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The Lakers‘ universe always spins a little faster than most, as the glitz and glamour and championship banners hover over all basketball affairs at Staples Center. Now, though, it’s reached a new speed.
The LeBron James effect has achieved full throttle.
It’s nothing new, really. But when the scrutiny his presence brings attaches itself to the storied basketball franchise in Hollywood, it carries more weight. It’s not even Thanksgiving yet, and already the Lakers have endured a season’s worth of fireworks: losses in five of their first seven games, the fisticuffs with the Houston Rockets and the ensuing suspensions, and now, the full force of team president Magic Johnson’s hard-driving brand of impatience on third-year coach Luke Walton.
It should be no consolation to Walton that he’s already outlasted the Lakers’ last three coaches after Phil Jackson. Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni and Byron Scott didn’t have to pilot a Lakers ship filled with cargo as powerful and sensitive as James.
Nobody in basketball has more clout—or makes people behave more irrationally—than LeBron.
“As he should,” a Western Conference general manager told Bleacher Report of James’ willingness to wield power. “Cleveland has the same roster with the same coach [until Tyronn Lue was fired] and went from best to worst in the East. The Lakers haven’t sniffed the playoffs in [five] years and will make it this year in the West with a deeply flawed roster.”
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As Johnson asserted to a trio of people from the Los Angeles Times in the days after his momentarily private upbraiding of Walton last week, a coaching change in L.A. is unlikely during the season. League sources confirmed that stance to B/R on Thursday. The appearance of a Johnson overreaction to the LeBron factor would be “too obvious,” one of the people said. Agreed. It would be a bad look for both of them.
Walton is in a much safer place than, say, David Blatt was in James’ second tour of duty in Cleveland. (“LeBron didn’t like Blatt,” one of the people said, “so that’s different.”) Even Blatt lasted one-and-a-half seasons with LeBron. How could Walton, who was part of two championship teams with the Lakers as a player, have a shorter leash?
James, in his 16th season, is far too calculating and self-aware these days to have blood on his hands in a coaching change. But everyone realizes that expectations for any franchise he’s a part of—even the Lakers—change the moment he walks through the door. So, too, does everyone’s behavior.
In fact, as the Lakers improved to 3-1 since the Magic-Walton summit last Tuesday, James’ influence expanded beyond his immediate sphere. It’s far-reaching, to say the least.
Yes, that was Tyson Chandler who swatted two key tapout offensive rebounds away from the rim in the closing minutes of the Lakers’ 114-110 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night. (These were the same Timberwolves, by the way, whose 124-120 victory over the Lakers on Oct. 29 precipitated the whole Magic-Walton thing in the first place.)
That Chandler ended up on the Lakers was no surprise. It’s how soon and how it happened that were notable.
Typically, the NBA buyout market doesn’t heat up until the February trade deadline. In Chandler’s case with the Phoenix Suns, that would’ve been the expected timeline. The ship had long since sailed on the idea that Chandler would be a part of any sort of championship pursuit in Phoenix, but at least he could serve as a role model and mentor to No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton.
And that was the plan…until LeBron called in a favor.
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It’s no coincidence that the facilitator was Suns vice president of basketball operations James Jones, a close friend and longtime teammate of James.
“They could have bought him out at the trade deadline and gotten great leadership and mentoring for two-thirds of the season,” a rival executive told B/R. “But LeBron wanted him now.”
Usually, LeBron gets what LeBron wants. It’s a privilege he’s earned. It’s also something that everyone in Lakerland must understand.
According to the L.A. Times‘ account of the meeting last Tuesday, Johnson was “in a rage” and “shouting and cursing at Walton.” His insistence before the season that he and GM Rob Pelinka would be patient went out the window in a hurry.
Did Magic forget that the Lakers won 35 games last season and missed the playoffs for the fifth straight year? After essentially swapping out Julius Randle, Brook Lopez and Isaiah Thomas for Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley and, oh yeah, LeBron, L.A.’s Vegas over/under win projection magically ballooned to 48.5, per OddsShark.
From Walton’s standpoint, it’s also notable that history has not been kind to head coaches who’ve tried to transition from rebuilding to win-now mode at the snap of a finger. Just ask Jeff Hornacek how things worked out in Phoenix when he took over the Suns, who were supposed to tank in 2013-14 and instead won 48 games. The gears shifted, and expectations were prematurely elevated. The Suns chased major free agents, lavished $52 million on the injury-prone Chandler and regressed the next season to 39 victories. Hornacek was out of a job halfway through 2015-16.
The opposite is true, too. Lue went from three straight Finals trips with LeBron to a 0-6 start and a pink slip without him. Is any of it fair? Hardly. It comes with the job in the NBA. And when the job involves coaching a team led by LeBron, the NBA’s one-man dynasty, it goes from unfair to untenable.
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That brings us back to Johnson’s role in all of this, which he may or may not fully grasp in these early stages. Team LeBron doesn’t just want power; it wants all the power.
What would happen if the Lakers fired Walton and hired a coach who was represented by the same agency, Klutch Sports, which is headed by James’ agent, Rich Paul?
“If Rich gets the coach,” one league source said, “it’s over.”
This scenario almost played out when the Cavs fired Blatt in January 2016. According to Adrian Wojnarowski, of Yahoo Sports at the time, James and his camp wanted the team to hire Mark Jackson, whom Klutch represented. Jackson currently does not have representation, according to a person close to the ABC/ESPN announcer.
“Remember, these are the exact reasons there is a rule to prevent agents from representing both coaches and players,” the league source said, referring to the National Basketball Players Association regulations that have been rarely enforced over the years. “One agent could have control of an organization.”
Or in this case, one player. It’s something Magic should be mindful of the next time he decides to flex his muscles. As powerful and popular as he is, there are limits to his influence. There’s a new sheriff in Tinseltown, and he wears No. 23, not 32.
Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.