After the Lakers signed LeBron James, it did not take long for folks to start to question every other aspect of the Lakers organization. This is the gift and the curse of The King. When you have a generational talent on your roster, you reap the benefits of that through that player’s talent, but also see the ramifications of the brighter spotlight and ramped up pressure which comes with it.
So after a suicide squad of signings had people pointing fingers and asking questions about the competency of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, the next natural pivot point was towards head coach Luke Walton. Initial reporting that LeBron and Luke had only “texted” in the wake of his signing only fueled questions about how the two would pair and further reports that Luke would seek consult from former James coaches would viewed through a lens of useful research, but also concern for whether Walton would be in over his head while coaching the best player in the league.
That angle, though, was ultimately put (mostly) to bed in short order. In mid-July Walton and his new superstar met while in Las Vegas where things, apparently, went well. Ramona Shelburne offered details at ESPN:
But Walton told ESPN he has been encouraged by their early communication.
“He’s about the team. He’s about doing things the right way, and he’s about winning,” Walton said. “I can work with those qualities.”
Ty Lue also told ESPN that LeBron is a joy to coach and someone whose reputation as someone who can be difficult is miscast. I’m not so sure about that last part — ask David Blatt or recall the whispers that James wanted Eric Spoelstra ousted early in their time together in Miami — but Lue insists LeBron is great. So, let’s take that at face value…because he’ll need to be.
At least for Walton’s sake.
This is not to diminish Luke at all. NBA coaching is, first and foremost, a people business. We can dissect X’s and O’s all we want and I understand the import of scheme as a foundational part of team success. But establishing and maintaining buy-in through a culture of togetherness — however you go about that — is the most pivotal part of being a successful NBA head coach (assuming requisite player talent is there). Said another way, what good is the best scheme in the world if you cannot get your players to execute it?
The Lakers, and the nature of their current roster’s construction, makes that particularly challenging for Walton.
While LeBron’s challenge is one of lifting up a group devoid of secondary, established All-Star/All-NBA talent beside him while also playing for an organization whose brand-power might actually outpace his own for the first time in his career, Walton’s is to take that same roster of established middle to upper-middle tiered NBA talents (both young/potential filled and old/established veterans) and manage egos through a labyrinth of playing time shortages, rotation complexities, and one-year contracts with future roster security not guaranteed for nearly any single guy.
Oh, and do that under the aforementioned bright lights and expectations of a team with LeBron James on it. Good luck, bud.
The good thing, however, is that for all the questions about how Walton can manage these specific challenges, he has a natural partner in James himself. You see, LeBron understands as well as anyone that in order for a team to #striveforgreatness, they must all buy-in together as a group and work towards a common goal. See:
That’s LeBron talking to his son’s AAU team, but what he speaks about is applicable to his new team as well. And, I’d imagine, if you asked Luke Walton he’d tell you those exact words should be guideposts for all his players — both the young guys and the new additions.
Because, let’s be real, be it Lonzo/Rondo, KCP/Hart, Ingram/Lance, or Kuzma/Beasley there are position battles between LA’s young pups and a more established veteran at nearly every position. Add in the challenges the team’s three-headed center rotation will face and there’s going to be a lot of players on this roster who are likely going to have to eat a smaller portion at the dinner table than they’re accustomed.
You’ll notice the one player not mentioned up there? That’s right, LeBron.
Don’t get me wrong, he’ll have his own adjustments to make (playing at a faster pace, seeing more minutes at PF than ever before, likely even being the nominal C in some small-ball lineups, working more off the ball) but he’ll still get his full portion of minutes and will be the unquestioned star and leader of the team. There’ll be no sacrifices of importance or playing time for LeBron.
And that can, and likely will need to be the basis for the burden sharing in leadership and wrangling of a locker room full of players who are going to want more than they get while being told they need to be okay with it. If either were going at that alone, it might be hard. But if both can be in alignment and reading from the same playbook, it should go more smoothly.
That, of course, is the hope. We’ll see if Luke and LeBron can actually have this meeting of the minds. For the Lakers sake and for the sake of whatever success they seek and expectations they want to defy, they’ll need for it to happen.