Can Luke Walton Hold Lakers Together As Losses Mount And Concerns Loom Over Free Agency?
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers are mired in a nine-game losing streak, complete with back-to-back blowout losses at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Charlotte Hornets.

After watching the Lakers in person for the first time this season, it defies imagination to think that Paul George would want to join this dispirited, as has long been rumored. Especially troubling for the Lakers is the fact that they have started to resemble last year’s roster when the look on players’ faces was one of resignation and defeat.

Their roster is arguably as good or better than those in Brooklyn, Phoenix, Dallas, Memphis, Orlando, New York, Charlotte, and Sacramento, but those teams have all won more games.

The question on the minds of most Lakers fans is, what went wrong?

Recently, Luke Walton accused certain of the players of “pouting” on the bench, which was an extraordinary statement coming from the head coach. Just-released Andrew Bogut went further when he acknowledged that players were “frustrated.”

“There are some injuries right now, different rotations. Guys are frustrated, obviously. You would be lying to say that there are guys that are not frustrated on this team,” Bogut added. “Everyone knows what is going on with the salary-cap situation next season and all that. That is just distractions that we can’t let affect us.”

In the face of these comments, it was reported that the Lakers held a closed-door meeting to address the distractions and negativity. Judging how they have played after the meeting, nothing was resolved.

The situation is compounded by the fact that Brook Lopez and Lonzo Ball have only just returned from respective injuries. For anyone who questioned Ball’s value before, the last few games have proven just how essential he is to this team.

Still, it is not the injuries that have Lakers fans worried. It is the long faces that have been seen on the bench.

Julius Randle is clearly frustrated, as he lost his starting job and has seen his playing time fluctuate from 10 minutes one night to 25 minutes the next. Walton can’t seem to decide who he prefers more, Randle or Larry Nance, Jr., thus he doesn’t get the best out of either player.

Randle finally got a chance to start the last few games, but that’s not going to last now that Lopez is back. Furthermore, Randle has been the subject of non-stop trade rumors the past year.

Even the normally affable Jordan Clarkson, who has also been the subject of trade talks, is miffed sitting on the bench in the fourth quarter of games when the team is struggling to score. When Ball was out, Clarkson split time with seldom-used Tyler Ennis.

It was decided a year ago that Clarkson was best suited to play the shooting guard position, but the front office assembled a roster that lacked any good options behind Ball at point guard. Thus, he has been forced to play the point most of this season which is something he hadn’t really done since his rookie season.

Clarkson started strong, but he is currently looking more out of sorts than at any time in his career. Then there is Ivica Zubac, who a year ago had a perpetual smile on his face and was a revelation as a rookie, but this season he can’t get any playing time at all.

With Lopez injured some were wondering why the Lakers couldn’t find some minutes for Zubac, especially since Bogut was underwhelming in Lopez’s absence. Zubac is the guy who joyously uttered the words “I love Lakers” during his first Summer League game last year, but the team has wiped the smile off his face this season.

As for Lopez, he is playing far fewer minutes than last season and his points, rebounds, and assists are all way down from his career averages. Always a good free throw shooter, Lopez has even struggled from the line and recently suffered the embarrassment of air-balling two consecutive free throws.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s legal troubles have weighed on him recently. He has good moments on defense but has been inconsistent, while his offense has been consistently uneven. He is scoring 13.3 points per game, essentially the same as last year, but he is jacking up a lot of shots to get those points.

Caldwell-Pope is only shooting 40 percent from the field, and 33.2 percent from deep. Even his free throw shooting percentage is down.

For Lopez and Caldwell-Pope, this is not the showcase they expected heading into their free agency this summer.

Kyle Kuzma, who has been one of the very few bright spots this season for the Lakers, is starting to show the strain of having to play 40 minutes a night and carry the entire offensive burden for a team that struggles to score without any consistent shooters.

Even Ennis must be frustrated. He probably anticipated that after a strong showing late last season he found a home and would play at least a few minutes on a regular basis. It hadn’t happened until recently with Ball out.

With all of these travails, and the Lakers firmly planted in the cellar of the Western Conference and only one game removed from the bottom of the entire league, the issue now is whether Walton can hold the fragile fabric of the team together.

It is the biggest test to date of his young coaching career. In truth, the die was cast last May when Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson made the public announcement that the team would clear all available cap space over the next year to sign two max free agents in 2018.

The surprise was not that Johnson chose this strategy, but that he would announce it to the world. There seemed to be nothing to gain by letting everyone in on what he planned to do, and everything to lose.

The result was, after sitting by and watching George, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, and other All-Stars change teams last summer, the Lakers are forced to go through this season relying on three rookies, a very young Brandon Ingram, and a group of one-year rentals.

That could only work if the team was winning games, but it was doomed to blow up in the Lakers’ face if they started losing. The players are insecure and discouraged, and it is being reflected on the court.

Walton’s inexperience as a head coach shows at times, but he has to step up now. If he doesn’t handle the current crisis effectively and the Lakers continue to lose, the front office may start looking for a scapegoat even though their decisions are a big part of the problem.

Walton needs to step up big time, be a strong leader, and hold this team together when things look like they are about to crumble. How Walton meets this challenge will determine if the Lakers salvage the season or if they sink to once unimaginable depths with no lottery pick to show for it in the end.

Otherwise, it could get very ugly, not only the rest of this season but next summer as well. If you were LeBron James or Paul George, would you want to join a team that appears to be lightyears away from becoming a consistent winner?


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