LOS ANGELES — From the moment Luke Walton accepted the position of head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, he painted a clear picture of his vision for the team.
Walton wanted fun. Walton wanted selflessness. Walton wanted beauty.
Most of all, Walton wanted all of those things to describe the way the Lakers moved the ball.
With just one game remaining in the Los Angeles Lakers’ season, the team ultimately didn't meet Walton's goal of averaging 300 passes per game, but he was mostly happy with the growth he saw.
"They've made progress,” Walton said before the Lakers 108-96 win over the New Orleans Pelicans. “Obviously — like most things — it's a slow process, but there is progress being made.”
The number backs up Walton’s tepid endorsement. Heading into the All-Star break, the Lakers were averaging 291.7 passes per game (20th of 30 NBA teams). Following the break they’ve nudged that number up to 295.6 (14th in the league).
“The first half of the season it was a whole lot of we were still trying to figure out confidence in everybody and stuff like that,” Lakers forward Larry Nance, Jr. told Silver Screen and Roll. “Now in the second half that we're kind of opened up, the ball is moving great, we've really been showing confidence in each other."
Walton credited some of the improvement he’s seen to passing drills the team runs in practice.
“If you throw a bad pass in practice you (have to do) five push-ups,” Walton said.
A big part of that marginal increase that obviously no one on the team is going to mention is the departure of Lou Williams via trade, as the Lakers assisted on 48.6 percent of their baskets with Lou on the floor, compared to 55.9 percent when he isn’t.
Those marks were second-lowest and second-highest on the team, respectively.
Still, Williams couldn’t have been the sole reason for the team’s passing issues, given that ball hasn’t found much energy to ping around the floor in his absence. The team has actually passed even less during their recent six-game winning streak, averaging just 284.2 passes per game over that sample size.
Still, whether the team is moving the ball in the specific ways Walton wants can’t exclusively be measured by numbers like raw passes per game.
“We've been playing a lot more unselfishly,” Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson told Silver Screen and Roll. “Passing and finding the open man."
Nance felt the team’s “willingness” to move the ball had changed as the season went on, because of confidence the next teammate would “make the right decision” when the ball came to them, and increased comfort in Walton’s system has allowed the team to recapture some of the selflessness, fun and beauty from their 10-10 start to the season.
"When we started out everybody was really playing for one another, but we hit a rough patch. A rough 50 games in the middle of the year,” Nance said with a laugh. “Now we're starting to play like that again. It's been fun."
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats per NBA.com. and Basketball-Reference.com. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.