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Wednesday Storylines

Dave Murphy —  January 11, 2012

Kobe lit it up again last night, with an unlikely assist from Luke Walton. An ugly, crazy mess of a game, as it often is this season, but not for lack of hustle and effort. At least we don’t have to hear about “the switch” these days.  And then, about 3 minutes before an end that was still in play and Kobe goes thunder-dunk mode.  Suddenly the Suns were fading fast in the rear-view mirror. The hand and wrist may be in pieces but the legs, remarkably, have been infused with flubber – 48 points and a nice hug from Shannon Brown at the end.

Andy Kamentzky from ESPN’s Land O’Lakers, examines the above-mentioned brotherly love that Kobe has for the high-fly act we once called ‘UPS’.

Mark Medina at the LA Times Lakers blog writes about Kobe defying the odds – he wants you to say he can’t do it anymore, he’s refusing to concede to injury.

Brian Kamentzky, Land O’Lakers, looks at it logically – expecting Kobe to provide like this for another 55 games, is suicide.

Dexter Fishmore at Silver Screen and Roll also considers Kobe’s basketball mortality, and tosses a bone to Luke Walton’s rise from the ashes.

  at the OC Register, goes so far as to ask whether Walton actually out-shined Kobe, pointing out that with Luke on the floor, the Lakers outscored the Suns by 32 pts.

Straying outside the Kobe/Luke storyline, ESPN’s J.A. Adande writes about the Lakers’ white factor and refers to my man Slava as Russian. Excuse me? Ukrainian!

***

Wins and losses feel different under Mike Brown compared to Phil Jackson.  Nothing seems quite as cool, there’s not that languid nonchalance.  Mike Brown doesn’t divine alchemy from a wood grain pattern under his feet. He paces and yells and dances in place. He obstructs the view of people who pay a lot of money for those floor seats.  And, he hands out chances. Luke Walton got 25 minutes of burn last night – 6 pts, 8 boards, 3 dimes and a steal. When’s the last time that happened? Dig it Phil, your favorite son is back.

– Dave Murphy

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It’s October 11, somehow still 90 degrees in L.A. and we’re almost two weeks away from banner night. While LeBron, Wade, Bosh and Co. continue to set fire to the league’s media landscape, there’s another story that is quietly dominating the NBA this fall, one sprained ankle and tender hammy at a time. The ever-present injury bug has reached full-scale epidemic levels during the 2010 pre-season with nearly every team—including several Lakers rivals—experiencing its wrath in one way, shape or form. If you look down the Lakers own bench since training camp opened, you’re likely to be greeted by no less than Kobe, Andrew Bynum and Luke Walton. Bumps, bruises, tears and aches are minor problems for some teams and full-scale crises for others. Let’s check in with some of the competition to see who’s still standing.

Miami’s Big Three took its first hit last week when Dwyane Wade strained his right hamstring in the Heat’s exhibition opener against the Pistons. No one’s hitting the panic button in South Beach, but as anyone who has ever hurt their hamstring can attest, it has the potential to linger if not given due diligence.

The Celtics responded to news that budding center Kendrick Perkins would be out for at least half of the season by signing Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal to help fill their void down low. So far, the injury-plagued younger of the two O’Neal’s has suffered a case of the butterflies and a more concerning pulled hamstring injury of his own that kept him out of the Celtics’ first two exhibition games. He made his debut last night and played five minutes, but Doc Rivers warned that Boston would continue to carefully monitor the injury.

Clutch City has been more like Crutch City the past few years and the 2010 pre-season has done nothing so far to rid Houston of its new name. First, there was the announcement that Yao Ming—so vital to Houston securing a top seed in the Western Conference—would be limited to a maximum of 24 minutes per game and likely wouldn’t play at all on some back-to-backers. Now, his insurance policy, Brad Miller, is nursing an injury of his own, as he’s day-to-day with a sprained left ankle.

