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NBA PM: Lakers Trusting Walton’s Process

The young Lakers are scrapping, but learning how to come together as a unit, writes Cody Taylor.

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While the Los Angeles Lakers picked up a much needed win last night over the Clippers, the month of December has been a struggle for Luke Walton’s young squad. After an encouraging 7-5 start to the season, the Lakers have since gone 5-17.

Much of the struggles this month can be attributed to the number of road games the team has played. Including last night’s game against the Clippers, the Lakers have played just four out of 14 games this month at home. They just wrapped up a seven-game road trip that lasted nearly two weeks long and finished the road trip by dropping six of the seven games, squandering big leads in two different games.

That’s the life of a team in a rebuild. The young players on the roster are beginning to learn how to play in games and, more importantly, how to win games. Walton is learning how to manage games as well. He gained valuable experience last season stepping up for Steve Kerr and learning how to coach a team.

Obviously, this is a different challenge without Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green on the roster. Now, Walton relies on players like D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram and others. He has been faced with much different challenges than he had with the Golden State Warriors and will be learning on the fly how to handle those challenges.

“Obviously, there is different challenges with different teams,” Walton said. “The losing that we’ve gone through this year is a lot different than I went through last year. I was expecting that. I have no idea what to expect on how it’s going to feel and what the adjustments are going to be like. I was going into this knowing we were going to have tough patches throughout this process.”

Walton is trying to build a winning culture and knows that in order to do that, the team will go through some tough times. His process has been to focus on the big picture and not necessarily as much on wins and losses. Obviously the team wants to win, but he wants to make sure the team is building good habits in doing so. So far, all indications are that the team is beginning to build those habits.

As it typically happens for young teams, there will be losing streaks, too. Entering Sunday’s game against the Clippers, the Lakers had lost 12 out of their last 13 games. While the recent struggles have been tough for fans and the players to go through, it’s part of the process a team must go through in order to become one of the best teams in the league.

“I don’t know how you get success without fighting your way through these types of times,” Walton said. “Nothing just happens easily especially in this league. You’re playing against the best in the world [and] teams that have been together for a while. You don’t just all of a sudden form a group that starts beating all these teams.

“You have to go through tough times, you have to struggle and feel that pain and be willing to work that much harder to fight through and come out on the other side. Hopefully, when we do come out on that other side because of these type of experiences, we are a tough team and mentally strong team and a team that can win with any sort of adversity.”

One area in which the team will surely need to improve on is winning on the road. They’re currently 5-15 on the road, highlighted by that 1-6 record on the recent trip. They held 19-point leads against both the Charlotte Hornets and Miami HEAT on that road trip and would eventually lose those games down the stretch. It’s clear the players are still learning to put together a complete game for all 48 minutes.

“It touches on being able to be mentally tough enough to be on the road when the other team’s crowd is getting loud and they have momentum being able to stay within what we do and execute plays and get to the free throw line or continue to play a certain way as opposed to coming in and making the hero shot,” Walton said. “It comes with playing years together and being familiar with the staff and what not.”

Make no mistake about this Lakers squad – they have been fun to watch. Since Kobe Bryant retired, the team has been essentially handed down to its young core. The team no longer has to worry about giving Bryant his touches or letting his retirement tour dominate the headlines. The younger players no longer have to play in his shadow and the team can really begin to evaluate its roster.

Watching this Lakers team play on the court, it looks like they’re having fun as well. The players are sharing the ball. They can push the pace when needed (they’re ranked fourth in pace) and it appears as though they’re getting better each game.

Following the worst season in franchise history, expectations for this season were mixed. With the youngest head coach in the league taking over, we weren’t quite sure what to expect for this Lakers team. Walton proved to be a great leader in place of Kerr last season, but many questioned how he’d do without having star players for the first time.

After going through the first couple of months of the season, the team has shown a lot of promise moving forward. It can even be argued that the team is ahead of schedule in their rebuild, sitting at 12-22 heading into the last two games of the month. The team didn’t pick up their 12th win last season until March.

It remains to be seen if the team can continue to stay alive in the playoff race as the season progresses. They are just three games back of the Sacramento Kings in eighth place as things stand today. While the playoffs is an uncertainty, being able to talk about it is surely a welcomed sign for Lakers fans everywhere.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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