The move comes just three days after Magic Johnson left the franchise reeling by shockingly deciding to step down as president of basketball operations on Tuesday night. Walton finished his third season as head coach with a frustrating and disappointing 37-45 record in a season that began with massive expectations after LeBron James’ arrival.
Former Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue and Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach Monty Williams are the central candidates in the Lakers’ search to replace Walton, league sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka will run the search, a source told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.
Lue, who played for the Lakers from 1998-2001, spent four years with James in Cleveland, first as a Cavaliers assistant before taking over as head coach and leading the team to the 2016 title.
Walton leaves the Lakers with two years remaining on his five-year deal.
“We would like to thank Luke for his dedicated service over the last three years,” Pelinka said in a team statement. “We wish Luke and his family the best of luck moving forward.”
Walton, who went 98-148 in his three seasons as head coach, thanked the franchise and controlling owner Jeanie Buss, who was a staunch supporter of Walton’s.
“I want to thank Jeanie Buss and the Buss family for giving me the opportunity to coach the Lakers,” Walton said. “This franchise and the city will always be special to me and my family.”
The Lakers had cursory discussions with Walton’s representatives on Wednesday in which they discussed whether there was a way forward, multiple sources told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. The conversations didn’t go very far, however, as it was obvious to both sides that the Lakers had planned to fire Walton before Johnson abruptly stepped down on Tuesday night.
When James and his agent Rich Paul met with Johnson and Pelinka on Saturday, sources told Shelburne it was considered an exit interview for LeBron’s season, and Walton was not present.
Many executives, coaches and agents had speculated about Walton’s job security since the start of the season not only because the Lakers had the makings of a flawed roster but also because Walton wasn’t hired by Johnson and Pelinka. Walton was hired in 2016 by then-Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss and then-general manager Mitch Kupchak.
Johnson explained in his decision to step down that he was considering firing Walton on Wednesday, when the Lakers held their exit interviews, but did not want to “disappoint” Jeanie Buss and get in the way of her relationship with Walton and in the process hurt his own relationship with Buss.
Charged with trying to blend a roster constructed with eclectic veterans on one-year contracts and a core group of young prospects still learning how to play around James, with a plethora of ball handlers but not enough shooting, Walton had what many felt was the most daunting job in the NBA.
While Johnson preached patience in the preseason knowing that it would take time for the new roster to mesh, Johnson admonished Walton in a meeting just six games into the season. The Hall of Fame point guard was upset with the team’s defense and sluggish start but later told the Los Angeles Times and ESPN that Walton would not be fired barring something unforeseen. Johnson, though, said that his relationship with Walton was fine after the incident, which he considered overblown.
Walton had the Lakers at 20-14 on Christmas night after a blowout win at Golden State, and they appeared to be on the verge of coming together. But the wheels came off in spectacular fashion when James and Rajon Rondo were injured during that game, sending the Lakers into a tailspin that they would never recover from.
Suspensions, injuries, never-ending drama, inexcusable losses to bottom-feeding teams and even a buffet of on-the-court gaffes — enough to provide the internet with ammunition to come up with a “One Shining Moment” parody — smothered the Lakers’ season and doomed Walton.
Walton would lose Lonzo Ball (ankle) and Brandon Ingram (blood clot in shoulder) to season-ending injuries as the Lakers had James, Ingram and Ball together for a total of only 23 games, going 15-8 during that span. Collectively, Lakers players missed more than 210 games due to injuries and the team used more than 25 different starting lineups this season.
“They came into work every day, no matter what criticism they were under, no matter what scrutiny they were under, they came in, watched hours of film, whether it was on us or other teams, next opponents,” Josh Hart said Wednesday of Walton and his staff. “They did everything right, I’ll say that. Obviously it was frustrating, the injuries, the inability to have a consistent lineup was frustrating and hard for them.”
Rondo, who is on the sixth team of his career, praised Walton for his ability to relate to players.
“He has a lot of great tendencies for a young coach that some coaches probably don’t develop their entire life, or their entire career,” Rondo said Wednesday. “He was fun, he was a hell of a coach to play for and I just told him in the meeting I had a great time this year learning from him as well and the challenge that he gave to me this year.”
Now, for the fifth time since Phil Jackson last sat on the Lakers’ bench in 2010-11, the Lakers will be looking for a new head coach to attempt to revive the proud franchise and take it to the postseason for the first time since the 2012-13 season.