About a month after Kobe Bryant’s last game and in the wake of the Lakers hiring Luke Walton as their head coach, Mitch Kupchak spoke about the hire, the direction of the team, what his expectations were for the upcoming season. It was, for me at least, a refreshing five minutes where Kupchak acknowledged his goals for this season were to play a fun brand of basketball and to see incremental improvement from his young players.
Of course, since that time a lot has happened to affect the outlook of the team.
In the two months since that interview to today, the Lakers found out they would keep their draft pick. They then selected Brandon Ingram #2 overall and Ivica Zubac — who ranked 16th on their draft board — fell to them in the 2nd round. They signed Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov as outside free agents and re-upped Jordan Clarkson, Tarik Black, and Marcelo Huertas. They also traded for Jose Calderon.
They really do have a new team now. So have expectations changed? If you listen to Luke Walton tell it, not really.
In a recent sit-down with Shaq on his “Big Podcast”, Walton’s comments took on a similar vibe to his general manager’s, though even more specific to how the results on the scoreboard, at least in the short term, matter less than what goes into building the players up to compete:
The expectations, to me, aren’t going to be wins and losses, right now at least. The expectations are going to be the way we play. It’s about having an edge when you play, it’s about competing every single time on offense and defense, it’s about playing the right way.
More from Walton:
It’s about setting the foundation for the future, because we don’t plan on this being a one-year thing. We plan on being here, and part of what’s so exciting is we get to start it this year, so the expectations and the focus for me are going to be how we go about practice and the details of the game.
Walton went on to talk about developing the right types of habits — practicing hard, working on the fundamentals, focusing on competing every single day. In other words, and as hinted at above, Walton is talking about building a culture for the long term. He wants his team to have a certain identity which can carry the team forward. He is, in a way, starting from scratch.
When listening to Kupchak’s comments and then having them followed up by Walton’s, I could not help but think of Kobe Bryant.
As I have discussed in the past, Kobe’s history as a champion and a player who, for over a decade, made winning more than you lost a formality, it would always be difficult to frame a season in any other terms than wanting to win a championship. Open acknowledging goals as anything less than contending for a title while Kobe was in tow would be a non-starter. Even if the reality of the situation made those types of comments seem laughable.
Beyond the rhetoric of winning and losing, though, Walton’s comments trigger to me a true reboot for the organization as a whole. With Kobe on the roster there was never a question of who would be the leader, of a need to establish a culture. Kobe’s work habits, his drive to win, the intensity he brought to games and practices…they set the culture. Kobe was the Lakers.
Now Kobe is gone.
In a way, this further underscores the importance of the Walton hire. With Kobe no longer in the fold to set the tone and guide expectations, the Lakers are at a crossroads as to who will fill that void. As of now, that person is Walton. Hopefully a player (or two) from the young core will also fill the vacuum, but that will need to come in time and will work off and build from the culture established from the coach.
Ultimately, though, this shift will take some getting used to. We are not used to hearing decision makers speak with tempered expectations or have the focus be on things besides contending for a title. With Kobe gone, however, this is the new norm. At least in the short term.