By: Jake Mattleman
Pistons, Bucks, Pacers, Blazers, Wizards, Heat, Timberwolves, Pelicans…what do all these teams all have in common? Answer: They’re trailing the Los Angeles Lakers in the standings. While this group might not features the league’s top talent, each were projected for higher win totals than the Lakers, and some acquired impact players in free agency. Perhaps we’re learning that the biggest free agent acquisition not named Kevin Durant was coach Luke Walton.
Let’s backtrack for a moment and provide some context for Luke’s quick ascension to the head coaching ranks. Just three years after his retirement as a player, He began his journey assisting Josh Pastner at Memphis during the 2011 NBA lockout. Following a brief playing stint with Cleveland, he worked for the NBA Development League LA D-Fenders as a player development coach, leading to his well-known stint as assistant head coach in Golden State. Under his leadership as interim head coach in 2015-16, the Warriors won 39 of their 43 games.
Despite his success, many still questioned his coaching ability and whether his impact was simply a result of running Steve Kerr’s system. Nine games into his head coaching career, I think it’s safe to say that Walton has the chops.
Let’s start with the numbers. The Lakers are 8-8, a modest record, but a significant improvement from their 5-23 start last season. As of November 21st, They’re second in Pace with 104 possessions per game (16th last season), 8th in True Shooting Percentage (last), 9th in Effective Field Goal percentage (last), 5th in Offensive Rebound Rate (21st), and averaging almost two more steals per game. Together these statistics exemplify that the team is getting more shots, shooting more efficiently, and taking opportunities away from opposing teams.
When you watch the Lakers play, it’s clear why their rankings have increased so dramatically. First, they’re engaged and deep. They play nine players at least 20 minutes per game, and get everyone involved. Five returning players (Russell, Williams, Clarkson, Randle, and Young) average between 14.5 and 15.5 points per game- that’s called balance folks. The team operates mechanically, but is sprinkled with properly placed improvisations based around players’ individual strengths. This is the watermark behind the finished product. Their body language is relentlessly positive, spacing is excellent, and players are engaged on both ends for the full 48 minutes. Player outbursts are at a minimum, and the Nick Young/D’Angelo Russell feud seems to be a thing of the past. Walton’s presence is calming, comforting, and confident and his players reflect this attitude.
What’s most distinctive about Walton-coached teams is players’ clearly defined roles. Each player is deployed with a simple task, responsibility, and method of execution. Walton’s competency has built player’s trust in his system, empowering those in need of inspiration and permitting more latitude in his decision making. Headed for aging gunner’s purgatory, Nick Young is having a career year and even playing defense! Jordan Clarkson’s fancy new contract earned him a place on the bench because it’s best for the team. D’Angelo Russell is the primary ball handler, but Brandon Ingram handled these duties in the 4th quarter en route to a comeback against Sacramento. In a league of mediocre coaches, proper direction and maintenance of the status quo directly translates to wins. This is a resilient team, keep an eye out.