The Lakers hired Luke Walton almost three years ago with visions of him helping to resurrect the franchise, bringing Golden State Warriors-style basketball south, and being the team’s coach for decades to come.
Instead, on Friday afternoon, the Lakers announced they and Walton had agreed to part ways.
Perhaps most telling was the statement that accompanied their announcement. It was not Lakers owner Jeanie Buss who announced the change — it was general manager Rob Pelinka, who became the Lakers’ top front office executive by default once Magic Johnson announced his resignation on Tuesday.
“We would like to thank Luke for his dedicated service over the last three years,” Pelinka’s statement read. “We wish Luke and his family the best of luck moving forward.”
According to people familiar with the process, Buss remains committed to Pelinka, and he will handle the Lakers’ coaching search.
The Lakers’ news release included this statement from Walton: “I want to thank Jeanie Buss and the Buss family for giving me the opportunity to coach the Lakers. This franchise and the city will always be special to me and my family.”
Less than three hours after the move was announced, Sacramento Kings vice president of basketball operations Vlade Divac, a former Lakers player, had contacted Walton about a meeting. The Kings fired their coach, Dave Joerger, on Thursday and Divac was delighted to find Walton available, according to a person familiar with his thinking.
“I’m disappointed for Luke,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters in Oakland. “In this job, as a coach in the NBA, you are 100% dependent on your circumstances — the strength of your organization, the momentum, the unity. Everything has to be in good order. If it’s not, as we have witnessed with the Lakers, then there’s going to be casualties and usually the coach is the first one. They’re losing one of the best human beings in the NBA, they’re losing a guy who knows the game as well as anybody I’ve ever met.”
Walton took over in the spring of 2016 after the Lakers won just 17 games in Kobe Bryant’s last year. The 2015-16 season was the worst season in franchise history. Walton had been an assistant coach for the Warriors. He served as their interim coach starting in October 2015 and guided the Warriors to a 39-4 record in Kerr’s absence.
As the Lakers’ head coach, Walton, 39, went 98-148, improving each season. During the 2016-17 season, a team led by D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. won 26 games. In his second season a team led by Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma won 35 games. This season, amid constant speculation about his job, and with LeBron James in the fold, the Lakers won 37 games but missed the playoffs for an unprecedented sixth consecutive year.
Before this drought, they had only missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons once.
“I liked playing for him,” Lakers guard Josh Hart said of Walton. “He’s a player’s coach. Lets you kind of play your game, play with passion, so it was fun to play for him. I think he’ll get another job fairly quickly. … I think he did the best job with the cards he was dealt. He’s a professional about it. Did his job with class.”
The divorce between the Lakers and Walton comes three days after Johnson stepped down as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, saying he didn’t want to put Buss in a position where she would have to fire Walton. Johnson cited Buss’ great affection for the coach and his own distaste for making a decision that would impact a man’s future.
“I knew how difficult it was for my sister to love me and support me and to also love him,” Johnson said in reference to Buss. “And then I said, ‘Why am I in the middle of this?’ I don't have to be. You know? Why am I having to make deals or moves on other people's lives? I said, 'Nah. That's not who I am.’”
Johnson resigned in an impromptu news conference about 90 minutes before the Lakers’ season finale on Tuesday. He told reporters before he told Buss, fearing that she would talk him out of his decision. Johnson had planned to fire Walton.
Walton’s status had been tenuous for months, perhaps even years.
According to people familiar with his thinking, Walton wondered about the impact of the Lakers’ regime change in February 2017. Buss replaced her brother Jim, then the Lakers’ executive vice president of basketball operations, with Johnson. She fired Mitch Kupchak, who had been the team’s general manager for 17 years, including when Walton was a player for parts of nine seasons and won two titles.
Kobe Bryant endorsed Pelinka and without an extensive search, the Lakers chose Pelinka as their general manager. He was Bryant’s agent and considers Bryant his best friend.
And while Johnson and Pelinka presented a united front publicly, some of that façade crumbled on Tuesday.
“I didn't know Rob before Jeanie put us together,” Johnson said on Tuesday. “It took us a while. We had to get to know each other. And so my relationship, it's a good relationship.”
Asked if Pelinka was the right general manager for the team, he hesitated.
“That's a decision that Jeanie has to make,” Johnson said. “I worked well with him. I had no problems with him.”
Neither Johnson nor Pelinka expressed much public support for Walton.
Buss was Walton’s staunchest supporter, but she empowered Johnson to make basketball decisions and rarely offered her voice.
In January 2018, LaVar Ball, the father of Lakers’ point guard Lonzo Ball, told ESPN that Walton had lost the locker room. Johnson and Pelinka remained silent about the news. Five days after the story broke, Buss posted a photo on Twitter of herself with Pelinka and Walton along with the hashtag #InLukeWeTrust.
Last summer, after James agreed to become a Laker, many wondered how that would impact Walton. The coach canvassed James’ former coaches — including former Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue — about how to work best with James. Lue is seen as a candidate for Walton’s job, as is Philadelphia assistant Monty Williams.
Those questions intensified in November when news broke that Johnson had held a meeting with Walton in which he shouted and cursed at the coach, demanding answers about various decisions that frustrated Johnson.
A few days later, Johnson told The Los Angeles Times that Walton would keep his job through the season, unless something “drastic” happened.
On Tuesday, moments before Johnson stepped down as a Lakers’ executive, Walton was asked if he had any anxiety about his future with the organization.
“No,” Walton said. “No, no. No anxiety.”
After a short pause, he said: “But call me later tonight and maybe the answer will be different.”
He remained the Lakers head coach through the night and on Wednesday he conducted exit meetings with 16 members of the organization — 14 players on regular contracts and two players on two-way deals between the Lakers and their developmental team.
There was one player who didn’t meet with Walton that day. James had his exit meeting over the weekend with only Pelinka and Johnson.