Luke Walton is not donating his time to coach the Lakers. He is not coaching down at the El Segundo Middle School, and he is not coaching his kid’s CYO team. He got a five-year, $25 million contract to coach the Lakers, and when you are getting $5 million per year to coach the league’s highest profile team — especially when it’s during a franchise-worst downturn — criticism comes with the job.
Yes, even if that criticism comes from a meddling parent of a rookie.
MORE: Recapping Lakers-LaVar dysfunction in three quotes
NBA coaches around the league have been up in arms these last couple of days because LaVar Ball, motormouthed father of point guard Lonzo Ball, weighed in with criticism of the team and, specifically, of Walton’s performance as head coach.
The head of the league’s coaches association, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, ripped ESPN for doing the interview with Ball in the first place.
“They should look at their sources and do a better job of determining whether they have any merit or any validity,” Carlisle told reporters. “Or are they just blowhard loudmouths? That’s what I’m saying. You got that?”
Sure, and Carlisle is not wrong. LaVar Ball is a blowhard. Most NBA observers, reporters and fans don’t think he carries much merit or validity. But if the father of a star rookie rips the team’s coach, why should ESPN not run the story and let its readers decide whether the guy is right or whether his act has worn too thin?
Carlisle made two points on Sunday to back his position that just don’t track with how things actually work. First, he said that ESPN, as a broadcaster of NBA games, is given special access to coaches for pregame and in-game interviews with coaches, and added, “In exchange for that, they should back up the coaches.”
Second, he defended Luke Walton’s performance as a coach.
“Our coaches are upset because Luke Walton does not deserve that,” Carlisle said. “Two years ago, he took a veteran team (Golden State) and led them to 24 wins in a row, which is an amazing accomplishment. Off of that, he earned the Laker job. To have to deal with these kinds of ignorant distractions is deplorable.”
MORE: Lakers stealing notes from Warriors’ blueprint in hopes of building contender
We should all be able to agree that ESPN does not owe NBA coaches anything. ESPN pays a hefty sum to the league to televise basketball games, and the interviews with coaches are part of making those broadcasts compelling to audiences in the U.S. and worldwide. The network generally keeps the journalism that appears on the website and studio shows separate from the broadcasts. If coaches want to penalize the broadcasts over what appears on the website, they’re only hurting the sport.
As for the defense of Walton, that is up to Walton, Lakers players and members of the Lakers’ front office. LaVar Ball said Walton had “lost” the team. That is not a big stretch. This is a group that had, at that time, lost 16 of 19, including a nine-game losing streak in which they allowed 118.0 points per game. Three of the Lakers’ top six scorers are in the last year of their contracts, and about 90 percent of the population of LA knows the team wants to sign Paul George and LeBron James this summer. So the question is not whether Walton has “lost” the team, but whether any coach could ever “have” the team to begin with.
But why are his fellow coaches treating Walton like an innocent victim of the cruelty of ESPN and Ball? Walton is an adult. He took a job he knew would be hard when he got it, one that would obviously come with slings and arrows. When he was part of the Lakers’ brass that decided to take Lonzo Ball last June in the draft, he knew he’d have to handle the LaVar Ball baggage. Everyone knew that.
To Walton’s credit, he has not played the victim. He’s handled LaVar Ball exactly as he should — with a shrug and a joke or two. When he was asked on Sunday why he took out Lonzo Ball just six minutes into the first quarter, Walton deadpanned, “His dad was talking s—, so I took him out early,” before making it clear he was joking.
Walton said he was kidding but he still a legend for this pic.twitter.com/lGzhgTzer7
— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) January 8, 2018
With or without LaVar Ball, this season has been woeful for the Lakers, but an honest look at the roster — even after the team’s solid start — would show that the team was destined for trouble. It features too many young guys who are still learning and too many middling veterans who know they won’t be in LA for long and are playing for individual contracts. That’s never a good mix.
Walton knew that coming into the year, and he had to know there would be criticism. This team is on track to fail to crack the 30-win mark for the fifth consecutive year, and you don’t need to be a basketball historian to know that in LA, it’s the coach who takes the blame. Ask Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni or Byron Scott about that.
MORE: Three big reasons why LeBron won’t be heading to LA
For the Lakers and Walton, there is a way to solve the problem of LaVar Ball. It is not by piling onto ESPN or reporter Jeff Goodman, and it is not by threatening a boycott of access to coaches or restricting the media’s ability to interview family members.
It’s by winning. Which is, you know, the reason the Lakers gave Walton $25 million in the first place. If things go well in free agency next summer, Walton and the Lakers will be in prime position to change their fortunes. Walton seems to understand that.
Why can’t the coaches outraged over LaVar Ball interviews understand it, too?