Over a month of the NBA season has now concluded and Luke Walton’s first official head coaching job has gone even better than expected. The former Warriors assistant and interim head coach made the jump to the top gig in Los Angeles and has not looked back.
In Walton’s first stretch as the Lakers’ head coach, the Purple and Gold are 10-14 despite a difficult schedule and numerous injuries to key contributors. Inexplicably, they find themselves in the midst of a race for the playoffs with over a quarter of the season gone.
But there have been ups and downs. The Lakers have not improved much defensively and there are still major lapses to remind everyone of the youth and inexperience of the roster. But Walton knew that that would be the case from the start and he hasn’t allowed it to discourage him.
On Wednesday, Walton appeared on The Vertical Podcast with Adrian Wojnarowski and spoke about that process, changing from coaching the greatest regular season team ever to a young, up-and-coming squad:
“For me, I’ve always loved the challenge and it’s new. Did I know I would still be as passionate about it when we didn’t have all those players? No, of course not. But I was excited for that challenge to see what it was like. We have a young team here that’s kind of on that building process which is fun because we get to come in as a staff and try to put in a style of basketball that we really like and really think will work down the road. It’s a completely different type of joy than it is coaching the most talented team in the world but you see growth happening in these young guys. Yeah, there’s a lot more frustration as a coach trying to get all this stuff in with 19-, 20-year old young men, but from my perspective and why I like this game so much and why I like coaching this game so much, it’s still a lot of fun being with these guys and trying to achieve something as a group.”
Walton’s focus on his own coaching later shifted to how the young Lakers have made it enjoyable for him. In his words, while they are far away from being a great team, the players work with the same intensity as a team wanting to compete right now.
“It’s about the future. Even if we wanna try a scheme and it hurts us in that particular game because we’re missing rotations, it’s still us getting reps at doing things and it’s still getting us practice at being able to cover different ways and see who’s good at reading stuff and who we have to keep away from those type of decisions. So yes, we have done it up here and it hasn’t gone as smoothly as we hope when we come up with that kind of idea, but the great thing about our group here is that they give that effort. I mean, they try. Everything that we ask, they try to get it done. And we might make a lot of mistakes being a young team, whether it’s turnovers or not making the right reads. But we fight whether we’re down 15 or we’re up three or whatever it is, our guys give an effort. For a coach and a coaching staff, that makes it a lot of fun to go to work every day.”
The commitment to praise his players showed later as Walton expressed the importance of building trust with his players:
“I’ve always kind of known it as a player. I’ve been blessed to play for coaches that I would run through a wall for. […] And I saw how well that worked with some of the best players in the world [on the Warriors] and being able to tell them things that they probably didn’t want to hear but they needed to here.
Being able to have open communication, open conversations with how we want to defend stuff, taking their opinion, giving our opinion and not having any ego involved in whose idea it was or this or that. I saw it work firsthand work on that staff and coming down here with a young team, we know we have a ton of coaching to do, a ton. I mean, the basics of the game we have to get back to. Shell defense, the defensive stance, not reaching, basic stuff we have to do.
I feel like if we’re going to harp on our guys everyday on those little things, they’re going to get sick of us real quick. They’re not going to get sick of us if they know we care about them. Not just act like we care about them, but truly care about them. Let them know. Spend time with them 1-on-1 watching film. Have the environment set up that they know they can come talk to us any time.
If something’s happening off the court, talk to them about that. It’s not just basketball. As coaches, especially with younger players, there’s a responsibility. A lot of these kids are living away from home for the first time. They’re 20 years old getting millions of dollars. There’s a lot of stress. A lot of responsibility comes with that. It might sound silly to someone just listening ‘Oh a million dollars, a lot of stress’ well it is for a lot of these kids that come from bad neighborhoods. They want to do right and help their mom or dad or brothers out with financial responsibilities. Then there’s the media saying bad things about them when they have a bad game or a bad week. So there’s all this stuff on their plates and I feel like we can be most effective as a group moving forward and as coaching staffs with that trust and relationship that we’re here for them to help them become better players and better people.”
This last quote is perhaps the best microcosm of what Luke has meant for the Lakers. Walton has brought with him a culture of trust and open communication. Players want to get better under him and the coaching staff is doing everything in its power to make that possible.
Development is still the key around the Lakers, despite visions of the postseason dancing through everyone’s heads like sugar plums. Walton has made that a priority and it’s difficult to argue he hasn’t done an effective job.