In theory, the 2018-19 Los Angeles Lakers were expected to be an experiment, one where the growth of young players, young coaches and a young front office would intersect with competitive basketball for the first time in half a decade. But as the very definition of a theory goes, it was an educated guess at best that few expected to be proven true.
Alas, the season did not play out as an experiment. The pressure was turned up nearly instantly and, as fans tasted winning basketball once again, the idea of being a contender proved a temptation too great to turn down.
In a vacuum, many likely would have taken a 23-20 mark by mid-January, even if it were on the lower end of expectations. But expectations are a fickle thing and, as the season played out, expectations rapidly changed. Now, a 23-20 mark is seen as a mild failure of sorts which, given some context, could be true.
But context is a thing often missing from discussions. And a lack of context to the most heightened degree has Luke Walton facing constant scrutiny on a game-by-game basis. It’s not a new phenomenon. Wins are attributed to players, losses are blamed on coaches. Walton is no different, even if many of the shortcomings of the Lakers are no fault of his own.
From the moment the roster was locked in at 14 players over the summer, every bit of analysis of the Lakers focused on a lack of shooting. It was no coincidence. The team was built not with shooting and spacing in mind but with playmaking and shot-creation as the focus.
It should come as no surprise, and at no fault of Walton’s, that the Lakers are one of the worst three-point shooting sides in the league. The team ranks 27th in three-point percentage at 33.5 percent. On wide-open threes, characterized as three-pointers in which the closest defender is six feet away or more, the Lakers are 27th at 34.9 percent.
Likewise, by taking away the emphasis on three-point shooters in free agency, the Lakers also indirectly took away an emphasis on free throw shooting. The result has been an abysmal 68.3 percent shooting from the line, worst in the league.
And while fans haven’t gone as far as to blame Walton directly for the poor free throw shooting, the criticisms have come in the form of chastising he and the front office for not having a shooting coach on the staff. As the season has continued and the percentages continue to plummet, the calls for a shooting coach have only grown louder.
An odd request in itself, a specific shooting coach is not a regularity on NBA staffs. Per RealGM’s executives and staffs pages for each team, only three teams – Cleveland, Dallas and Detroit – have coaches on staff specifically designated as shooting coaches. And two of those sides, Dallas and Detroit, rank in the bottom half of the league in three-point shooting. Certainly, there’s a host of Player Development coaches and assistants who might double as shooting coaches but that’s an impossible path to track down without addressing each team and staff specifically.
This isn’t to say adding a shooting coach wouldn’t be a good addition to the staff. Adding one mid-season and expecting drastic changes, though, is an argument not worth having. Players can’t change their shots mid-season and even the brightest of shooting coaches wouldn’t suggest it. Even tweaks to shots run the risk of derailing a players jumper altogether, a risk no team, coach or player is going to run in the middle of a season where a playoff spot is on the line.
This article, though, isn’t to absolve Walton of all faults. He’s a coach that has his flaws. Often, he’s too stubborn in his rotations and lineups, though we’ve seen signs of that changing this year. His offensive system has taken the biggest hit this season as Synergy ranks the Lakers 21st in half-court offense at 0.931 points per possession.
Even that, though, comes with a caveat. While team-wide stats aren’t readily available, it’s hard to imagine a side has lost more man games this season than the 78 the Lakers have lost. Rajon Rondo (30), Michael Beasley (17), Brandon Ingram (11) and LeBron James (10) are the biggest culprits in that number. Part of those missed games have come down to injury bad luck, a small chunk of them came due to suspension to Ingram and Rondo and all of Beasley’s were due to a personal family matter. In essence, it’s out of Walton or the staff’s control.
There’s not even a barometer of what the team would look like fully healthy and available because it’s happened just one time – opening night against Portland. Since, either Rondo and Ingram were suspended, Beasley was away from the team or Rondo was injured.
The constant run of injuries has forced Walton to be square pegs in round holes. For example, it’s become abundantly clear this season that, while Ingram is a good ball handler, he’s not someone who can initiate the offense. However, while fans are calling for Walton to take the ball out of his hands, the team is also without James and Rondo.
This doesn’t change the fact the offense is often stagnant and unimaginative but it does point out the rotating parts the Lakers have had this season. Instituting an offense with a host of new players is hard enough. Doing that with players constantly entering and exiting the rotation is incredibly challenging.
Look at a player like Kyle Kuzma, for example. Kuzma started the year coming off the bench, was moved into the starting lineup after Brandon Ingram’s suspension, flourished next to James, lost James, went out due to his own injury and returned to the starting lineup needing to be The Guy for the Lakers. This time of fluidity is not the norm yet is constant across the Lakers this season.
Yet, even with all the changes, the new lineups, the changes to the rotation and the constant mixing and matching of parts, the Lakers have a top 10 defense in the league. In James’ absence, and even despite their awful showing against Cleveland, the team is second in defensive rating over the last 10 games.
The signs are there that this team could click once fully healthy again. James and the young Lakers were beginning to hit their stride prior to his injury, especially offensively. The young Lakers have carried the mantle defensively in James’ absence. Rondo showed how great he can be in the team’s win over Golden State. Beasley has provided a spark for the team off the bench that he could parlay into a starting role and, at the very least, a regular spot in the rotation the rest of the season.
The Lakers have issues. Many of them, in fact. Walton is part of those issues. So is Magic and Pelinka in their roster construction, a duo that was truly bailed out by the timing of Tyson Chandler’s buyout. So are the players themselves, who aren’t taking quite enough flack for poor energy levels and performances against bottom-feeding teams in recent weeks.
Firing Walton, though, is not part of the solution. Even the best theory involved in firing him mid-season ends in bad fashion. And we know how theories have gone for the Lakers this season.
Source: “Los Angeles” – Google News