What an incredible start of the summer for the Los Angeles Lakers, after an incredible season.
How do you top a 37-45 record after landing LeBron James the summer before? Well, you have your president of basketball operations tell the media he’s quitting before he’s told anyone else in the organization, all right before the team’s final game of the season.
What next? Fire the coach that outgoing president wanted to fire, but wouldn’t.
What next? Decide not to hire a replacement for that outgoing president, and instead effectively promote the general manager who has helped preside over this nightmare and has only two years of NBA front office experience.
What next? Pick a candidate at the conclusion of a coaching search — one with a championship as coach, one with Lakers ties, one with a great relationship with LeBron, kind of the perfect candidate for the situation — and then lowball the contract offer and lose him. That’s what the Lakers just did with Tyronn Lue.
Do the Lakers even want LeBron James? It doesn’t look like it.
The Lakers — the most famous and one of the most decorated franchises in the NBA and all American pro sports — have completely crumbled under the pressure of higher expectations.
The apparent showdown with Lue was over contract length, which is another way of saying the showdown came down to potential severance payments. Coaches and their agents angle for longer contracts knowing that relatively few coaches make it beyond three years with one franchise. If you work a four- or five-year deal, you’re guaranteeing an income over a longer timeline, protecting you when you inevitably get fired. Hotshot coaching candidates can usually grab five-year deals, sometimes with a team option after four, even without experience. Luke Walton was on a five-year deal. That means the Lakers will be paying him for two more seasons, unless there’s an offset from him getting another job. Lue is still getting paid by the Cavaliers. That’s how this works: if you have the resources, you sign a coach to a longer deal and pay them to go away when you want to shuffle the bench up.
The Lakers have the resources to play this game, right? Right?
Instead of giving Lue his five-year deal and crossing future bridges when they arrive, LA wanted to time his contract to end when LeBron’s is scheduled to end. Obviously, this rubbed Lue the wrong way: he’s not trying to be the designated LeBron whisperer. He wants to coach the Los Angeles Lakers, presumably for a longer time than LeBron’s tenure.
Here’s what seems truly amazing: if the Lakers were really focused on paying Lue only through the end of LeBron’s current contract, does that mean they have no faith whatsoever that LeBron will remain in LA beyond his current contract? Sure, LeBron stayed in Miami for four years and his second stint in Cleveland lasted four years, and he signed a four-year deal with the Lakers. But shouldn’t you at least feign confidence you can convince him to finish his career in Los Angeles? He moved his young family to Southern California. His non-basketball businesses are in Los Angeles. From a personal standpoint, he seems dedicated for the long haul. Do the Lakers not believe that? Do they not believe in their own ability to be a good host and not drive him away?
If so, that’s becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, isn’t it?
The Lakers are sending some bad, bad signals at the best player they’ve had in decades. They proved they don’t actually believe in Lue, something LeBron will notice. They indicated they don’t think LeBron will stick around — or be worth counting on — beyond the 2021-22 season. They continue to act like a lottery team, not a title team, which ... hey, at least they’re honest with themselves.
LeBron has to wonder at this point whether the Lakers even want him. Things were a lot easier when they could lose 60 games a year in peace.