After guiding the team to a nine-win increase from the previous year, Luke Walton and the Los Angeles Lakers went into the 2017-18 season with tempered, but heightened expectations. Aside from Walton being in his second year, the team added former No. 2 overall pick Lonzo Ball.
As part of his quest to continue implementing a vision and culture, Walton stressed defense from the first day of training camp. He wouldn’t relent on the topic, and the Lakers finished as the 12th-best defense after ranking next to last in each of the previous two seasons.
It was an accomplishment Walton said was one of his proudest moments for the team. The Lakers won 35 games, their most since 45 wins in 2012-13, which is also the last season they made the playoffs.
“They did a nice job of raising that expectation,” Walton said of his players. “As a staff we go into the year, we have goals and we have some things we’re trying to accomplish. And then we kind of progress throughout the season of what we’re going to do and how far we’re going to take things by the way our team plays.
“It’s not just our young guys but our team as a whole this year did a really nice job of raising expectations. I’ve told them that many times. It’s why I get upset with them when we’re not playing to a certain standard. And that’s because they’ve shown us what they can do.”
For as much growth as the Lakers showed, there were difficult stretches for Walton. In particular when he butted heads with Julius Randle over what role the dynamic forward would play and what was expected of him.
The two eventually came to an understanding, and Randle emerged as the Lakers’ best player. He was the only one on the team to appear in all 82 games, which Walton deemed a ‘badge of honor.’
“I think that’s why I put a huge value within the culture as far as relationships and being in coaching for those relationships, for trying to help players get better and live their ultimate dream out,” Walton explained.
“When you have those type of relationships, I think you can truly challenge people, and they should be able to challenge you back. I think that was a perfect example of Julius and I. We did not agree on things earlier in the year, and later in the year too. But because that trust was there and he was willing to continue to work, it ended up being great for him, for the team.
“We knew how good he could be but we challenged him to take it to another level, and he ultimately got there. He did all of that on his own. He deserves all the credit. He committed himself this past offseason and showed up in better shape than he’s ever been.”
While Randle and Walton managed to diffuse any tension that existed, the Lakers couldn’t shake free of injuries. Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma all missed prolonged stretches. That the Lakers still had a successful season was indicative of “great effort” they received throughout the roster, Walton said.
He wasn’t yet ready to look too far ahead, both in terms of what may unfold in free agency, where strides can be made on a personal level, and what the team can do to take another step forward. But Walton already knows ball movement and a focus on defense will be among the focal points.
As for coaching, he viewed the season as a learning process and anticipates more is ahead. “There’s a lot of areas that I’ve grown and there’s a lot of areas I’m going to continue to grow as a young coach. Like I’ve said about our players, there’s no substitute, there’s no shortcut for experience. That’s for me too. I’m going through a lot; trial and error,” Walton said.
“Really getting a better understanding of how to work with different players, where to put an emphasis on throughout a short season and limited practice time, where to prioritize that time. All these things has been great getting to play with that and see what the players respond to and what directly affects our games. There’s a lot of little things like that, that I’ve noticed myself getting better with.”