The future looks bright again for the Los Angeles Lakers, who have a winning record and are playing an exciting brand of basketball. Last night, the team was behind by 19 points on the road to the Sacramento Kings, only to roar back in the second half to win by 10 points. Much of the credit for the Lakers turnaround should go to Luke Walton, whose hiring a few months ago was a breath of fresh air for an organization that had grown stale.
Walton is likable and relatable, the son of one of the most beloved UCLA Bruins of all time, and won two titles as a Lakers’ player. However, his hiring was still seen as risky in many circles.
First, Walton is the youngest head coach in the NBA. He is younger than one of his current players and just a few years older than several others. It is like one of those silly movies you see from time to time, where one actress plays another’s mother but in real life is a year younger than her on-screen daughter.
Second, Walton had little coaching experience. He helped out at the University of Memphis during the NBA lock-out in 2011 (where he befriended a member of the Memphis team at the time, Tarik Black). When he finally retired from playing, he spent a season as player-development coach for the L.A. D-fenders before becoming an assistant coach for two seasons with the Golden State Warriors.
Walton was destined to become a head coach one day, but it would not have happened so quickly but for a twist of fate.
Steve Kerr had a back ailment which forced him to miss the first half of last season. Walton became the interim head coach and led the Warriors to an astounding 39-4 record, including an NBA-record 24-0 start, before Kerr returned.
While some downplayed Walton’s role, arguing that he was merely guiding a defending NBA championship team brimming with talent, it is beginning to look like there was much more to it.
Regardless, the seamless way the Warriors carried on under Walton attracted the attention of other teams, and it undoubtedly caused Walton to start thinking that perhaps he was ready to become a head coach sooner than expected.
Lakers management has made a ton of mistakes the past five years, but when they decided to part ways with Byron Scott, they knew enough to go after Walton. The team may have struck out with all the top free agents the past few years, but they hit the jackpot with Walton and in the end, it could very well make up for all the Kevin Durants, LaMarcus Aldridges, and Carmelo Anthonys who spurned them.
Walton took the job without interviewing with anyone else, ignoring the well-publicized reservations of his own father. He saw something in the young players on the Lakers roster that was not readily apparent to everyone else.
Some have suggested that what Walton has done with these players in a few short months is nothing short of wizardry. That may be far-fetched, but how else can you explain some of the things we have seen already?
How do you explain the fact that veterans Lou Williams and Nick Young are playing good defense for the first time in their NBA careers, and doing it well? Better still, how do you explain that Williams has inexplicably become one of the Lakers’ best passers? Williams is a known scorer and last season he pretty much shot every time he got his hands on the ball.
This year he has become the go-to guy in the fourth quarter, and a calming influence when the game is moving too fast and could get out of control.
Young was not supposed to make the team at all. It was well known that the Lakers were trying to trade him in off-season, but not only is he on the roster, he is a starter who is impacting games even when his shot is not falling.
After what occurred last season, how is it possible that Young and D’Angelo Russell are not only co-existing, they are thriving together in the starting line-up and in the fourth quarter of close games. In Sunday night’s contest against the Phoenix Suns, the key moment came late in the game when Russell stripped the ball from T.J. Warren and headed the other way.
Last year he would have forced up a shot when he was cut off by the defenders, but this time he kicked the ball out to a wide open Young who turned it into a four-point play.
Speaking of Russell, he suffered through an often embarrassing rookie season, only to dig in, grow up, and put in the hard work this past summer. He is under huge pressure from the media and the fan-base to live up to their lofty expectations, to do it right away, and to become a team leader at age 20. He is handling it all in a calm, professional manner.
Russell needed someone to show faith in him, to give him the freedom to be himself on the court, and that is what Walton allows him to do.
What about Jordan Clarkson? After leading the team in minutes played last season, and signing a big contract this summer, he seemed solidly ensconced as a starter. Walton had the foresight to know that given the configuration of the team, Clarkson could be even more effective running the show for the second unit.
Clarkson breathes basketball and has an endless motor that would allow him to easily play Kevin Durant-type minutes, but Walton has somehow gotten him to embrace his new role.
Julius Randle may have averaged a double-double last season, but entering this year he still had plenty of doubters. They wondered why, with all his physical tools, he disappeared so often and was not influencing games down the stretch the way he should.
Randle has flourished this year, in no small part due to the confidence Walton showed in him from day one. Randle and Walton are fond of one another, and Randle is already on record as saying he wants to win for Walton. Walton has gushed about Randle’s talent, calling him a “monster.” This looks like a match made in heaven.
Then there is Tarik Black, who was in Byron Scott’s doghouse last season for reasons unknown. Black was a free agent this past summer and no one seriously expected him to return after the way he was treated last year, but he did because of his faith in Walton going back to their time together when Black was in college at Memphis.
Walton promised him a fair chance, Black believed him, and now Black is playing impactful minutes every night.
Lakers advertisements typically feature Randle, Russell, Ingram, and Clarkson, but another young player by the name of Larry Nance, Jr. is every bit as important when it comes to influencing the outcome of games.
He started slowly this season but has been magnificent the last three contests. Against the Warriors, he had 12 points and nine rebounds on 6-6 shooting, which included two signature dunks. Nance is a difference maker on defense with his steals, blocks, rebounds, and all-around hustle. If there were any questions about Nance’s importance to this team, his absence against the Dallas Mavericks due to a concussion should have answered them as the Lakers struggled to replace everything he brings.
If he continues to improve at this rate, the Lakers will have to put him on those posters alongside the other more heralded members of the young core.
In sum, the most impressive thing about Walton is that he quickly found the best possible role for everyone on the roster and got everyone to accept his role. Ten separate players are getting regular minutes and everyone is having an impact. The balance is so impressive that everyone is playing fewer than 30 minutes a game.
Walton has Brandon Ingram bringing the ball up court so he is more involved in the flow of the offense. He is not afraid to play Randle and Nance together, and he decided that Young with his size is a better fit with the starters than the shorter Williams.
He urges reluctant outside shooters to keep shooting. Loul Deng and Timofey Mozgov signed massive contracts this summer but they are playing fewer minutes than expected, which allows the younger players more of an opportunity to grow. Walton also decided he doesn’t have to play Marcelo Huertas and/or Jose Calderon every night, that a back court of Russell and Young, followed by Clarkson and Williams, is what is best.
When Mozgov could not play against the Atlanta Hawks, Walton not only replaced him with rookie Ivica Zubac, he made Zubac a starter even though he had not played a minute in the regular season. Zubac scored the Lakers’ first two baskets of the game and gained valuable experience and confidence in a solid first performance.
Whether it is calling (or not calling) a time out at precisely the right moment, or keeping the second unit in the game deep into the fourth quarter when they are on a roll, Walton has made an astounding number of good decisions for someone with so little experience.
If this keeps up, NBA General Managers may need to rethink their preseason ranking of Walton as only the fourth most impactful coaching hire of the offseason. Walton may not be a wizard, but it is hard to explain the way this season has gone so far.
The Lakers have a winning record for the first time in a long time, and they have been in every game against teams who will all make the playoffs this season — with a break here and there they could easily be 6-1 right now.
Walton is the first person who will remind everyone that it is a long season and the Lakers will face plenty of challenges along the way. But for the first time in a long time, there are strong signs that the team is on the right path. This season will be exciting for sure, and right now it looks like there will be plenty of happy surprises for Lakers fans.