Lakers Season in Review: Luke Walton

Luke Walton
Mar 27, 2019; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton watches the action against the Utah Jazz in the first half at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018-19 NBA regular season has finally come to a close, and perhaps not quite soon enough for the Los Angeles Lakers. With increased expectations, the Lakers barely got their feet off the ground before they came crashing down to the pavement, where they stayed down for the count.

A season filled with ups, downs, twists and turns resulted in the Lakers missing the playoffs for the sixth straight season, this time by 11 games.

The turbulent season had many fans calling for head coach Luke Walton’s job. It looked like a certainty at the conclusion of the game No. 82. That was until Magic Johnson stunningly stepped down as the team’s president of basketball operations. Only time will tell if Walton will stick around as Lakers head coach. Until then, we wait.

While we wait, let’s take a look back at year three of Walton’s head coaching career.

The Hand that was Dealt

Luke Walton’s journey as head coach of the Lakers has been an interesting one. He signed on in 2016, leaving his assistant coaching position with the loaded Golden State Warriors and joined the Lakers under the regime of Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss, inheriting a young team amidst a full rebuild. Expectations were low like they almost never are in Los Angeles. But he was a young coach that was expected to learn on the fly and grow with the young talent on the roster.

This year, Walton’s team saw a dramatic uptick in expectations. While he still had a team leaning heavily on the contributions of young players, it also had arguably the best player in the world: LeBron James. It was time to produce and get the Lakers back in the playoffs.

But the excitement of James donning a purple and gold uniform overshadowed the list of questionable signings and decisions that came after him. The Lakers made Julius Randle feel unwanted and let him walk for nothing, even though he was a restricted free agent coming off his best season. They also let Brook Lopez leave his hometown to sign a cheap deal in Milwaukee, even though the big man publicly expressed interest in staying with the Lakers.

After all, the Randle-Lopez duo worked well in 2017-18 and helped Randle’s development, as he had much more room to operate offensively with Lopez’s shooting ability there to stretch defenses. Even though Walton and his staff reportedly pushed to keep both players, the front office let them walk in favor of one-year deals for Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley. If the Lakers were trying to make the playoffs in 2012, they would have a decent chance with these guys next to LeBron. But McGee proved to be the only one that was an overall positive in 2018-19, even though he missed time and needed more to fully recover from pneumonia.

The Lakers refused to address the center situation outside of McGee in the offseason. Along with Lopez and Randle, they also let promising second-year man Thomas Bryant go. Bryant would end up with the Washington Wizards, where he would go on to have an excellent sophomore campaign.

Not addressing the center backup center position forced them to pick up a rapidly aging Tyson Chandler on the buyout market early in the season. Chandler had early moments of brilliance, but mileage and injuries piled up over the course of the year.

The Lakers’ vision of playing small-ball where they could run, space the floor and switch everything proved to be something that could not be sustained for long periods of time. At least not with this personnel.

Ivica Zubac was buried on the bench until he needed to play out of necessity. When he did, the youngster was ready for his moment. Zubac shined and showed terrific signs of progress in his development, but then he was traded before the deadline along with Beasley for Mike Muscala, who was a massive dud until the final week of the season.

The roster was flawed from the start, even with James now in the fold. Would it have been different if Walton had a say in who the front office should target? The outcome likely would have been different, but with the young core and LeBron, the Lakers were still expected to make the playoffs. There was still talent to work with despite the front office trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

But then all the talent got hurt.

Injuries

Christmas is supposed to be a time of happiness and joy, followed by optimism and hope that great things are ahead in the turn of the new year. For the Lakers, Christmas was when the wheels started to fall off.

The Lakers crushed the defending champion Warriors at Oracle Arena on Christmas Day, 127-101. But they lost their best player in James to a groin injury that would keep him out for 18 games and be the beginning of the end. While James was out, Lonzo Ball started to really turn the corner and play excellent basketball before he turned his ankle, forcing him to miss 35 games and ending his season.

Along the way, Kyle Kuzma battled through a hip injury that had him less than full strength and led to some missed time for him. Josh Hart then started to deal with a knee injury that caused him significant problems before the Lakers wisely shut him down for the season.

Then, of course, there was Brandon Ingram, who had already missed 11 games early in the season due to suspension and injury. Just as he came out of the All-Star break looking like one himself and playing the best basketball of his career, the training staff discovered a blood clot in his arm that would require him to miss the final 19 games of the season.

Add in Rajon Rondo to the list. He suffered two hand injuries, which led to significant time missed.

Kentavious (Kenny?) Caldwell-Pope was the only Laker to appear in all 82 games.

Here are the games played of the ten Laker players this season that were typically in the rotation for the full season or at least most of it when healthy:

The Lakers’ three best players — James, Ingram and Ball — only played in 23 games together this season out of 82. In those games, the Lakers went 15-8 (53-win pace).

Walton was given a roster that was simultaneously talented and noticeably flawed, but we rarely ever got to see the roster intact. When they were, their play sparked optimism and excitement throughout the fan base. Whether you like him or not, Walton and his staff deserve credit for that.

The Good

After suffering early growing pains that led to the Lakers losing their first three games and five of their first seven, Luke Walton’s crew seemed to turn things around.