Spurs newcomer Tiago Splitter received a rude welcome to the NBA, suffering a strained calf that has kept him out of San Antonio’s pre-season action thus far. Doctors say they’ll reevaluate the forward-center in 7-10 days, but this isn’t exactly the type of start San Antonio was hoping for from a player who is widely viewed as a huge factor in keeping the Spurs’ championship window open for at least another season.

Portland’s injury woes from the past few seasons have shown no signs of letting up with Greg Oden again out indefinitely and potential replacement Jeff Pendergraph announcing this week that he’ll miss the entire 2010-11 season with a torn ACL. This recent bout of injuries does little to instill much confidence in a team, who when healthy, is expected to potentially compete against the Lakers for the West crown.

The Nuggets—whose front court was already reeling from the absence of Kenyon Martin to start the season—lost his replacement, Al Harrington, for at least two weeks with a partial tear of the plantar fascia in his left foot.

Leading contenders for the Central Division title—Chicago and Milwaukee—have both taken their tumbles this pre-season, led by Carlos Boozer’s freak hand injury and news that Andrew Bogut’s surgically-repaired hand, wrist and elbow is likely to continue to cause him discomfort all season long.

While it won’t heal Kobe or Bynums’ knees or cure Luke of his back pain, it’s at least somewhat reassuring to know that most of the Lakers’ leading competition for the Western Conference and eventually, the NBA title, are to some degree, dealing with injuries of their own heading into the 2010-11 season. We all witnessed what one major injury to a key player (Kevin Garnett) did to Boston’s title hopes in 2009, so here’s hoping for a speedy recovery for all of the league’s wearied and wobbled.

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Part deuce of our look at key stats for the upcoming season focuses on the bench corps. In case you missed it, check out our post on the starters too.

Lamar Odom: O/U 30 games as a starter
Fisher and Bryant are used to receiving props for their durability, but Odom proved that he belongs in the Lakers iron man conversation too after playing in all 82 games in 2009-2010. As the starting center on Team U.S.A. this summer, Lamar entered training camp this week with only a few weeks of rest. His load figures to be even heavier to start the season now that Bynum is out for at least the first few weeks, leaving Odom as the go-to starter. The Lakers have been able to weather his inconsistency as a sixth man the past two seasons, but will especially need Lamar to elevate his game while Andrew heals. Going off of Bynum’s own timeline, Odom is a virtual lock to start the first 15-20 games of the season. The Lakers can only hope it stays around that number and far away from the 38 games he started last season.

Sasha Vujacic: O/U 37% three-point shooting percentage
Sasha fell out of favor with Lakers coaches and unfortunately, back into the “practice player” label too as he only connected on 31% of his three-pointers during the regular season–down from his career average of 37%. Here’s hoping his much-improved performance in the final two rounds of the playoffs is more indicative of his play this season.

Luke Walton: O/U 70 games played
Luke was largely a forgotten man in last season’s championship run after appearing in only 29 games due to a pinched nerve in his back. Heading into 2009-2010, Walton’s troublesome back remains a bit of a ticking time bomb for the Lakers. Though they’ve proved that they can win without him, Luke’s expert knowledge of the offense is an undervalued commodity on a second unit that will be lacking triangle wherewithal. If his back holds up, it’d sure be nice to see him play close to a full season.

Matt Barnes: O/U 38% three-point shooting
The Lakers expect stellar defensive tenacity and intagibles out of Barnes, but they also need him to spread the floor from the three spot, similar to the player he’ll likely be subbing for the most—Artest. Matt shot 32% from beyond the arc during the regular season in 2009-2010, but improved to almost 38% during the playoffs—a trend that L.A. is hoping continues this season. Barnes proved himself a capable, if unspectacular offensive player during recent playoff runs with the Warriors and Magic, but finding consistency in his outside shooting will go a long way toward shoring up L.A.’s second unit this season.

Steve Blake: O/U 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio
Blake has been quietly dropping bombs from three point land for years now, hitting 40% of his treys last season (23rd in the league). However, equally important to the Lakers’ success this season will be his ability to lead the offense in a way that his predecessor Jordan Farmar never quite mastered. Blake ranked 13th in the league last season with a 2.97 assist-to-turnover ratio and could do a lot worse than replicating that number this season. Early reports out of training camp from Coach Jackson and Kobe indicate that Steve is already taking control of the team, which bodes well for next season.

