FB&G continues is player reviews for this past season with Luke Walton. For a link to Luke’s exit interview, check out Phillip’s post from right after the season concluded.
SEASON IN REVIEW:
By any measure, Luke Walton had a disappointing season. He suffered through a campaign marred by injuries and – when healthy – inconsistent minutes that saw his effectiveness drop from useful to nearly inconsequential on many nights. For many fans of Walton’s game (like myself) this was a disconcerting year and I’m sure a very frustrating one for Walton himself. Every player wants to be on the court and for a player like Luke – one that has basketball in his blood – it must of been tortuous to be relegated to spectator status as often as he was this past season. And Luke was mostly a spectator this season. He only played in 29 games and saw the court for an average of 9.4 minutes (the lowest of his career and down from 17.9 just last season) in those games that he did play in.
But by all statistical measures (and I’m sure the injuries played a part in this), Luke really didn’t deserve to play many minutes this past season. He posted career lows in nearly every statistical category. And while it’d be easy to equate his statistical lows with his reduced minutes, his stats across the board fell in his per 36 minutes averages as well. Basically, Luke just wasn’t that effective when he saw the court. Sure, his innate feel for the game and his passing ability were still on display. And there were many times throughout the season (especially when Ron or the back up guards struggled to run the offense) that fans called for a return of Walton to help facilitate a better flow to the Triangle. But, as an individual threat, Walton just wasn’t the same guy. Gone were the effective post ups while operating from the hub of the Triangle. And his knack for finding creases in the defense for easy buckets underneath also diminished. This led to his career low in FG% and in his FT rate, and ultimately made his game even more one dimensional (a passer/set up man) than what it’s been in the past. In order to be a real threat on the floor, every player has to show enough of a well rounded game where he can be a threat from both an individual standpoint and within the team concept. This past season, Luke just couldn’t do enough as an individual threat to earn floor time.
However, this isn’t to say that Luke didn’t contribute this past season. As I mentioned, he still did have his moments as a facilitator of the Lakers’ offense. There were several games this season when Walton’s passing and knowledge of the Triangle helped stimulate the stagnant sets the Lakers were running. Also, and maybe even more of a help, were Walton’s contributions on the sideline. While Luke rehabbed his bad back, he often sat in on the coaches meetings and charted plays during the games. This allowed him to be a part of the team and aid the coaches by giving them insight on some of things that he was seeing from the sideline. And while some may scoff at how important this role is, Tex Winter often filled this same role for Phil Jackson and gave his honest opinion on what the Lakers were doing on the court and what could be done to improve. And given Luke’s familiarity with the Triangle, filling this role really was an aid to the team while also giving Walton a sense of worth with this group (something that is quite familiar to Phil if you’ve read Sacred Hoops).
PERFORMANCE OF THE SEASON:
For a guy that only averaged 9 minutes a game, it’s tough to find a stand out performance. However, if I had to choose one game where I think Luke really made an impact, I would choose game 3 of the Finals against the Celtics. In this game, Walton played a playoff high 13 minutes and was second on the team (behind Odom) with a +13 on the night. And while his stat line was modest (2 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist), Luke played a very good all around game on both sides of the ball. In typical fashion he ran the offense flawlessly by moving the ball around the court and consistently hitting the open man helping the Lakers break down the Boston D. And on the other end of the court he played spirited defense on Paul Pierce by bodying him up and forcing him out of his sweet spots and to where his help was waiting. Luke may not have been the difference maker in this game (that honor goes to Derek Fisher), but in a crucial contest where the Lakers were looking to take back home court advantage Luke played very well and helped secure a much needed win. And with Ron Artest struggling mightily in this game (23 minutes, 2 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, -13 on the night), Luke’s timing in having a good game was also quite important.
Going into next season, there are more questions than answers about what role Walton will play with the team. By all accounts, his injured back is a real issue and there may be tough decisions ahead on whether or not Walton can even suit up for the team next season. But don’t take my word for it, take Lakers’ GM Mitch Kupchak’s:
It’s not your run of the mill type back problem. We don’t know where it’s going to end up. He’s a gamer and he loves to play. He wants to be a part of the team, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get back on the court. That’s a positive, to have the kind of player that’s motivated to get well. That’s not always the case…The most important thing is that Luke make the correct decision for his life, not for basketball. The aging process of a healthy athlete is difficult enough as it is. So we counsel Luke, and our trainers do, to try to keep the big picture in the forefront of any decision. But like most young players they want to play. Sometimes they don’t [listen.]
And based off some of the moves that the the Lakers have made this off-season, you can see that contingencies are in place in case Luke can not play. The Lakers have inked Matt Barnes to be the primary back up to Ron Artest – the role that we’re accustomed to seeing Luke filling. The team is also in negotiations to bring back Shannon Brown who, while not a SF, is a guy that often plays SG with Kobe sliding up to play small forward. Lamar Odom also made comments in his exit interview that he’d like to play more SF next season. And the Lakers drafted Devin Ebanks, a promising prospect that will primarily play SF. So, realistically, the Lakers may have 5 players capable of playing SF on next season’s roster not counting Walton. And if all 5 of those players do see minutes at the position (which while not likely, is still possible), that’s quite the log jam of players at a position that Walton sees all of his minutes at.
Whatever next season brings for Luke, I think we can all agree that we wish him the best and hope he has a full recovery. Yes, his contract is one that is easy to complain about. And sure, Walton’s limited offensive aresenal (outside of his passing/play making), questionable defense, and injury history make him a whipping boy of sorts for many fans. However, I’ve always viewed Walton as a player that helps more than he hurts when he’s healthy enough to play. His feel for the game and his ability to run the Lakers sets give him a value to this team that he likely wouldn’t have with another outfit. And while that may not appease those that dislike Luke’s game or question his ability as a player, it doesn’t change the fact that Walton is a player that is quite useful when he’s right. And while I’m not sure we’ll see that player next season, I’m hopeful that he makes a decision that is best for him and his long term health. If that’s on the court, great. If it’s not, then I can say that I was a fan of his game and hope things work out for him in whatever is next for him.