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.