With his first major decision as head coach behind him, Luke Walton gave a glimpse into how he will proceed as the leader of a very young although talented team not headed for the playoffs. Let them wait. As a strategy, it borders on safety, patience and a long view. There will be no Kevin Durant-like throwing of number two draft pick Brandon Ingram into the cold and icy NBA waters on day one. Ingram will get the Kobe Bryant as an 18 year old treatement. He’ll come off the bench. He’ll play behind Luol Deng. His development will be arrested because Walton is going the safe route. He wants to make sure Ingram can sustain the rigors and harshness of the season. In a sense, he’s babying him.
“You develop the young core by rewarding them when they play well.” (Luke Walton, L.A. Daily News)
Or, you develop the young core by actually playing them. Let them sink. Let them swim. Teach from mistakes. Celebrate small victories. The only way you learn how to play is to actually…um…play. The Lakers aren’t a playoff team and won’t be one for a few years. What actually is there to be lost by playing Ingram on day one? Because he’s a rookie, he is not going to be perfect. He’s going to be beaten off the dribble. He’s going to get scored on. He’s going to have slumps. But because he’s a rookie, and if he is as everyone says he is, the most likely of all the rookies to have a ten year career, then he will adjust and adapt to adversity like every other NBA player who comes in young, inexperienced and in need of teaching.
“You’re not doing anyone any favors just by playing young guys so they can play, if they’re not out there playing the right way.”
It worked pretty well for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. They played right away. They were a young team. They had no pressure on them because they weren’t expected to get to the playoffs. They could take shots and miss shots and make shots and drive by their man and dunk and play selfishly and play heroically. Besides, a lot of veterans who do start don’t play the right way.
Here’s something for Luke Walton to think about: you learn by doing. You don’t learn by sitting.
When Steph Curry entered the NBA as the #7 pick, he started 77 games on a team that won 26 games. When Kevin Durant entered the NBA as the #2 pick, he started 80 games on a team that won 20 games. Both are top 5 players not burdened by their throw them in the deep end rookie tutorial history.
This strategy of low-risk reeks of Byron Scott and his early season treatment of D’Angelo Russell. Truthfully, Russell wasn’t emotionally mature, but there was no reason to not play him in game one. Russell ended up starting 48 out of 80 games and he had a good rookie year overall (13.2 points, 3.3 assists). In fact, Scott had more of an excuse with Russell than Walton has with Ingram. Scott was hyper conscious of Kobe Bryant. Everyone else had to take a back seat. It hurt the early development of Russell that the veteran Bryant was not going to begin his last year with a point guard who didn’t know what he was doing. No such issues plague this Lakers team. Wasn’t the point of the Bryant chapter being closed to avoid this very thing? The Lakers can start young, go young, play young and focus on development. They could. But they won’t.
It’s bad enough they signed slow and plodding Timofey Mozgov. Now, their future talent has to linger on the bench behind Luol Deng.
Deng willingly signed a four year $72 million deal with no opt-outs and when he agreed to be a Laker, it was curious. Deng is 31 and still can play in the league. Why come to a rebuilding team, unless you have been given indications you will start. Deng signed the type of deal that was revelatory. It was a contract to be a starter and then have Ingram take the job from him, not to be a mentor and teach Ingram.
Deng will be the centerpiece of the Lakers defense, the only player of the starting unit with the toughness to defend every play with physicality and grit. He can still play in the league but his 12 points and 6 rebounds on a rebuilding team mean absolutely nothing. Deng is taking up Ingram’s minutes.
Just as fans were restless and weary with Del Harris not playing Kobe Bryant, and the chants of Kobe Kobe Kobe were a cacophony from the rooftop almost every single game of his rookie year when he was on the bench, the same will happen for Ingram too.
The NBA is a league of veteran players who don’t have time for rookies. The most decorated NBA coaches like Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich won’t play rookies at all. But that’s because they are geared for a playoff run. That is not Luke Walton’s burden.
Or is he actually thinking, like Byron Scott thought, that the Lakers have a chance at the #8 seed and to get there he needs to ride the backs of his veterans Deng, Mozgov and Lou Williams?
Being a former Lakers champion means you never let go of the dream. But that playoff dream is dead on arrival and Luke Walton outed himself.
He’s more like Bryon Scott than anyone imagined.
photo via llananba