The Los Angeles Lakers have obviously been in a rut over the last few seasons. From shuffling between coaches like Mike Brown, Bernie Bickerstaff, Mike D’Antoni and Byron Scott, to losing Kobe Bryant to an Achilles tear, to the Dwight Howard saga, to missing on big-name free agents, to winning no more than 27 games in a season over the last three years, it’s been a rough stretch for the proud franchise.
Fortunately, over that time the Lakers have been acquiring young talent like Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr. and Brandon Ingram. Additionally, the Lakers seemed to have finally found a long-term answer at head coach in Luke Walton. Walton is a rookie head coach, but he spent a long portion of his NBA career playing under Phil Jackson, coached for the University of Memphis, the Los Angeles D-Fenders and most recently for the Golden State Warriors, where he was the interim coach for 43 games as Steve Kerr recovered from back surgery.
It’s been a quick rise for Walton, but it seems like his playing and coaching experience have prepared him to take over this young Lakers team that’s looking to create a new identity and establish a path that eventually leads back to contention. Though it’s still just the preseason, the Lakers already look like a more cohesive and competent team on both ends of the court. Part of that has to do with personnel, but a lot of it also has to do with the systems Walton and his staff are implementing.
“We’re doing a really good job of penetrating and putting pressure on defenses with little interior passes and trying to get downhill on things,” Walton said recently.
Under former head coach Byron Scott, the Lakers’ offense was often stagnant, predictable and predicated on isolation opportunities. Walton has played in and coached others on the Triangle Offense for over a decade and comes from a team that implements parts of it within their motion-based offense. The Lakers don’t have the shooters or overall talent that the Warriors have, but we have already seen how much more production can be squeezed out of these Lakers when they’re moving off the ball, screening for one another and trusting each other to make the right plays and passes.
One of the major driving forces for this team is Russell and his development. Russell had a sneaky good rookie season, but suffered from some off-court issues and never connected with his former head coach.
“He’s really slowed down,” Clarkson said of Russell. “He lets things come to him. He’s been able to get us into plays, make plays for other people (and) at the same time get his own shots and score baskets. He’s really coming into that role as a point guard and helping us lead the team.”
Russell still has a long way to go in his development, but he has shown more aggression and maturity in his early play this preseason, which is a good sign for a Lakers team that is still looking for someone to fill the massive void Kobe Bryant left behind by retiring. Russell may or may not be the player to fill that franchise-player void, but his recent play has been praised by many, including Coach Walton, who compared him to Stephen Curry recently. Russell isn’t close to Curry’s level at this point (not many are), but he has the confidence and drive to keep bridging that gap. Russell is currently averaging 18.2 points per game in the preseason, which ranks sixth-best among all NBA players.
Another nice development we’ve seen in preseason is the effective play of Timofey Mozgov. The Lakers signed Mozgov to a four-year, $64 million contract this offseason and are hoping that he can be their defensive anchor and rim protector moving forward. While the size and length of the contract the Lakers gave Mozgov has been criticized, it looks as though Mozgov should help the Lakers on the defensive end based on his early preseason outings. Mozgov isn’t putting up huge numbers, but he has been mobile on defense, rotated effectively and challenged opponents who have tried to attack the rim. Coach Walton may not have a defensive ace like Draymond Green to anchor his team’s defense, but it seems as though he’ll have an effective rim protector in Mozgov.
While Russell and Mozgov have been the early standouts, other players have had nice contributions as well. Tarik Black has shown a lot of energy and hustle early on, while veterans like Luol Deng and Jose Calderon have added some needed stability in the rotation. The Lakers aren’t setting the preseason on fire as they are just 2-3 so far, but it’s apparent that this team is quickly shedding the discombobulated style of play that has limited them over the last few seasons. There are a lot of factors that go into that notable change, but at the center of it is the new culture and systems Walton is implementing with his young team.
Despite the early optimism, Walton does face a long road to getting this team back into title contention. Even Walton’s dad, former college star and NBA player Bill Walton, admits that.
“It’s going to be the toughest thing Luke’s ever had to do,” Bill Walton said. “Luke’s always been a part of great teams – here at University (of San Diego) High School with his fantastic coach Jim Tomey, at the University of Arizona with Lute Olson, with the Lakers with Phil Jackson to the Golden State Warriors and Steve Kerr.
“Wherever Luke’s been, he’s been a part of something special. Now, he’s got to be the guy who’s responsible for making something special that used to be great. It’s not going to be easy.”
The road for Walton and the Lakers certainly won’t be easy, but at least there is a clear road towards a better future for the purple and gold. Again, it’s still incredibly early in Walton’s tenure as the Lakers head coach, but the increased ball-movement, off-ball action, aggression and confidence from Russell, along with the effective rotations on defense are all easy to spot early this preseason.
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