On Friday, Luke Walton told the L.A. Daily News’ Mark Medina that Brandon Ingram will not be starting when the Lakers’ season starts. While on face value not a controversial statement, digging a little deeper reveals what to me is the first red flag of Luke Walton’s coaching tenure:
“You develop the young core by rewarding them when they play well,” Walton said. “If there’s 10 games left in the season and out of the playoffs and there’s some vets that played long minutes all season, maybe you play all your young guys to finish out the season. But when you’re going through the season, you’re not doing anyone any favors just by playing young guys so they can play if they’re not out there playing the right way.”
Cross your arms, tighten up your eyebrows, tell somebody to “man up” and you might get Byron Scott flashbacks. Before I get into what I find troubling, I completely agree with Luke Walton’s decision, as early a proclamation as it is, mostly because Luol Deng is by far the superior player today combined with his veteran experience. Comparing Brandon Ingram’s situation this season and D’Angelo Russell’s situation from last year with Byron Scott is a false one simply due to the fact that the alternative (Luol Deng) is so much better.
Here’s where I worry about not only Luke Walton, but the organization as a whole.
“If there’s 10 games left in the season and out of the playoffs…”
Does the organization truly understand where the Lakers stand in the hierarchy of the NBA presently? We don’t need 72 games to make that assessment - there’s 8 preseason games left, 82 regular season games left - the Lakers are already out of the playoffs. In fact, they’re the worst team in the West and possibly the worst team in the league from a wins and losses standpoint.
However, they are also a team that’s headed in the right direction, have a firmer sense of direction than they did over these last few years, and will absolutely win more games than the 17 they won in the 2015-2016 campaign. All of these things can be true, but I believe that it’s important for the organization to understand it.
Just last year, Mitch Kupchak declared before the season started that he believed the Lakers were a playoff team. While it is counterproductive to have a General Manager come out before a season and say their team is garbage, Kupchak also doesn’t strike me as a person who says things he doesn’t believe.
Why this is troublesome is simple: one of the hardest but most important things to do while running an organization is to be honest to yourselves. If you think you are closer to playoff contention than you actually are - does that lead you to go all in on four-year contracts that hurt your cap space moving forward for veterans like Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov? Do you think you’re close enough that internal improvement will propel the team to a new height?
Ultimately, Luke Walton has earned the benefit of the doubt. He has done everything right in terms of the types of assistants he has brought in, the culture he is cultivating, and his comments in general about the team’s commitment to competing and playing with a modern offense have been encouraging.
Reading too much into this specific comment is unwise, but there’s no denying that Luke Walton has had zero prior experience running a program and specifically coaching raw talent like Brandon Ingram. Players are coming out of college more inexperienced and less prepared as a whole, but the most consistent route to success has been playing time. Denver drafted Emmanuel Mudiay and gave him far more playing time early than his play dictated, in part because they recognized that the only way to get Mudiay to develop was to give him consistent playing time and allow him to make mistakes.
To get back to my original point: are the Lakers aware of where they stand? Is it worth wasting until the All Star break to play the “we might still make the playoffs” charade that has essentially become a Laker tradition at this point or can the organization finally actively look to rebuild rather than continuing to fall into it by accident?
As things presently stand, the Lakers are a bottom-three team in the NBA and can potentially keep their first rounder one more year. This shouldn’t necessarily be a goal, but is more a reflection of where they stand in relation to the other “bad” teams such as the Nets and Sixers who will be in the same range of wins but have also improved themselves this offseason.
With proper recognition of their standing comes focus. For this particular team, that should be the development of the young core, as was the case last year. I remain cautiously optimistic that this will happen - I just hope the team doesn’t wait to acknowledge this fact until halfway into the season.