preaching patience and chemistry; the usual “Rome wasn’t built in a day” clichés. But here’s the thing: when the greatest player on the planet is brought in to join perhaps the most demanding fan base in all of professional sports, it’s the equivalent of going from a crock pot to a microwave oven in the kitchen of expectations. The Laker faithful aren’t waiting hours to prepare dinner – they expect it to be ready in minutes. The Lakers are the Kentucky of pro basketball: win and win big, or you’re out.
More on that comparison in a moment.
It’s also worth noting that when Magic and LeBron met on June 30th, Walton was nowhere to be found, and you’d better believe that King James gets input on who runs the show. Should you really need evidence, see: Blatt, David. If Luke Walton is not a ranking member of the King’s court, he’s already skating on thin ice.
So who would replace Bill’s kid?
Assistant coach Brian Shaw is in the building, and knows the organizational expectations intimately. The $64,000 question: Is he a LeBron guy? That, I don’t know. If so, Shaw could get the whistle and vacant office. If not, next man up.
Tyron Lue suddenly became available last Sunday, but my guess is Magic will do what he did so gracefully on the court, and that would be to pass. Yes, Lue is also already Laker family, having broken into the league in purple and gold and spent three seasons there, but had Lue and LBJ been that tight, he might not have left Cleveland, and you likely would have seen greater Tweet support.
From @KingJames: “T Lue thanks for the memories and more importantly our partnership bringing a to that deserved city/fan base. U know how to find me ????”
“The memories” and a “partnership” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. LeBron mentioned “how to find” him, but didn’t say a word about what Lue brought to the hardwood as a coach, mentor, or leader of men.
So, did you happen to catch that Kentucky reference from earlier?
It brings us to a blockbuster name that could send shockwaves throughout the League.
Yeah, I said it.
Los Angeles is a city of stars that loves stars, and you’d be hard pressed to find a bigger star coach than Slick Rick who is not only available, but who wants the job.
Pitino recently hired an agent, and is itching to get back. In a recent interview, Pitino told ESPN, “I want to develop young players. I want to be part of a team. I miss it terribly. I’m using this time to really study the NBA. If something opens up with a young basketball team, I’d have deep interest in it.”
But let’s be clear: Rick Pitino is not interested in going just anywhere. This is a guy who wants to coach where the lights shine brightest. The New York Knicks, Boston Celtics, Kentucky Wildcats, and Louisville Cardinals aren’t exactly jobs where someone is coaching in obscurity. There is no brighter spotlight in the Association, and Pitino isn’t exactly a wilting flower. He certainly has the chops and the ego for Showtime.
At 66, it’s foreseeable that Pitino could go four years and ride off into the sunset with LeBron. His Midas touch at the collegiate level has been met with mixed results in the pros. He won with the Knicks and famously bombed in Beantown. It would restore the perception of him at the NBA level, and should he leave with James, Pitino could win and get out unscathed, while polishing up a tarnished legacy that has internally eaten at him since passionately declaring which Celtic greats weren’t walking through the TD Garden doors.
The Lakers have a nice nucleus of young talent. Lonzo Ball has improved dramatically since last year. Brandon Ingram is coming along nicely. Kyle Kuzma can score. Josh Hart is coming off being the Summer League MVP, is polished and sophisticated beyond his years and can get a dozen a night. Rajon Rondo can be a handful, but he’s a Kentucky guy. Maybe Pitino and Rondo could find some common ground via Lexington.
Should all of this go down, don’t fret for Walton. If he’s jettisoned, there will be a line of opportunities for him across the league. But in a star driven league such as the NBA, perhaps Hollywood is indeed the best fit for would be Rick Pitino’s final act.