With media day now over and training camp set to open, the Lakers season begins in earnest today. And while the focus is squarely on newest Laker LeBron James, it is the longest tenured Laker, head coach Luke Walton, who is in the crosshairs.
Hired just couple of months before Brandon Ingram was drafted, Luke Walton enters his 3rd season as Lakers steward with a revamped roster expected to compete at a level well beyond the 35 wins they scrapped to last season. The landing of James, additions of several other notable veterans, and retaining of the best of the team’s young prospects this summer demands a major leap forward. Playoffs are not only on the mind, advancing in them feels like a likely measuring stick.
Just last week, the Lakers brain-trust of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka sat with the media and fielded questions with a deftness and flash of Ozzie Smith ranging to his left to a ball up the middle. Magic flashed his toothy grin, Pelinka told stories, all was right with the Lakers.
A common theme from the presser was Magic discussing the roster construction and then quickly pivoting to Luke Walton as the person who would figure everything out. The Lakers don’t have a lot of depth at Center? Luke Walton will figure that out. There are a lot of wings who will need playing time? You’ll have to ask Luke about that. What type of offense will this team run? That’s not on Magic (or Rob), that’s on Luke.
And on it went.
To be clear, this is totally fair and correct. Magic and Pelinka aren’t there to dictate any of this stuff to their coach. They’re the ones who get the players, not the ones who deploy them. And while it’s naive to think they cannot (or will not) offer guidance or opinions on these things (especially if asked by Luke), Walton is (and should be) the one who makes the final call on scheme, minutes, lineup combinations, and everything else under the sun regarding the day-to-day operations of how this team functions on the floor and in the locker room.
This is quite the step up for Walton, then. Much like his core of talented players plucked from recent drafts, Walton has had the benefit of growing on the job these past two seasons. Head coaches always get a bit of a honeymoon period, particularly when replacing a relic of coaching sensibilities long ago disproved, but Walton’s — even in a market and for a team where the fans have advanced degrees in second guessing the guy in charge — has been relatively long and and viewed through rose colored glasses. Everyone loves Luke and you can count me among the everyone.
This year, though, offers an urgency his first two seasons lacked. Walton himself notes he’s a patient person, a father of two young children channeling real life experience into his work life. That patience will be tested early and often, however. Especially with reports of Rajon Rondo stepping in as starter while Lonzo Ball ramps up his activity after off-season surgery and how that all translates to success on the court while being balanced by the long view. *In my best Yoda voice* Competing priorities, these are.
And this is only one example. We’ve discussed this ad-nauseum since the raining of signings began, but veteran vs. young player position battles are not some side story to be dismissed as irrelevant. At nearly every position there is direct competition for playing time and role certainty. Walton (while sharing some burden with LeBron) will oversee it all and will need to find the right balance between inspiring players to be at their best while offering tangible rewards that keep everyone engaged enough to maintain buy in. If that sounds like a tricky line to walk, it’s because it is.
That said, if you listened to the latest Laker Film Room podcast between our buddy Pete and Lakers Reporter Mike Trudell, you’d have heard Trudell offer his opinion that Luke is uniquely qualified to relate to and communicate with players in today’s NBA and on this particular team. Luke is a basketball lifer, the son of an all-time great, and a decade-long player in this league who can connect with players at a “I was there once too” level and give off a “I’m old enough to be your older cousin, not your father” vibe. In other words, Walton is in a sweet-spot of having the right amount of experiences and background to be credible while being young enough to be relatable.
It’s not hard, then, to imagine Walton having success. I happen to think he will, even if it takes some time.
Which brings me to another key point: even as Magic pointed to Walton as the one who needs to manage all this, (Magic) also pointedly discussed that starting out slow is not only understandable, but it is expected. This echoes sentiments by LeBron, who has repeatedly said it will take some time and that learning a new group of players (as the entire team is) and adjusting to new schemes (as more than half the roster is) will lead to bumps in the road. LeBron also noted his interest in working through these challenges and using them as a way of measuring progress with this team.
Here’s the rub, though. Walton is set up for success. He does have the belief of the people above him. Walton is legitimately good at his job — especially parts tied to communication (which are super important for the guy in charge). Oh, and he has the best player in the game. He also still has a tricky roster to manage, with positional overlap that can lead to real playing time frustrations, expectations his young players have never had to deal with before, all while working in the market where the circus pitches its tents and hyper-analyzes every minor detail.
There’s really no one associated with the team — not Magic or Pelinka or Jeanie Buss or Lonzo or even LeBron — who has to simultaneously prove their worth while being as publicly accountable on a daily basis quite line Luke. He’ll face the media after every practice, before and after every game, and will be second guessed more than anyone else. When the team wins, it will be the players and when they lose it will be on him. Even when the team wins, he’ll catch flak for some random substitution he made, what schemes he’s running, or some other thing people want to complain about. Remember, this is LA and the Lakers, someone always wants to complain.
I happen to think Walton is up for this. I really do. But he’s in the crosshairs now and I am beyond interested to see how he maintains while carrying this weight.