Luke Walton Matters (Even In A LeBron James Universe)

Luke Walton has his share of detractors who take issue with his substitutions patterns, his seemingly indifference to LeBron James as the default coach, his teams pathetic free throw percentage, his placid expression coupled with his mediocre after timeout plays. Who has really developed under Luke Walton? Brandon Ingram hasn’t. Lonzo Ball hasn’t.  

There is an over/under bet on how many games this season before Walton is fired. The likely money is before the All-Star break. After the All-Star break LeBron will be in charge and chaos will not be tolerated.

So, say what you will about Walton. He was handed a young team to develop and then, oops, here comes LeBron. It’s a familiar script in LeBron James world. He unexpectedly shows up and an inexperienced NBA coach gets the heave- ho (see David Blatt).

But Walton isn’t your usual young coach trying to figure things out. First, he was a Laker who won two titles and understands the organization and the fanbase. He had a seemingly perfect record as the interim coach for the Warriors when Steve Kerr took a leave of absence. There are obvious pluses in the Walton category but a lot of minuses as he navigates a young team without LeBron James in the glaring spotlight.

It seems that Walton just figured out that Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram play many a game without heart. They try- that’s not even the point. But they don’t play hard. They don’t do everything. When they play they look like they are selling insurance to the 78 year old widow down the street who has arthritis instead of  going hard at the rim, being aggressive, taking care of possessions. You know, things that win basketball games.

A couple of nights ago, Walton did something he is loathe to do. Walton isn’t one of those tough love guys. When he was first introduced to the Los Angeles media as head coach, someone asked if he had any intention of having Kobe Bryant come in (sporadically) to talk to the team. Walton laughed and said absolutely not. He didn’t think Kobe’s hard ass approach was the recipe for young players.

But then after the Lakers were embarrassed in Minnesota, Walton reversed course. He said Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram need more passion. We all knew he meant both Ball and Ingram need heart. Every major outlet picked up the Walton critique, which, let me be the first to say, is akin to saying water is wet. Watch the Lakers for five minutes and you’ll see a comatose Lonzo Ball and a Brandon Ingram as the jack of all things and the master of exactly nothing.

Walton learned from Phil Jackson that criticizing a player in the media often works. Players tend to tune out the coach noise but when everyone is piling on because it’s in the paper, players tend to want to prove the world wrong.

Ingram and Ball played in Dallas after the Walton criticism and had one of their best games of the season. It wasn’t what they did in the box score that mattered even though 55%, 50% from three, 10 rebounds, 11 assists, 50 points was the difference. It was the intensity they played with, the determination and grit and hustle. The want-to. Without LeBron, someone has to show that they actually care about winning games outside of the pouty face after another Lakers loss.

Walton doesn’t have the type of personality that is going to throw zingers left and right like his old coach Jackson. It’s all about picking your spots and it worked. It was proof that the players who were with Walton last year still respect him enough to take his words to heart and show him they can meet their potential.

In Dallas, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball didn’t play for the Lakers as much as they played for Luke Walton. It was the second night of a back to back against a team that had only lost 3 times at home and has the Rookie of the Year saving them night in and night out. The Lakers win muffled the social media vitriol: trade Brandon Ingram for a pair of Nikes and while you’re at it get D’Angelo Russell back.

But one game is one game. In the short term, it kept Luke Walton on the plus side of the column as far as keeping his job. One reason for firing a coach is that he has lost the team. So far, that is not the case. The Lakers have had injuries, one after another, and are keeping their head above water and seemingly are still connected to one another as a group. Everyone forgets how young they really are.

And Luke Walton too. He is young. He was in the same draft as LeBron James.

It’s trial by fire for Walton and no one knows how much patience Magic Johnson has but for the right now Luke is the Lakers coach. He’s trending.