Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton was understandably irate after their 139-100 loss to the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night. After all, the Lakers eight-point deficit midway through the third quarter turned into a 39-point loss, featuring a Rockets playground of wide open layups and dunks in transition.
By Thursday afternoon, new president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manger Rob Pelinka were walking around the practice facility, engaging in individual conversations with the players, and Walton changed his tune.
“They’re in a really hard spot as a group, between us shutting down most of our vets, upper management changes in the middle of the season,” Walton empathized. “That’s a lot for veteran guys, that have been around a team to go through, let alone young guys. I’m very understanding of how difficult the situation is for us right now.”
While Walton sympathized, the greater question remained and maybe even more so now, 68 games into the season, then when Walton took the job: leadership.
“We don’t have that one alpha yet, or that one All-Star type of guy to really calm us down, when adversity hits,” Walton explained. “We have guys that want to win and care but when things start going bad for us…we still don’t have that one player to step up and kind of calm us down and get us on track.”
Walton reiterated that leadership has been by committee this season, and he expects that to continue the rest of the way, but his hope is still for some of the younger players to grow into that alpha role, with the help of Walton’s guidance.
“It’s my job to try to encourage them, to challenge them, to put them in positions to fail, so they can learn from it, and realize that it’s not the end of the world, and eventually grow from it,” Walton said.
“I truly believe that even if it hurts us in a game right now, by letting guys figure it out on their own, they’ll get to that place much sooner,” Walton continued. “There’s times that I will take control of a situation and times where I’m going to let them figure it out on their own and keep toying with that, as we’re a team that’s growing.”
While Walton feels a fire to take the reigns at times, he also knows it’s in the players best interests to figure these things out on their own.
“Coach does his job in terms in terms of trying to point to as many mistakes that we’re making throughout the game, but as a team, that’s where we have to correct everything on the floor during that time and speak up and get on each other,” third-year guard Jordan Clarkson explained.
“That’s [communication] what I feel like we lack sometimes, because we’re young, and you feel like you’re doing something wrong so you don’t want to speak up, but we need to step out of our comfort zone and really start to do that.”
That communication was something Pelinka and Johnson talked with Clarkson about after Thursday’s practice. As the front office calls for changes this summer, it’s up to the young guys to prove their worth as the season winds down.