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Column: Luke Walton isn’t to blame for Lakers’ recent fall

Luke Walton
Lakers head coach Luke Walton looks on during the second half against the Utah Jazz on Friday.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

When assessing blame for the wreckage that is the Lakers without LeBron James, management needs to look in one place. It’s not Luke Walton, who is still evolving along with his impossibly mismatched team.

It’s not Brandon Ingram or Lonzo Ball or Lance Stephenson or any of the other disappointing players who comprise that team.

It’s the mirror.

When looking at the reason for this awful group that would be in the lottery without James, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka need to look no further than themselves.

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This is their creation. These are their guys. Some, they drafted high. Others, they have protected in potential trades. Still others, they signed last summer knowing full well they were eccentric veterans whose personalities would not change.

This is their group, and if this group continues to be a bust, then Johnson and Pelinka must absorb the brunt of that failure.

This was their idea of how to build a playoff team for Year One of The LeBron James Era, and if this team can’t survive any sort of James absence, that’s on Johnson and Pelinka.

There has been talk that Walton will take the fall here, and it could be sooner than later, and that’s absurd. The idea that Johnson would fire him in the wake of their current slide without the groin-sore James is as misguided as Johnson’s earlier confrontational scolding of his coach.

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Certainly, they are an unsightly 4-7 without James after a 107-100 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday at Staples Center. And yes, even in the win against a team that has the second-worst record in the NBA, the Lakers were almost unwatchable.

They committed 17 turnovers. They missed 11 of 34 free throws. They missed 18 of 26 three-point attempts. They often looked lost, sometimes seemed to score in spite of themselves, and nearly blew a big lead down the stretch.

But, given how the team was constructed around James, what did anybody expect?

The front office assembled a bunch of kids and kooks without rhyme or reason. They collected a bunch of ball handlers and no shooters. They constructed a group that was good enough to be carried to a fourth seed by James — that’s where they were when he got hurt — yet risked total collapse if he were sidelined.

It was as if they thought James would play a full season even though last year was the first time he’s done that. It was also as if they thought James was still Superman at age 34 even though, when Kobe Bryant was 34, his Achilles tendon gave out at the end of that season.

They had to know James was going to spend time on the injury list, and should have bolstered the team with some solid veterans and shooters.

Instead, they have wound up with a James-less team that is essentially last year’s 35-47 Lakers without Julius Randle or Brook Lopez.

Speaking of which, could these Lakers have used Randle or what? In a highly underrated summer blunder, they allowed him to walk to New Orleans while keeping James’ buddy Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. In what became another blunder, they let Lopez walk and signed Beasley.

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But now it’s all Walton’s fault, right? He’s become so exasperated in his search for answers, he played one group Tuesday night that consisted of Josh Hart, Michael Beasley, Lance Stephenson, Svi Mykhailiuk and Ivica Zubac.

The Golden State Warriors have their Death Lineup, the Lakers have their Dearth Lineup.

Not only is Walton stuck with odd and aging guys who don’t fit, but he has to match them with a core of young players who are turning out to be somewhat less than their Lakers-fed hype. Was Ingram really worth protecting in a long-ago potential trade for Paul George? Was Ball really worth a No. 2 overall draft pick ahead of Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum?

Those Lakers moves were initially defended in this space, and I was wrong, but so were they, and it’s just not fair that Walton pay the price for those mistakes.

Absolutely, Walton needs to guide them to a playoff berth with James. They probably need to win at least a round for Walton to keep his job. But until then, the coach should be left alone to keep it afloat for when James returns.

And, seriously, staying upright is about the best that can be expected from the kids and kooks.

“They’ve grown up a lot since we had them, but we do play a lot of young players, and in the NBA, young players take time,” Walton said Tuesday. “You’re going to get youthful mistakes, you’re going to get some of those type of things that come when you’re going to play four or five young players, sometimes six.”

To be more exact, half of 12 players on their active roster Tuesday had one year of experience or less. That’s young.

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“That’s where they’re at,” said Walton. “So we have to find out a way to win anyway.”

Walton wasn’t making excuses, just stating the fact that this team was not built to withstand the loss of James at any level.

“This year it was built a little differently,” he said. “We’ve got good chemistry with the group, guys working hard, but it takes it to a whole other level when people who are such a huge part of your team are out. Everyone’s responsibility gets that much higher … and your room for errors gets a lot smaller.”

They miss not only James but Rajon Rondo, the one decent offseason veteran signing who underwent hand surgery and will miss probably the next couple of weeks. They need not only their play, but their leadership, which has clearly not been replaced among all the youngsters.

“The challenge comes from, the two main vocal ones, the ones that do a lot of leading on the court are the ones who are out,” said Walton. “You take them out of the mix … halfway through the season, we need new people to step and be vocal and talk when times get tough.”

How ugly was it even in Tuesday night’s win? The Lakers allowed the Bulls to score 10 points in the final 1:15 to reach 100 in the final seconds and deny the booing fans their free tacos.

They should purchase them anyway. Send the bill to Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke


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