Shannon Brown: O/U 2.5 assists
After a sub par regular season and playoff run for Shannon, his second full season with the Lakers is all about the other tricks in his bag. For starters, he can improve his nearly 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio—an ugly stat that is unfortunately mostly consistent with his inconsistent decision-making. When Brown first joined the forum blue and gold, there was preliminary talk about his ability to potentially supplant Fisher as the team’s starting point guard, thanks to his ball-handling and the strong potential he showed as a man-to-man defender. He obviously isn’t the answer the team is looking at the one spot anymore, but he remains a vital spark plug in the 20 minutes or so he plays off of the bench.

Theo Ratliff: O/U 1.5 blocks
Ratliff was a shot-blocking fiend during his prime and will be asked to recapture some of that magic as the Lakers’ third-string big man. With Andrew missing the first month of the season, Theo moves one rung up the ladder. At this stage of his career, Ratliff is a bit of a one trick pony, but his specialty—blocking shots—is something that L.A. despertaely needs from its second unit.

Derrick Caracter: O/U 275 lbs
So far, so good on the Derrick Caracter weight watch as the the versatile forward entered training camp in compliance with the team-mandated weight clause. The Lakers will certainly keep a close watch on his conditioning throughout the season, and if he sustains his motivation, he could get some quality burn even in Coach Jackson’s notoriously anti-rookie regime. The odds of this happening, of course, also depend on the collective health of Walton and Bynum.

Devin Ebanks: O/U 1.5 steals per 40 minutes
It’s difficult to pinpoint a stat for a player who isn’t expected to see much time on the floor this season, but I, along with the Lakers, view Ebanks as a potentially very strong defender in the same vein as Trevor Ariza. For that reason, it would be great to see him channel the former Lakers forward as a go-to defender on the wing, agile enough to guard some of the league’s larger point guards, but still sturdy enough to do battle with the NBA’s elite small forwards.

Jan. 13, 2010: Los Angeles Lakers forward Luke Walton during an NBA game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, TX Los Angeles defeated Dallas 100-95.

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.

NEXT SEASON:

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.

Missing Luke Walton

Darius Soriano —  February 17, 2010

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Over the years, Luke Walton’s tenure with the Lakers has been a bit of a touchy subject.  Many fans take one of two stances on Luke: he’s either an overpaid player that isn’t very good or he’s a valued contributor whose feel for the game and the Lakers system makes him a player that truly does help this team.  This is a never ending debate amongst Lakers fans and I’m not sure if it will ever be resolved completely.  The truth is probably in between these two views as Luke is overpaid for his contributions to the team, but those contributions do have value.   So now, with the recent news that Luke is out indefinitely, I think it’s worthwhile to examine what his prolonged absence will mean to the Lakers.

Let’s take a look at this from two persectives, player rotations/substitutions and X’s and O’s:

Rotations/Substitutions:  Whatever you think about Luke’s value to this team, the fact is that he is the Lakers primary back up at SF.  After Artest, Luke is the player that is next in line at that position and, for that reason alone, his absence is meaninful.  This season, Luke has been a bit player primarily due to the fact that Phil has found a comfort in the Farmar/Shannon back court with Kobe playing SF a lot with this group.  This means that Luke’s minutes have been reduced because Phil is (seemingly) much more comfortable with a better scoring option and better defender at SF when he goes with this smallish back court.  But, even though that has been the case, Luke has still been called upon to help this team even with that small back court in place.  And, even though Luke has seen his minutes reduced, he’s still a viable option at SF in a variety of lineups through varying circumstances.

