When Luke Walton played for the Los Angeles Lakers from 2003-12, he did the little things that contributed to wins and had a knack for making key plays at the right moment. The son of beloved UCLA and NBA legend Bill Walton, and likeable in his own right, Walton was always popular with fans.
After retiring, he became a successful assistant coach and was, for half a season, interim head coach of the Golden State Warriors. He guided them in 2015-16 to a 24-0 start and a 39-4 record overall.
When he was hired by the Lakers in 2016, not only did Walton become the youngest head coach in the NBA, it was the most popular move the front office had made in years. But transitioning from the champion Warriors to the Lakers, who were at their lowest point in franchise history following the 2015-16 season, was anything but easy.
Although Walton wanted to bring the Warriors’ style of play to the purple and gold, the team lacked the one thing that was essential to playing a Warriors-style game: Elite talent.
Walton has faced a large number of challenges since returning to the Lakers organization. Last season, the team’s personnel was not very good as evidenced by the fact that journeyman Nick Young was not only a starter, he was counted on to be the defensive stopper.
After a 10-10 start to the season, the team was riddled with injuries and was hapless the rest of the year. It became horrifyingly clear the front office made a mistake of signing Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to long-term contracts.
There was a growing belief that the oft-injured D’Angelo Russell was never going to become the team’s leader or its point guard of the future, and Julius Randle was maddening with his inconsistent play and lack of effort on the defensive end.
Things were so bad that owner Jeanie Buss did not wait for the season to end before firing her own brother, Jim Buss, and longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak. Even John Black, the Lakers’ venerable vice president of public relations, was sent packing. How often does that sort of thing happen in the middle of a season?
Despite all these factors, Lakers fans assigned plenty of blame to Walton. They questioned his rotations, including the number of minutes allocated to various players. He was criticized for the players he chose to finish games and was chastised for sticking too long with the veterans when the younger players needed as much experience as possible to develop for the future.
The Lakers missed the playoffs for the fourth straight year and had only 21 wins until the very end when they won five meaningless games to finish with 26 victories. When the season ended, the team was engulfed by uncertainty.
President of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka, who replaced Jim and Kupchak, did not hire Walton nor did they draft any of the players on the roster, so they did not have an emotional attachment to anyone. Their reputations did not depend on Walton succeeding.
Johnson, always quick to tell the world what he is thinking, announced over the summer that no one on the roster was safe except Brandon Ingram. That was a not-so-subtle way of telling the rest of the young core, whom the Lakers were thought to be building around – Russell, Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. — that they probably did not have a future with the team.
This created insecurity which affected the psyche of these players, and within months, three of the four were gone. Randle was arguably the least likely to survive at the time, but he unexpectedly made himself the team’s best player this season.
Still, whether he remains with the team past this season is very much a question mark. Johnson also announced that he was not going to try to sign any superstars until the summer of 2018. So the Lakers stood by idly as other teams made astute moves to acquire players such as Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and Kyrie Irving.
Each of those teams is in the thick of the playoff race right now while the Lakers were recently eliminated for a fifth straight year. When the preseason started, Walton was handed a flawed roster, a team with four rookies and two 20-year-old second-year players.
There were only three players over 25. There was no adequate backup point guard and little outside shooting. It was also less than ideal that much of the roster consisted of players on one-year deals who needed to stand out in order to maximize the terms of their next contract.
There is a tendency for players in that position to play for themselves rather than for the team. One of those, Kentavious Caldwell Pope, was in trouble with the law and spent time in jail, preventing him from leaving the state to play in road games.
The other big addition, Brook Lopez, stewed on the bench when his minutes were reduced and he was not playing in the fourth quarter. Plus, there were a depressing number of injuries, a trend which has plagued the Lakers the past few years.
It certainly looked like another lost season. However, at the very moment in early January when things could not get any worse, LaVar Ball, father of rookie Lonzo Ball, who is supposedly the future of the franchise, claimed that Walton had lost the locker room and the players did not want to play for him.
It didn’t help that when Lonzo was asked about these comments, he gave a noncommittal response. The last thing that any coach wants to hear is that he has lost the locker room. But coincidence or not, almost the moment that statement was made, the entire season changed for the Lakers.
From early January through early March of this year, the Lakers had one of the best records in the entire NBA. Walton made two savvy coaching moves which had a positive impact. First, he moved Randle to the starting lineup, and Randle has looked like an All-Star ever since. Second, when Ball was injured, Walton moved Ingram to point guard, where he thrived.
Unfortunately, all of this progress was nearly derailed by another front office decision. With the team playing its best basketball in years, and winning games on a consistent basis for the first time in a long time, Johnson traded two important role players and well-liked teammates in Clarkson and Nance.
In return, the Lakers received Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye, but they have not been able to contribute much. And now Thomas is out for the final stretch of games after undergoing hip surgery.
To top it all off, the front office bought out Corey Brewer’s contract and almost immediately Ingram and Josh Hart were injured. The team was left with no small forwards on the roster and only G League players in the second unit.
Hopefully Johnson and Pelinka will pull off a miracle this summer, but for this season, they did Walton no favors. The team could have imploded for a variety of reasons, but it did not.
Instead, in contrast to recent years, everyone has consistently played hard and improved. Even with no depth and constant injuries, the team is on course to win 35 games or more. Their defense has been up and down but is still ranked 13th in the league overall, a massive improvement that no one predicted.
Much of the credit must go to Walton. He made adjustments and has remained calm and focused through injuries, distractions, criticism, and unusual front office moves. His messages of defenase leading to success on offense and wanting to push the pace have resonated with the players.
Lopez and Caldwell-Pope are two weeks away from unrestricted free agency but by all appearances are still playing for the team and not for themselves. The current roster was built for one year, and that year is nearly over.
If Johnson and Pelinka have their way, the team will look very different when training camp starts in September. As Johnson said at the time Clarkson and Nance were traded, he is tired of the team being at the bottom of the Western Conference.
If the top free agents sign elsewhere this summer, Johnson’s patience could be exhausted and he may decide to make a trade. Especially if a superstar like Kawhi Leonard becomes available. Should this occur, no one of the current roster is safe.
For Lakers fans, however, Walton’s team has been entertaining this season. It is unfortunate that Ball, Ingram and Hart have each missed considerable time due to injuries, but through it all, the Lakers fought hard no matter who was on the court.
The front office is restless but should realize now that Walton is one of the franchise’s brightest assets. Walton will not win Coach of the Year, but he did a very good job and has proven that the Lakers’ future is in good hands.