From the moment Luke Walton became the new head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this year, the media started reporting, and fans began fantasizing, that Walton would bring “Warriors style basketball” to Los Angeles. It was sad to think that the Lakers franchise, once the envy of the league and what other teams aspired to become, had been relegated to trying to copy their rivals to the north. Still, Lakers basketball has been underwhelming the past few years, so it was hard not to be interested in the prospect of the purple and gold playing like the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors, who won a record 73 games last season after winning the title the year before, are among the most exciting teams of the past 20 years and maybe in the history of the NBA. They are equally talented on offense and defense, and they have a plethora of shooters who can score in a split second from anywhere on the court.
The problem is, Golden State has Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, while the Lakers do not. These are four of the top ten players in the league, and they are on the same team. Curry and Durant are probably two of the top three players in the world, and Thompson is not far behind. They also have an outstanding supporting cast of role players who have experience and talent including Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, David West, Zaza Pachulia, Anderson Varejao, and JaVale McGee, along with some promising younger contributors.
The Warriors play the brand of basketball that best suits the talent they have on their team. If their style could easily be copied everyone would be doing it, but they aren’t and those who try don’t measure up. That doesn’t mean the Warriors have the only sound strategy or that a team cannot win with a different approach, one that better suits their own players. It wasn’t all that long ago that the Lakers did pretty well pounding the ball inside to two seven footers who played together on the front line, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum.
It is still puzzling how Golden State could afford to sign all these stars and stay within the salary cap, while the Lakers were capped out with half the team signed to modest rookie deals while adding only Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng of any note. No matter how they afford it, the Warriors are the Warriors while the Lakers are not even in the same hemisphere talent-wise.
The Lakers don’t have the speed or the consistent three-point shooters necessary to copy Golden State’s style of play. That was painfully apparent in recent preseason games between the two teams. It will be demonstrated again soon when they face one another three times in the first month of the regular season.
Still, once Walton was hired, it was only natural to assume the Lakers would begin to try to emulate the Warriors. While Walton is a Southern California native who played in Los Angeles most of his career, he had been an important assistant coach for the Warriors during their championship run the past couple of seasons. Last year, with head coach Steve Kerr sidelined for more than 40 games with a bad back, Walton took his place on an interim basis and the team excelled.
With considerable prompting from the media, when Walton was hired by the Lakers he said he wanted to bring with him the Warriors’ approach on both sides of the court. From that day until the present, Lakers players are constantly asked in interviews about Golden State, and they talk about how exciting it is to play that brand of basketball. In this fantasy world, Julius Randle is Draymond Green, D’Angelo Russell is Steph Curry, Brandon Ingram is Kevin Durant, and Timofey Mozgov is said to be playing the “Andrew Bogut role.”
It won’t work, however, because such comparisons are not based on reality. Instead of pretending to be Golden State, the Lakers need to figure out how to create their own style of play based on what they can do well. The operative words the past few months have been ball movement, spacing, and tenacious effort on defense. These are important goals, but the Lakers are not going to resemble the Warriors in the foreseeable future no matter how hard they try because they simply do not have the talent or experience necessary to play that style effectively. Their players have different strengths, and the team needs to create a system that fits their skillset.
We live in a copycat world wherein all forms of business, sports, and entertainment, a forward-thinker with courage and imagination creates a new approach, it works in a big way, and soon everything is trying to copy that success. It never works as well as the original, but it is easier and safer to be a copycat until someone else breaks the mold and soon everyone jumps on that bandwagon.
It is time for the Lakers to be the Lakers, the best version of themselves that they can be, and stop talking about the Warriors who will never lose to a team trying to beat them at their own game because no one plays that game better than they do. It takes something different to beat Golden State, and of course it helps have LeBron James on your team. The Lakers need to forge their own identity, one that is best suited to take advantage of the skill of their own players.
Walton, by his own admission, is still trying to fit the pieces together and it may take a good part of the season for it to happen. It could require thinking outside the box and bucking convention to finally hit on the winning formula.
There are no clear answers, but maybe it means that Brandon Ingram, with his unusual height, wingspan, and skillset, should bring the ball up the court as we saw in the last game. Julius Randle is at his best when he rebounds and pushes the pace himself, but he doesn’t do it enough. Perhaps the reserves, who seem to play with more energy, should become the starters for a while and/or just play more minutes. Is it possible that all the outside shooters like Lou Williams, Nick Young, and Jose Calderon should come off the bench together to space the floor?
Whatever it may be, the solution will require creativity and not just watching the Warriors and trying to do what they do. It is always good to move the ball and provide maximum effort on defense, but there has to be more to the plan. It may take quite a while, but the real challenge facing the Lakers this year is figuring out how best to harness the talent they have to create their own identity, so one day soon other teams will talk about their wanting to play “Lakers style basketball.”