BEFORE LUKE WALTON could finish the brisk, three-minute walk from the team hotel to StellaNova café for his morning coffee on a lazy Tuesday in Oklahoma City, the Los Angeles Lakers coach was spotted by a couple on the street.
It was the Lakers’ final road trip of their season. And this couple had flown in from Australia to see the Lakers face the Thunder.
Walton, hardly incognito with a Lakers cap covering his wavy hair and a sweat suit on his 6-foot-8 frame, stopped to pose for a photo before ducking into the shop for his caffeine fix: medium, black.
Rather than fighting for playoff seeding in the final games, L.A. was officially eliminated from postseason contention with 10 games left on the schedule. Six straight years with no playoff basketball for the once-proud franchise.
LeBron James was shut down with six games remaining; Brandon Ingram missed the final 19 games; Lonzo Ball missed the final 35 games; Josh Hart missed the final 11. Kyle Kuzma and Tyson Chandler also played sparingly because of injuries.
“It’s easy to work hard when things are going well, but to show up and continue to work hard when times are tough, that’s what this group has done,” Walton said as the season wound down. “And it makes it enjoyable to coach.”
That enjoyment will have to come elsewhere now.
The Lakers announced Friday afternoon that the team and Walton had “mutually agreed to part ways.” But make no mistake, no matter what the media release said: Walton was fired.
Despite whatever challenges existed, Walton wanted to remain the coach of the Lakers, sources said.
WALTON HAD A sense that the Lakers’ final road trip of the season could also end up being his final road trip as the head coach, sources close to him said. He spent some time before L.A.’s season finale hugging staffers and chatting with his parents, presumably there to see their son’s final game and sendoff.
But he had no clue that his final days would play out in such a dramatic manner.
Moments after Walton’s pregame availability, after he left the dais outside the Lakers’ locker room and returned to the coaches room, Magic Johnson stood in to take his place.
“Make sure that door is closed,” Johnson said, referring to the locker room entrance, before shocking the basketball world by resigning as the president of basketball operations.
He cited all sorts of reasons for his decision in an impromptu 45-minute news conference (which was followed by separate 10-minute and 15-minute breakout sessions, as if he hadn’t already said enough). Included on that list was his desire to avoid conflict with Lakers owner Jeanie Buss — whom he didn’t inform of his decision to step down in advance — because of their differing opinion on Walton. Johnson wanted to fire him; Buss supported her young coach.
“Tomorrow, I would have to affect someone’s livelihood and life,” Johnson said of his plans to dismiss Walton as soon as the season ended. “I thought about that and said, ‘That’s not fun for me. That’s not who I am.’ Then I don’t want to put her in the middle of us. Even though, she said, ‘Hey, you do what you want to do.’ I know she has great love for him and great love for me.”
Walton learned that Johnson was resigning via text while preparing for the Trail Blazers game with his staff, sources said.
Even with Johnson out of the picture, Walton’s fate was sealed.
There wasn’t much to love in Laker Land in 2018-19. All the excitement generated from LeBron James’ decision to come to L.A. was sapped almost instantaneously once the games began. A series of missteps leaves L.A. searching for answers heading into the offseason.
Walton went 98-148 (.398) in three seasons on the sidelines, overseeing a regime change from former vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss and former general manager Mitch Kupchak to Johnson and Rob Pelinka, and expectations that went into warp speed upon James’