It’s a broken record at this point.
The Lakers lose a frustrating game – and they’re all frustrating at the beginning of the season when there’s still some slim hope for a playoff campaign – and Lakers fans find a scapegoat and heap the blame on him for the entirety of a poor performance.
Recently that scapegoat has become Luke Walton. Last year’s honeymoon season as the savior from the brutal Byron Scott Era now over, fans have turned their attention to the details of the first-time head coach’s work. Without the Golden State juggernaut helping him adjust as the lead man on the sidelines, Walton has not had it quite as easy.
There’s a lot to criticize Walton for, to be fair. His rotations have not been adequate especially as he tries to find playing time for a trio of talented, young power forwards in Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma, and the recently-returned-from-injury Larry Nance, Jr.
Walton has also made questionable decisions late in games. That was evident in the Lakers’ 120-115 loss to the Clippers on Monday. Walton subbed out Jordan Clarkson – arguably the best player that night – to give the crunchtime minutes to Lonzo Ball who had been out of rhythm all night due to foul trouble.
He played Nance and Randle together despite it probably being their worst big man duo among rotation players, giving them little to no spacing despite the smaller lineup.
He subbed Kuzma in during a defensive possession with little time left to make a comeback despite the rookie being the worst defender among the four main big men on the roster.
His team missed out on multiple opportunities to put DeAndre Jordan on the foul line and force him to make clutch free throws.
All of this can be true and all of it can be blamed on Walton who was probably the biggest reason behind a disappointing loss to the injured Clippers who played a poor game of their own. And yet, nothing is more short-sighted than calling for Walton’s job right now and seeing him as the only issue on a below-.500 team expected to win roughly 30 games this season.
When Walton was hired last summer, the excitement was around a young head coach with championship experience that could grow with the even younger team he was leading. We expected bumps in the road as a certainty but we knew he was the best option for LA after the debacle that was Scott’s two seasons at the helm.
And Walton has grown.
For as much blame as fans are quick to give Walton after every loss, credit for wins comes much more rarely. But Walton deserves a huge portion of the praise for a Lakers team with some legitimately impressive wins in the early going of the year.
The Lakers have a top-10 defense through a quarter of the season after being dead last the previous year. Walton has guys like Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Julius Randle buying into team defense despite their future in LA past the trade deadline being uncertain.
Randle has improved tremendously in a career year despite being benched by Walton, having potentially found his biggest advantage as a player to date as a part-time center who can protect the rim and switch out on guards with equal tenacity.
Walton has found something in Jordan Clarkson as a sixth-man type scorer who can also initiate the offense, battling against the stagnation – and arguably regression – that the fourth-year pro struggled with last year.
The Lakers are winning at a respectable rate despite giving a rookie point guard huge minutes to help him develop while his shooting struggles make him ineffective.
The Lakers are seeing strong play from Randle, Nance, and Kuzma despite their roles not always being clear nor their minutes totals always satisfying.
The Lakers are surviving on the back of their stellar defense, their occasional individual outbursts, and the enticing small-ball lineups that can wreck opposing benches on any given night.
Walton is not exempt from criticism – he deserves plenty of it – but he is the catalyst for improvement from the Lakers. That improvement was all we wanted and Walton is hand-delivering it even with the struggles and the speed bumps.
So as you see the issues behind Walton’s rotations and late-game decision making, remember the attributes he has added to this team as well. Try to give him the same patience that you can afford to give Brandon Ingram after a horrific rookie year – patience that has since seemingly paid off. Luke may never improve to the point that we as fans want. He may not be the coach for this team in the future but for now, he should get the patience of the fans and, more importantly, the organization.
Luke Walton has earned it.