Relatively speaking, Luke Walton had a miserable year last season. Oh, sure, as a member of the championship-winning Los Angeles Lakers, he's probably not at risk of being the main character when CBS decides to give the "Worst Week" concept another try, but I think it's fair to say that, even with another championship ring en route, Walton's year didn't play out as he envisioned. He lost a goodly portion of his season to what was called a pinched nerve in his back, only appearing in 29 games. And in the 29 games that he did see the court, he was not exactly at his finest.
Unfortunately, Walton has three things going against him as he tries to pick up the pieces from last year. 1) His injury affects the back, which is a particularly fickle and vital part of an athlete's body. 2) That injury isn't particularly treatable or fixable. In fact, doctors don't even really have a perfect understanding of what exactly is wrong with young Luke. 3) He's a Walton - it may or may not be relevant, but there is no doubt that Luke comes from a line of athlete that, while quite skilled and quite large, doesn't seem to have a body that can stand up to it's own size. Fair or no, it's hard not to find some similarity between father and son, as father Bill recently had to retire because his back couldn't stand up to the rigors of a career in broadcasting.
Perhaps even more telling, the Lakers have taken notice and taken steps to ensure that Walton is nothing more than a luxory for the coming season. Despite Walton's large contract (owed roughly 18 million over the next 3 seasons), the Lakers have signed/drafted three guys that play the same position as Luke in the last 15 months. After last year's lack of preparedness (when the Lakers routinely had to rely on Kobe Bryant to fill the 3 when Artest was resting), the Lakers are now operating on the "better safe than sorry" principle, and nearly have enough small forwards to play a team that Don Nelson would be happy to coach.
Role on the Team: Triangle lubricant. When Walton is healthy and on his game, there may not be a player on this team who does a better job of properly running the offense. The triangle just flows better when he's on the court. He's got great court vision, he almost always makes the correct read, and, along with Lamar Odom, he is one of the only guys you can bank on making decisions based on the best interests of the team and disregarding his own personal stats or acheivements at all times. Luke is the consummate teammate, and it is a testament to his team-freindly ways that many Laker fans saw him as a potential savior for last year's very "me-first" bench situation while Walton was out due to injury.
Best-Case Scenario for His Season: Any best case scenario for Luke has it's foundation in two words; good health. The same could be said for any player, but with Walton, the expectation for this season is that he's probably not healthy enough to be relied upon. Assuming his back holds up, Luke's best case scenario involes being strong enough offensively (where he is the strongest of the small forward pack) to merit a good chunk of non-garbage time minutes off the bench. Aside from strong passing skills, Luke has also displayed, at times, a very decent fade-away from 10 feet, and can be streaky from the outside as well, so it's not a stretch to see Luke as part of a deep and talented Wing-by-committee.
Worst-Case Scenario for His Season: Walton shows up to the ring ceremony with a walker with little tennis balls for feet, like the guy from Up. He is forced to retire from basketball, and is dropped as a sponsor for Custom Comfort mattress, due to bad publicity. He disappears from the public eye, only to return in 10 years, pushing some sort of product that allows you hang upside down by your feet and "relax" your spine.
Sadly, Walton's worst-case scenario is both the most depressing, and the closest to being realized, of anybody's on the team. I've embellished for the sake of comedy, but make no mistake; whatever injury Walton has, if it debilitates him for another year like it did last year, his career may be in jeopardy.
What We Expect: Unfortunately, it's hard to listen to all the talk (out of coaches, management, hell, out of Luke himself) and think that Luke is going to be able to jump right back in and deliver anywhere near his pay grade. The word of the moment, no matter the source, is caution when it comes to Luke's expectations for the coming season. Kupchak acknowledged that the question marks regarding Luke's health are why Matt Barnes was brought on board, and it was Mitch who dropped the possibility of retirement as a consequence. Luke himself said that he's nervous about finding out how the back holds up to the rigors of training camp, to say nothing of the regular season. Hardly the talk of full-blooded optimism.
As in all things, the middle-ground scenario is more likely than either a best or worst case. Luke's middle ground involves staying relatively healthy throughout the season, but still not seeing a whole lot of playing time. Let's face it, with Ron Artest and Matt Barnes on the roster, meaningful burn wouldn't be a given for Luke even if his health resembled that of Achilles. And he's trying to win that time while being weighed down by the mere prospect of poor health, which is almost as damaging as actual poor health itself. If Walton and Barnes provide similar levels of production, you'd have to think Jackson would choose Barnes because of Walton's health issues, so in order to play a meaningful role for the team, he would have to significantly out-perform the newest member of the team, and hope that injury bug doesn't bite him along the way. Seems like a lot to ask, so if you want your best chance to chant Luuuuuuuukkkkkkkeeee, you might want to check the ends of blowouts, because Walton might not see much time other than garbage.