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Why Luke Walton needs to have a breakout season as the Lakers’ leader

The Lakers’ players aren’t the only ones who need to establish themselves this season.

NBA: Preseason-Minnesota Timberwolves at Los Angeles Lakers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers have opened up the new NBA season splitting their first two games. In the highly anticipated debut game of Lonzo Ball and the new look Lakers, the team entered STAPLES Center flat and disengaged, leading to an ugly beatdown by a zealous LA Clippers team. The Lakers bounced back against the Phoenix Suns, showcasing what many fans envisioned the new season would look like — fun and development from their young players. So what changed from from game one to game two? Coaching adjustments.

The Luke Walton honeymoon period possibly, and publicly, ended after Game 1 of the NBA season for a portion of Lakers’ fans. After the disappointing performance, the second-year head coach faced the same unsavory boos as his young players. The main criticisms of Walton after the game stemmed from his questionable rotation, the team’s inability to show growth, and an alarming lack of effort from his players.

With their new perceived starting shooting-guard Kentavious Caldwell Pope suspended for the first two regular season games and a starting power forward yet to be named, Walton had decisions to make in what he envisioned was the best starting rotation. With options that included sliding up Jordan Clarkson from reserve to starting guard, inserting the exciting preseason dominant rookie Kyle Kuzma, or seeing what the Julius Randle-Brook Lopez pairing looked like, Walton instead trotted out a lineup of: Ball, Brandon Ingram, Luol Deng, Larry Nance Jr., and Lopez. The results were short of ideal.

Theoretically, the decision was Walton choosing in favor of keeping his preseason starting and bench rotations intact by moving third-string Luol Deng into the lineup. This philosophy of keeping unit chemistry unscathed is not generally a negative, but when better options arise, the former should not supersede the latter. This is not unfamiliar territory for Walton, who demonstrated a similar coaching strategy last season when injuries arose. In those stretch of games, the Lakers lost all momentum they had garnered after their surprising 10-10 start.

Unfortunately, Walton did not budge from this line of thinking when configuring his gameplan for the first night of 82 as the lineup predictably struggled from the tip. The starting five shared zero on court-experience together prior to the game, which counter-intuitively eliminated any bench advantage the team would possibly have as the starters failed to conjure any statistical lead.

Walton didn’t maximize the limited talent he had when putting this rotation into place, specifically his young guys. With the knowledge of all eyes on Lonzo going in, he sent out his prized point guard theoretically with four frontcourt players, then tried to run a resemblance of a pace-and-space offense.

The trio of Ingram, Deng, and Nance Jr. offered little-to-no help in terms of spacing the floor, which showed drastically in the half-court offense. The majority of possessions found Ingram and Lopez trying to create scoring opportunities near the end of the shot clock, the former continuing to force the issue all night.

One member of the young core that was noticeably impacted by Walton’s decision was Randle. Julius, who started nearly every game under Walton last season, found himself coming off the bench by the end of preseason, and that has extended into the start of the season. Randle seemed generally taken aback by his bench status and unfortunately let his play be influenced by it, noticeably sulking and playing with a lack of energy. When asked about this by Bill Oram, Luke divulged:

“I’ve explained it’s not about whoever being better or playing better,” Walton said, “it’s about what units play well. And Julius was playing really well with that second unit. Larry was playing well with the first unit.”

“When he stepped on the court for whatever reason he wasn’t ready to go,” Walton said, “like he has been for the past week (of practices). So I pulled him out to tell him about it. I know he wasn’t happy with me but that’s my job.”

Los Angeles Lakers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The coaching sentiment is a valid one, and Randle the professional basketball player should understand the decision. Yet, for a young player who worked tirelessly in the offseason and was performing relatively well through exhibition, it is only human to be disappointed that the hard work was not rewarded. In these moments, having establishined a trusting relationship with his players can soothe any hard feelings, hopefully motivating the individual to step up. Watching how the two progress will be interesting dynamic, and a good coaching test for Walton.

Coach Luke demonstrated he was adept and capable enough to recognize what went wrong in Game 1 against the Clippers, making proper adjustments against the Suns. He swapped Deng out of the starting lineup and rotation and inserted Corey Brewer. Still following his unit cohesiveness approach, Brewer at least plays within what the Lakers offense wants to do, run. Although adding no further spacing value than Deng, Brewer is at least much more capable of a transition player and steady hand on defense. Brewer’s energy, specifically on the defensive side, sparked a bland Lakers team on opening night, and jump-started their engine in Game 2. Brewer ended the night with a +/- of 19, the highest of any player who stepped on the floor.

Walton’s rotation tweaking also included giving Kuzma extended playing time, specifically smartly alongside summer league teammate Lonzo. The rookie was a nice offensive boost off the bench, adding in 15 points on seven-of-eight shooting. As a group, the Lakers’ young core excelled and dominated a weary Suns team. They seemed to encapsulate what Walton hopes the team’s playstyle will be: The ball being pushed up the court, an outlet man getting early offense opportunities, and creating spacing for shooting.

For as bad as the first game went, the Lakers’ second outing could not have gone any better, especially on the offensive side of the floor. In an entirely miniscule sample size, the Lakers lead the NBA thus far in pace and effective field goal percentage, two indicators the players are buying into Walton’s gameplan. That itself would be a major accomplishment for a team filled with new players and young talent trying to find their way in the league.

Walton, the youngest head coach in NBA history, faces a big second season. He needs to prove himself as a capable leader of men, and a savvy basketball mind not only for this crop of Lakers, but to the entire league. With the upcoming pivotal free-agency period, Walton could play be a key role for big name players deciding whether to jump or pass on the opportunity of joining the purple and gold.

Walton thus far in his career has done a good job in earning initial praise from the stars of the Golden State Warriors in his short interim coaching stint, but maximizing this Lakers’ core would be far more impressive. If his first season as Lakers’ coach was a grace period, then this is the season to truly improve and showcase not only his players, but his own abilities.

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