On April 29th, 2016 the Lakers hired Luke Walton to be the team’s 22nd coach in franchise history. After short stints with Mike Brown, the legendary Bernie Bickerstaff, Mike D’Antoni, and the infamous Byron Scott, fans hoped and still hope Luke Walton will be the team’s long term leader. So far Walton has been good, but is clearly still learning and that’s okay. He is a rookie head coach, and the youngest head coach in the NBA. The Lakers are on pace to win about 27 games, a 12 game improvement over last year, and considering they have had the toughest and most tiring schedule in the NBA so far, that is a significant improvement. Still, Walton has shown his lack of experience a few times. This will be an overall evaluation of him.
Luke has established an equal opportunity rotation. The team leader in minutes per a game, Julius Randle, is at 29.4 per a game. To have your team leader under 30 minutes per a game is extraordinary. This sort of rotation has its pros and cons. A pro is that it creates a competitive environment in practice, which will keep players locked in and engaged. A con is sometimes you have to keep a lineup that isn’t working in for too long. Luke has trusted the bench unit a bit too much this year, and while sometimes it has payed off, other times it ended in a loss. And even if it is working, because this season is about development, it is a must for Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell to close games. The recent Nuggets game was a good example of this. Lou Williams hot shooting helped the Lakers get back into the game, but in the long run this does not help at all. Still out of the Lakers 5 leader in minutes per a game, 4 of them are Randle (1), Ingram (2), Jordan Clarkson (4), and Russell (5), which shows Walton is not afraid to lean on the young guys a whole. My only complaint is D’Angelo Russell needs more 4th quarter minutes.
The Lakers are scoring 104.7 points per a game. That’s good for 18th in the NBA, a massive jump from last years 97.3 points per a game (last in the NBA). One could claim this is just because of an increase pace, but their offensive rating is 104 points per 100 possessions, tied for 19th in the NBA. Last year? 98.6, 29th in the NBA. The Lakers also have had 53.8% of there field goals assisted (27th in the NBA) vs 51.3% last year (28th in the NBA). On top of that they have increased the secondary assist from 3.3 to 4.0 per a game (30th vs 28th). Lastly, the Lakers now average 290.2 passes per a game, good for 23rd in the NBA. Last year, that number was 281.7, which was 27th in the NBA.The Lakers also have played more up-tempo as they average the 9th most shots per a game at 86.7. The Lakers have also increased their 3-point percentage to 35.3, which is 19th in the NBA. In 2015-2016, they shot 31.3%, which was last. They also shoot more 3s, with 26 a game vs 24.6. The point of all this is to show the Lakers offense has become more modern under a Luke and it has worked. And the exciting part is it takes more than half a season for a young team to learn a new offense. If I really wanted to nitpick, I wish Luke would let D’Angelo run less sets, and more of a free offense, but it also makes sense for why he doesn’t. Luke may feel it could be detrimental to the rest of the team to give them so much freedom right away. But overall the extra ball movement, increased pace, and more 3s have been a welcome and much needed change.
The Lakers are still dead last in defense, but it takes a long time to learn to new defensive schemes, and there have been more flashes of good defense through half of this season, then all of Byron’s 2 seasons. That is also part of the problem, old habits are hard to break. For these reasons, I don’t think one will be able to see if Luke will have a real tangible, positive impact on the defense. But he still needs a grade. Some problems Luke has had is he has switched everything on picks but that has lead to some guards lighting the Lakers up. (Check out @LakerFilmRoom for more on this). But he has gotten players who have never played defense to give effort on that end. Nick Young is now guarding the opposing teams best player. Lou Williams has played the passing lanes well. Julius Randle is more engaged now than he ever way last year (He still needs to be more consistent) and has shown the potential to be a good defender. Last year most were hoping he would be average.
Every Laker besides Jordan Clarkson is much improved from last year. Julius Randle is averaging nearly 4 assist, has improved his mid range game a tremendous amount (50% from 10-19 feet vs 22% last year) along with his finishing, and is less out of control. He also has improved his defense. On ball wise, the player Julius Randle guards is averaging a 47.5% from the field vs 49.9%. Off-ball he still gets lost far too often, but is miles better than under Byron Scott. D’Angelo Russell is less turnover prone. He has a 1.72 assist/turnover ratio vs last year’s 1.36. The Lakers are over 3 points better with him on the floor. (Offensive rating of 106 with him and 102.7 without). Brandon Ingram is way ahead of where he was in the summer or even the beginning the December. He is averaging 11.6 points this month and 46.8% from the field 42.3% from 3. He is also having his best month assist wise, and the fewest turnovers per a game of any month excluding October (only 3 games). Even the veterans are better. Nick Young has played defense. Enough said. Lou Williams is averaging a career high in points, 3-point percentage, and true-shooting percentage, while matching his career high in steal per a game. This isn’t even mentioning Ivica Zubac, who is light years from the kid who started in Atlanta and non-NBA player Tarik Black. If so many players improve, then the coach is doing a lot right.
Overall 32/40 (80.0%)
Luke has done a great job so far and is clearly the coach of the future. And with his age, its possible for him to be the Lakers leader for over the next 3 decades (I am getting ahead of myself). He has made mistakes, but the Lakers made the right choice.