The Lakers transformed their 2-5 start into a 20-14 mark after the Christmas Day shellacking against the Warriors. The surprising win had the Lakers sitting fourth in the Western Conference standings, with the three spots ahead of them well within reach.

Even with aging veterans on the roster, young talent that still needed grooming, and a ridiculous amount of injuries to key players, the Lakers finished the season 12th in defensive efficiency. Walton and his staff have proven that they can teach defense and at least have a solid product on the court on that end of the floor, although there were still a number of times that the defense lagged, possibly due to personnel and constant shuffling because of injuries.

It won’t mean much (if anything at all) to Lakers fans, but the team did increase its win total for the third straight season. The number of wins has gone up each season under Walton, although 37 is far from the number the Lakers want to be at. But we did see signs that that number could be considerably higher with Walton at the helm.

Ball, Ingram and Zubac stood out with stretches of much-improved play, showing signs that they have the potential to be very good NBA players down the road. Kuzma continued to display his scoring ability, even though his three-point shooting took a step back this season. Hart also had fans beyond excited in the early stages of the season with his shooting, effort and knack for making winning plays doing some of the dirty work.

A popular narrative is that Randle and D’Angelo Russell took steps forward in their development once they got away from Walton and the Lakers, but that’s also what a lot of young players do over time. Russell and Randle had been trending in the right direction even as Lakers. Maybe they wouldn’t have taken the same leaps under Walton, maybe they would have. We don’t know. All we can hope for is that the front office lets Ingram, Ball, Kuzma and Hart stick around, because they have improved under Walton’s watch, and he deserves some credit for that as well.

Perhaps with a more sensible roster and a team that stays even relatively healthy, the Lakers can make some serious strides in the near future.

The Bad

While the Lakers continued to be solid on the defensive end of the floor, they struggled on the other side. Offensively, Los Angeles finished 24th in offensive efficiency, 27th in turnover percentage and 15th in effective field goal percentage.

The Lakers continued to run offensive sets that leave more to be desired. Often times the Lakers would run plays with a single action with no designed counteractions to how defenses would defend them. If Walton remains in his position, the offense desperately needs to become more layered and versatile.

Even with all of the roster issues and injuries, the Lakers lost several close games this season due to failed late-game execution. Far too often the offense would stagnate as four players made sure LeBron had the basketball while they stood and watched in the corner. That’s on coaching, and it has to improve if this staff is around next season.

The Ugly

Luke Walton and Magic Johnson seemingly had plenty of issues with one another. At one point, the latter reportedly blew up on the former, shouting for a change to the offense and more set plays. This triggered constant rumors that Walton’s job was going to be gone. It just seemed like a matter of when not if. Names like Mark Jackson and Jason Kidd kept surfacing as potential replacements for Walton. Eventually, Johnson reportedly received permission from team owner Jeanie Buss to fire Walton, who she has publicly supported on numerous occasions. With Johnson now out of the frame, Walton’s future is still to be determined.

Another troubling aspect to Walton’s tenure this season is the staff that he has behind him. For such a young head coach, you would typically want an experienced staff at his side to guide and teach him some things, as well as to empower him. Instead, Walton’s staff is a bunch of guys that have ties to the University of Arizona, where Walton played college basketball. One recent report is that Walton is unwilling to make changes to his staff, and if that is true, it is extremely alarming.

Either a change in staffing or a change in philosophy needs to be made this offseason. Walton and his assistants continue to make many of the same mistakes that were being made during his first season as head coach. Their offensive schemes are basic and a case can be made that players aren’t developing at the rate that they could be, even though progress is being made.

But perhaps Walton’s most glaring weakness is how he handles the team’s rotation. Far too many times does Walton not stagger lineups with one of James, Ingram or Ball on the floor. Granted, they only played about a quarter of the season together, but the point remains. Walton needs to find a way to avoid wonky experimental lineups in the fourth quarter and keep one of his best guys out there at all times. Other coaches do it, and he needs to follow suit on that. His handling of the rotation has cost the Lakers several games over the past three years. That needs to stop.

The Verdict

Luke Walton is a noticeably flawed coach and his staff is no exception to that. But very few coaches would have succeeded this season under the circumstances of how the roster was built and the injuries that came along with it. I believe a case can be made either way to give Walton one more year or to let him go now.

It might all depend on what happens with the front office. If Rob Pelinka stays on as general manager or gets promoted to a position of more power, it could potentially bode well for Walton to keep his job. If the Lakers cut ties with Pelinka, I would imagine Walton would be following him out the door, as a new regime typically wants to hire their own coach.

If Walton is granted another season, he needs to improve as a coach and show more willingness to adapt. I still think he has a lot of potential as a coach and the situation that played out this season wasn’t exactly fair, but it’s fairly obvious that the Lakers could do better than the staff that is currently in place.

Walton and his staff don’t deserve all of the blame for a failed Lakers season. But they should receive their fair share of it.

The Lakers have plenty of areas that they need to improve, both on and off the court. Coaching is one of those areas, and the improvement needs to start immediately. Walton does have some redeeming qualities and has presented fans flashes to be optimistic about. Now it’s on him and his staff to build upon them.

You can follow this author on Twitter @garykester. 

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