Take last night’s game for example and you find a scenario where Luke is missed.  Obviously, Ron Artest is the starter at SF.  But Ron will not always play well (in his last two games, Ron has shot 5/13 and 1/7 ) and in these instances, having a viable option not named Kobe (who has been banged up plenty this season and his minutes should be monitored) needs to be available to play SF for us –  that person should be Luke.  This is even more evident because of the player that sits behind Luke in the SF rotation – Adam Morrison.  Right now, Ammo is not a quality player at all.  He’s a shooter that is not making shots and has never been a player that plays even passable defense.  If Ammo plays meaningful minutes in any game, it is a problem for the Lakers.  Sure there are other solutions outside of Ammo and Kobe.  The Lakers could go small with either Shannon or Sasha playing spot minutes at SF or the Lakers could go big and play Lamar there.  However, those options involve playing a guy out of position and asking him to do things outside of what his normal role is, which is not typically how Phil operates (Phil is the king of normalizing roles and often sticks with players and/or lineups seemingly out of the want for familiarity).

In the end, understand that we need a player (or several players) to take up some minutes at SF.  As the season wears down we want to not only start to peak as a team, but we want the team to be fresh going into another deep playoff run.  So, do we want Kobe playing 40+ minutes with 5-10 of those coming at SF where he’s guarding and being defended by bigger, more physical players?  And if it’s not Kobe, do we want Ron playing 40+ minutes on feet suffering from plantar fasciitis in cheap shoes?  Do we want Ammo playing 10+ minutes a night?  I’m pretty sure the answer to all those questions is no.

X’s and O’s:  We all know that Luke has limitations on offense.  He’s not the best outside shooter and his limited athleticism makes him an average finisher in the paint on fast breaks, penetrations, and post ups.  But one thing that Luke does do well is pass.  Combine that passing acumen with his knowledge of the Triangle offense and you’ve got a more than serviceable player for the Lakers.  Earlier this season, when Luke was sitting out for the second time with his back injury (we’re now up to injured list trip #3) many fans (and even the Lakers coaches) were clamoring for a return of Walton to help a sluggish Lakers offense find its groove again.  We all saw how the Lakers ball movement was limited and how players cuts and screens were executed with little zeal due to this lack of passing and teamwork.  Everyone knew that, even in limited minutes, Luke could help with that.  And when Luke did return his assist totals may have been low, but he did intitiate better ball movement when he was on the court and got players cutting harder and moving more off the ball just because of his penchant for passing.

Beyond Luke’s passing, he’s also a post up threat for the Lakers.  Now, missing another post up player may not seem like a big deal when your team has Pau, Bynum, Kobe, Artest, and Odom.  But, the difference between Luke and those other players (save Gasol) is that when he’s posting up, Luke is not only looking to score, but he’s looking to pass just as often.  Plus, because Luke is not a strong offensive player, the opposing team often puts a small defender on him and that further allows Luke to go to work on the block and make the game easier for his teammates.  Overall, Luke in the post helps this team as he’s both a capable scorer on the block and a more than willing passer.  He creates easy buckets for this team and helps in the smoothness and efficiency of our sets.  From an execution standpoint, Luke (even in limited minutes) helps this team.  He can bring the ball up and put our other wings into positions where they can play off the ball and take advantage of more of their strengths.  Last season during the playoffs, we often saw Luke in the game whenever Shannon was playing PG so that WOW could play off the ball more and not have to initiate offense.  This season, Luke’s ability to initiate offense has clearly helped players like Bynum and Gasol just because Luke is one of the players that is constantly focussed on running our sets and making sure our bigs get post touches.  Considering our bigs are our most efficient players, I’d say this is pretty important.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying Luke Walton is some savior that can’t be replaced and whose presence would be the difference between a bunch of wins and losses.  As I mentioned above, Luke is a bit player for the Lakers who is only averaging about 8 minutes a game this season.  But, in the larger scheme of things, someone else is now going to have to play those minutes and this roster really doesn’t have an answer to that question that doesn’t lead to more questions with broader considerations and implications.   Hopefully, Walton can recover from his injured back and return as a contributor to this team down the stretch of the season.  But, if he can’t there will be some obstacles to overcome when dealing with that absence.  Whether they’re in tangible or intangible ways, Walton is a player that helps this team.   So, my hope is that you get well soon Luke because you will be missed.