Since the start of the season, it’s been clear that fans’ honeymoon period with Los Angeles Lakers Head Coach Luke Walton is over.
Walton’s first season was one of the worst years in Lakers franchise history, but most fans still defended the coach, or credited any problems to growing pains in his first year with the full-time gig. There was a lack of willingness to criticize Walton, and most were downright defensive of him.
That’s changed early in his second season, when fans have taken to questioning seemingly every rotation decision Walton makes, postgame quote he gives and play he draws up, with some even comparing him to the Lakers’ last coach, Byron Scott.
That’s a bridge too far. I’m not here to tell you Walton is a perfect coach, or even a great one. I think the jury is out on that for now, but he’s not sunken to the level of the Lakers’ last coach yet.
The first thing quite a few have pointed to is Walton’s repeated quotes questioning how many 3-pointers the Lakers are shooting. The difference is that Walton’s decision to have the Lakers eschew a few threes is actually understandable.
At 29.4 percent, the Lakers are literally the worst 3-point shooting team in the league, and have responded by cutting their attempts to 24.8 per game, which ranks 25th.
The year Scott made his infamous comments about threes not winning championships saw him at the helm of a roster that shot 34.4 percent from deep, which is right around league average and left the Lakers ranked 17th in 3-point percentage. That didn’t stop Scott from eschewing that rare thing the Lakers were actually decent at offensively, as their 18.9 attempts per game that year ranked, eerily, 25th in the league.
Furthering the argument Scott didn’t necessarily base his decisions on the construct of his roster, he caved to peer pressure and had the Lakers launch 24.6 threes per game the next season, which ranked 13th in the league in attempts… when they fielded a roster that was shooting 31.7 percent from three, the worst mark in the NBA.
By contrast, Walton actually showed a willingness to let the Lakers fire away when they shot a closer to league-average 34.6 percent last season. With shooters like Nick Young, Lou Williams and company in tow, the Lakers fired up 25.7 threes per game, which ranked 19th in the NBA at the time.
Walton has also shown something Scott, despite how much he talked about how often he talked about how tough and defensive-minded he was, never did: The ability to coach a good NBA defense.
The Lakers, against all odds, predictions, and reasonable thought rank fourth (!!!) in defensive efficiency this season, holding opponents to 100.6 points per 100 possessions. To be fair, Walton has better defensive players than Scott did and has the benefit of not having to play a mummified Kobe Bryant 30 minutes a night, but still. The Lakers were never expected to be even league-average defensively, and they’ve been downright excellent on that end. Walton deserves some credit for that.
Compare that to Scott, whose idea of defensive strategy was to call out his players in the media for being soft, bench young ones for being bad on defense while not holding veterans accountable and when none of those worked, insinuate his players would shoot him in the back if they were in a foxhole together. No, really, that actually happened.
Did it work? Nope, the Lakers posted two of their five-worst defensive efficiencies since the stat has been kept in Scott’s two years at the helm.
Now all of this stuff could’ve been forgiven if Scott had been the type of coach to win over a locker room and develop young players, but other than Jordan Clarkson breaking out when Scott literally had no other players left to play, it’s hard to point to any player tangibly improving under him.
Meanwhile, under Walton, Brandon Ingram looks far better than he did last season after some early hiccups with how he was used that to his credit, Walton has adjusted. Jordan Clarkson looks far better in a consistent bench role. Walton did go to the old Scott well of benching Julius Randle, but did it with an actual basketball reason in mind and Randle has responded with easily the best season of his career.
And while some have quibbled with Walton’s usage of Randle and other rotational quirks he, at the very least, seems to be seeing when things work and don’t work and responding in kind. His adjustment of Ingram’s usage is an example of this, as is his refusal to set arbitrary amounts of games he was going to stick with a lineup, no matter how it worked, as Scott was wont to do.
Don’t get it twisted. Walton clearing the bar of being “not Byron Scott,” who has a legitimate argument for being the worst coach in Lakers franchise history (potentially NBA history) and sits further below .500 than any coach to coach more than 1000 games, isn’t necessarily an indicator he’s the next great Lakers coach of the future.
Still, he’s cleared that very, very modest bar, and deserves at least the decency of dodging that comparison. It’s only been two years since the Byron-era, and I remember Byron Scott. Luke Walton, for any faults he may have, is not Byron Scott.
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