Reality Bites For Luke Walton

The team that was responsible for Luke Walton getting his Lakers job, the Warriors and their 24 wins in a row streak, is moving on as if Walton was never there. They are doing typical Warrior things while Luke Walton and the Lakers are doing typical Laker things. It is hard to believe that it was just a year ago when Luke’s father Bill begged him not to take the Lakers job.  He told Luke to stay put, enjoy this Warriors ride, this may be a repeat, this may be a three-peat, you will never have an experience like this again in your professional coaching life, and besides, the Lakers are doomed from management on down, they have zero plan. Bill Walton was speaking from experience. He was supposed to dominate the NBA and he would have had injuries not ruined everything. He missed out on so much. He didn’t want his son to have regrets ten years down the line.

Luke Walton didn’t listen to his father. But his father was right. The Lakers are a management mess, so much so, the people who hired him no longer work there anymore. But you can’t blame Luke Walton for a lack of prescience. He walked in the steps he walked in with the information he had. He took the Lakers job, a rookie head coach.

Which was worse? Standing on the Warriors sideline and watching that three pointer leave the hand of Kyrie Irving? Or this? This Lakers season of infamy and cruelty? Luke Walton seems like a puppeteer behind the curtains pulling strings but the puppets are often wobbly and broken. A few weeks back, he called his team soft. That was game 64.

Luke admitted that he knew this team wasn’t going to win a lot of games. Too young.  Not enough skill, talent or versatility and virtually zero defensive I.Q. But in games 77-81 the Lakers played their best basketball, albeit against truncated teams that had stars resting or were just not any good. In that time frame, the Lakers were doing things they haven’t done all year like playing hard and moving the ball. Still, any kind of precedent about what will happen next year is fools gold. This is a last gasp of oxygen before vacation. Perhaps it gives confidence but there isn’t much more to read into it other than that. The Lakers still stink and they may have to give up their lottery pick because the players went out and competed. What a time to act like NBA players, when so much is at stake.

Still Walton was optimistic after the last game at Golden State. “It made me proud when the players succeeded. When they worked on things in practice and you could see it in games. I have seen progress.”

Walton has seen progress because this is his world 24-7. But the rest of us, the progress is so small you can barely notice it with the naked eye which is why the compulsive obsession with the lottery and Lonzo Ball. But even then there is a contradiction. There are  a group of people, silent of course, and not die-hard Lakers fans, that want the Lakers to lose their pick to see what happens now. What type of plan B do they have? The Jim Buss/Mitch Kupchak duo weren’t much for alternative plans and so it is Rob Pelinka on the clock now. Even if the Lakers get their coveted and romanced top-3 pick they may be back here next year too.

But Luke Walton cannot obsess about the future, not with the freshness of his rookie coaching year behind him.  As a player, Luke was a 6-8 power forward who lacked athleticism but he had a high I.Q. and could rebound, pass and score. Think Draymond Green without the explosiveness and the extroversion. His Lute Olson experience was followed by Phil Jackson, beginning in 2003. He went to three NBA Finals and won two. His career stats are nothing to write home about, 4.7 points, 2.8 rebounds. He was a rotational player for the league’s greatest coach, a first hand witness to the Kobe mystique. Many thought Luke was overpaid, but he was a glue guy, a smart player on the court who made an impact in key moments.

In the Lakers NBA Finals years of 2008, 2009 and 2010, Luke played 16.8 minutes, 15.8 minutes and 6.0 minutes. His body was betraying him and his Lakers career would be whittled down to nothing because of injury.

He played 65 games in 2008-09. Then, 29 games the next year. Then, 54 games. He played in 9 games for the Lakers in 2011-12 before he was traded to sad Cleveland without LeBron James. He retired in 2013.

Three years later, it didn’t matter that Luke’s father told him to say no to the Lakers, stay with the sure thing Warriors. It didn’t matter because Jerry Buss’ son told him to say yes. Now that son is gone. For good. His last gasp to save himself failed. All he can do is cash checks and watch his coaching hire and draft picks from afar. Maybe if D’Angelo Russell or Brandon Ingram become All-Stars Jim Buss will have his final I told you so but I doubt it. Magic will get the credit.

It was Jerry Buss who drafted Luke ahead of Mo Williams and ahead of Kyle Korver in the second round of the LeBron, Wade, Bosh draft of 2003. That one moment changed the life of Walton forevermore. He is not paying much forward. He was a rookie coach and in many aspects he had the same low moments as his players. It was hard to see much of an identity or discipline. Very few of the players seemed to improve from November to April. D’Angelo Russell played fewer minutes under Walton than he did under Byron Scott and he had those infamous non playing fourth quarters that tarnished his reputation among national NBA writers who look at him as an arrogant head case. The Lakers often didn’t play hard, and it’s a struggle to find three players who you can describe as gritty or tough, who compete like they are about to lose their contract tomorrow.

NBA writer Jackie MacMullan was pressed about which Lakers the scouts like. She didn’t say Brandon Ingram. She said Julius Randle. No, Randle doesn’t have a jump shot and he can get sloppy and undisciplined with the ball but he plays hard, he gives effort, he is a ferocious rebounder and he is physical.

From afar, Luke’s job may have seemed intriguing and a challenge but if you check out Luke and the body language after each game he looked tired, exhausted, worn out and depleted as if he truly didn’t understand the toll losing the way the Lakers lose would pain  both the body and mind, particularly after his Warriors experience.

The facts this season: the Lakers didn’t have an identity. They didn’t have a style of play. On many nights, they didn’t compete. Take Lou Williams off the team (they did) and they had no one who could be trusted late in games. The final nail in the coffin was the Lakers trying to lose on purpose to secure Lonzo Ball. And then winning games to hurt their chances to get Lonzo Ball.

Do they know what they are doing? The young leading the young paid off with…? We’ll know at lottery ball time.

It would be crazy if it wasn’t the Lakers. Luke was a Laker so he knew it was going to get crazy. But not this crazy.  Not desperately needing a star crazy but there are no stars flocking to come to the Lakers. Russ Westbrook, the probable MVP, can sign a $200 million dollar extension this summer and stay in OKC. If he didn’t, and left for the Lakers next summer he’d be leaving $60 million on the table. Paul George can sign a similar extension in Indiana but only if he makes the All-NBA first, second or third team. The Lakers hopes rest on George not being voted in by writers for All-NBA, same with Blake Griffin, that way they are able to compete financially. And still the Lakers may come up short.

It is too soon to know if the Lakers and Magic have a Plan B or a Plan C if the superstar route dries up pretty quick. What we do know is the All-Star game will be in Staples February 2018. The Lakers may have the dubious distinction of being shut out, not one player, no All-Stars.

The light at the end of the tunnel? Luke Walton is still waiting. He walked out on the Oracle court last night and looked around. Was it just a year ago he went 24-0? Was it just a year ago Kyrie made that shot? Was it just a year ago he refused to listen to his father and Luke Walton changed his life.

Yes. Yes. God, yes.

The Warriors are the favorites to win in 2017. The Lakers are the favorites to remain at the bottom. Things change but not that much.

 

photo  via llananba