It was almost two years ago when Luke Walton wanted us to believe that basketball was joy. He had yet to coach a game for the Lakers and appeared before the media with his loving take on the game. But that was in the golden hour, nothing had been accomplished. He had yet to be bogged down in the despair of mind numbing defeat after defeat, as he is now, losers of 9 in a row, the second worst team in the league. What Walton was talking about in 2016 were garden variety generalities and fantasies and metaphors. He was filled with hope. And why not? After his Warriors whirlwind, the glass was half-full. He was clueless as to how hard this was going to be, an entire team of young players, most of whom are unproven and are unclear as to what they can and cannot do on the court to make an impact, not to mention lacking mental toughness. Two years later, give a take a few months, here we are. Basketball is not joy in El Segundo or downtown L.A. or anywhere in this city of six million that fetishizes the Lakers. There is nothing joyous about Lakers basketball now.
They have more talent but a dismal record. They can’t even get Marvin Bagley out the deal because Philly has their lottery pick. Last year, after their 38th game, the Lakers were 13-25. In 2017-18, they have been stuck on 11 wins for 16 days. They haven’t won a home game in 45 days. So much for saviors like Lonzo Ball. So much for D’Angelo Russell being the problem. And Mitch Kupchak. And Jim Buss. The problem is the roster. They are kids who brick jumpers and then pout, lose focus, defend on their own timetable and are fooling no one. The cream rises to the top. The average stay stuck in the middle.
But back to joy. Knowing joy matters is one thing. But hearing it as a philosophy and a value when you know Byron Scott didn’t give a rat’s ass about joy and yet Luke Walton is having the same kind of Byron Scott luck, it’s hysterical. Players are tuning Walton out in the same passive-aggressive way they ignored the dictator Scott.
At Walton’s initial press conference, he explained that the foundation of the Golden State Warriors success was wrapped in a joy culture. That came first. Then attention to detail. Then accountability. Then being connected to one another as a group. If you don’t love the game you won’t succeed in the game, that was the Luke Walton message. It lingered in the room long after his introductory meeting with the media ended. Basketball is joy. Haven’t you heard?
But it is easy to have joy when you have Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and now Kevin Durant. It is easy to have joy when you draft well, trade well, the system you have instilled is one in which the players can thrive. The Lakers system is Warriors lite. The problem is the players don’t fit the system other than an ability to push the pace. They cannot finish. They aren’t a collection of jump shot shooters. They are the worst three point shot makers in the league. Jam a square peg into a round hole all you want to. It just leaves you frustrated.
“We’re going to put a stamp on the culture and it’s going to be joy. Our players are going to like coming into practice every day. We’re going to play a brand of basketball that the L.A. fans will appreciate. We’re going to compete.”
I don’t think anyone in L.A. is appreciating the product. It is miserable. The effort is medicore. The decision making is questionable. The attention to detail is absent. There is nothing competitive nor joyous about this Lakers team; it gives me a headache the way Mike D’Antoni’s version of the Lakers gave me a headache and Byron Scott’s version made my temples throb. To repeat my Texas cousins: this dog won’t hunt.
Los Angeles can be a rough and hostile place as the pressure mounts and mounts with each loss and each game of deplorable defense. You are beaten to death with the past glory and are mercilessly compared. Everyone has something negative to say. It becomes infectious and a self-identity.
With all respect to Walton, it’s easy to have joy when you are the best team in the league. It’s hard to have joy when you are the worst. As Chuck Daly famously said, “You are your record.” The Lakers are the second worst team in the league. Only the Hawks are worse. They play the Hawks on Sunday.
Sometimes Walton seems over his head with this collection of woe is me scorers and a couple of finishers. There was a reason Luke’s daddy told him not to take this job. Rebuilding is hard. Philly who looked like a shoo-in for the post season a month ago will be fighting for a 8th seed and may not get into the playoffs. Tanking for the future rarely works and yet it was what the Lakers were forced into.
Walton seems confident that the Kobe Bryant era ending has opened the door for free agents to come to Los Angeles and establish themselves as the franchise star. But why? The players the Lakers are trusting for next level are incomplete. Julius Randle competes around the rim but makes 30% of his jumpshots. Same thing for Brandon Ingram. Lonzo Ball is a decent playmaker but makes 29% of his jumpshots. Kyle Kuzma is the best the Lakers have and he only makes 40% of his jumpshots. When your best player is a rookie, it’s going to be a long haul to respectability.
“The future is bright. We’re going to play an up-tempo game. We’re going to bring in another top pick. We have salary cap space to spend.” Luke Walton
Walton is no longer in the honeymoon phase of his dream job. A part of the Lakers misery is his doing. He is a second year head coach and at times he coaches like a newbie. His rotations do not make sense. When Lonzo was out he had two point guards on the bench he didn’t play and instead started rookie Jason Hart. He hasn’t played Luol Deng at all. Perhaps Deng can’t run up and down the way Walton favors but he has toughness and grit; he doesn’t quit as Kyle Kuzma alluded to.
It’s been a catastrophe all the way around. Now the Lakers are forced to move Randle for survival. They need a first round pick. It’s hard to see how they dig out this hole. Their young guys haven’t showed the ability to be tough in the moment. To have heart. It’s the opposite. They are shrinking under the pressure. The body language is familiar. It’s the same addictive loser look as 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and now 2018.
It’s another lost season. Joyless. The Lakers will be spectators when the league’s greatest players assemble for the All-Star game mid-February. The Lakers are a thousand miles from having an All-Star. Comically, today in Lithuania LaVar Ball said that in 2020 LiAngelo and LaMelo will be on the Lakers. He may be right. The Lakers may be that desperate.
photo via llananba