It’s fair to say that Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton has been one of the biggest reason’s for the team’s success so far. Before injuries dealt a serious blow to their hopes of playoff contention, Walton had his young Lakers rolling, and when listening to him explain his coaching philosophy, it’s pretty easy to see why he has gotten such buy in from his players across the board.
"I constantly make a point to remind myself to put myself into their shoes. What was I like when I was 19-years old? Could I handle this? What was it like when you're playing four games in five nights and I'm getting all over the guys about ‘we got to have more effort and we got to execute better,’ which is true, but remembering back to how physically and mentally tired I was during those times as a player,” Walton told Adrian Wojnarowski on “The Vertical Podcast with Woj.”
“I think it helps for me to keep in perspective where we're at as a group, what it was like being their age, being on a team that lost three or four games in a row,” Walton continued. “Instead of coming in and just ripping everything and being upset and irritated, I'll change the mindset to 'all right, we need to have fun today." We've lost three in a row, and I know normally that means everyone should be made or whatever but for our group we need to come in and have fun today, and we'll change the practice schedule around in a way to try and lift the spirits of the guys on the team, because for us I feel like we're at our best when our guys are having fun out there.”
For those of you counting at home, that’s three uses of the word “fun” in two sentences, so Walton has maximized the Lakers’ fun efficiency in more than just the Lakers’ schedule.
Walton detailed plenty more about his coaching philosophy to Wojnarowski, and we transcribed the most notable pieces below.
Walton on how he’s learned the best ways to deal with players:
"There's some players I'll make a point to jump on, and see how they respond to it," Walton said. "Sometimes it backfires, and players have completely shut down, and I'm like 'Uh, mental note, (laughs) for now at least, don't challenge this player in front of the whole team. Pull him to the side.' And there's other guys that you challenge them and they turn it up. They lock in and they get after it. Other guys you compliment them and you tell them what they're doing great and you see their performance go up. So as a coach it's kind of fun to learn each player's triggers, and the team's triggers. A lot of it still happens through trial and error right now."
On the ressurection of Nick Young, and if there was a deliberate choice not to call him Swaggy:
"Obviously as a coaching staff we're not going to call him Swaggy P, but some of that ‘Swaggy-ness,’ or whatever you would say, makes him what he is and makes him so valuable to us. When he got into training camp we told everyone people are going to earn spots, people are going to earn minutes. Let's get after it, let's compete, and before that I talked to Nick about 'the opportunities will be there for you, but you've got to be committed to the defensive end. We need to be a better defensive team.' And to his credit he has really stepped up on that end...
He deserves a lot of credit, but with the success he's had, we want him to still have that confidence. When he does some of the antics that he does, it lights up our crowd, it lights up our team. His teammates, they all love Nick. He's been a phenomenal teammate in the short amount of time that we've been here. So we still want him having that type of fun while he plays, we just closely monitor it and he's naturally going to do some crazy stuff in practice and say some crazy things and lose focus, but as long as we're on it, it's as simple as 'Nick,' and give him a little look, and he acknowledges it and mentally locks back in.
It's been a very nice surprise, and we've missed him a lot since he's been out."
On how he’s built trust with his players:
"I've been blessed to play for coaches that I would run through a wall for. I saw it firsthand, thought, when I worked under Steve and such a big part of his messaging when we first got there was 'Look, we're taking over a really good team. They're already really good. So we need to be in here every day doing whatever it takes to let them know that this is their team and we're here to help guide them and build our relationships and trust them so that when you have that trust, we can really start to coach and really get on them when they're not doing things right.'
I saw how well that worked with some of the best players in the world and being able to tell them things that they probably didn't want to hear but they needed to here. Being able to have open communication, open conversations with how we want to defend stuff, taking their opinion, giving our opinion and not having any ego involved in whose idea it was or this or that. I saw it work firsthand work on that staff and coming down here with a young team, we know we have a ton of coaching to do, a ton. I mean, the basics of the game we have to get back to. Shell defense, the defensive stance, not reaching, basic stuff we have to do.
I feel like if we're going to harp on our guys everyday on those little things, they're going to get sick of us real quick. They're not going to get sick of us if they know we care about them. Not just act like we care about them, but truly care about them. Let them know. Spend time with them 1-on-1 watching film. Have the environment set up that they know they can come talk to us any time. If something's happening off the court, talk to them about that.
It's not just basketball. As coaches, especially with younger players, there's a responsibility. A lot of these kids are living away from home for the first time. They're 20 years old getting millions of dollars. There's a lot of stress. A lot of responsibility comes with that. It might sound silly to someone just listening 'Oh a million dollars, a lot of stress' well it is for a lot of these kids that come from bad neighborhoods. They want to do right and help their mom or dad or brothers out with financial responsibilities. Then there's the media saying bad things about them when they have a bad game or a bad week. So there's all this stuff on their plates and I feel like we can be most effective as a group moving forward and as coaching staffs with that trust and relationship that we're here for them to help them become better players and better people."
Walton also spoke about how he figured out coaching was for him, free agency, and much more. The whole podcast is worth a listen, and you can do so here.
Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.