With his Matthew McConaughey-like cadence and veteran sideline composure, it is sometimes easy to forget Luke Walton is only entering his third season as an NBA head coach, with just two years of experience leading the Los Angeles Lakers,
Taking over head coaching duties in the same season the team drafted Brandon Ingram, Walton has played a crucial role in helping shape the team’s young core and establishing a the Lakers’ identity.
This season, Walton will face what presumably will be his most difficult coaching venture yet, as he must attempt to manage another year of significant roster turnover, the difficult task of divvying up the minutes among a team suddenly fruitful with depth, and attempt to preserve one LeBron James in the process.
Recently, Walton appeared on ESPN 710’s “An Evening with the Lakers” and discussed how he and his staff will determine which players will earn minutes on a nightly basis:
LeBron is going to play a lot (Laughs). It’s kind of the saying that the players decide that, and what we mean by that is how you practice. Are you playing the way we want to play? Are you moving the ball? Are you doing the little things defensively that we emphasize? If you’re doing that then you’re going to play.
And then as the games go certain nights, different players are going to be hot, so they’re going to get more minutes and what we need is when it’s not your turn, your night to play big minutes, you’re rooting for your teammate because the next night could very easily be your night.
You’re right, there are 10 or 11 guys that are used to playing minutes that are good enough in the NBA to play rotational minutes, and everyone, from top to bottom is going to have to sacrifice for this team to succeed. If that happens, we can have a very special year.
Walton’s emphasis on “sacrifice,” and “team” is important to contextualize and necessary for this team's success, as the majority of the roster has proven at different stages of their individual careers that they are deserving to play on a nightly basis, and will likely seek out the minutes they feel are warranted.
The inclusion of veterans Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley, and James contrast with the team’s young core, bringing up the question if the staff will lean more favorably in one direction in terms of minute distribution.
Walton’s comments seem to dictate there will be no pre-determined favoritism, but rather that how players perform during training camp and practices will determine who is rewarded with playing time.
Last season, Walton preferred keeping his starters and bench units intact so much that his reserves reportedly ran a different playbook than his starting five. Yet, based on his most recent comments, the Lakers’ lineup determination should be more fluid and configured based on who is “hot” on a nightly basis.
In order for this meshing of eclectic veterans and promising young core to work, “sacrifice” is vital from an ego and playing time vantage point. So on the nights when a younger player or veteran goes off, their teammates need to be able to step back and simply “root” them on while waiting for their own moment.
The other aspect Walton must tackle this upcoming season is how he will approach handling James’ workload. The answer, for now, seems to be “constant communication” between himself and James:
We’ve talked about the idea of it (James sitting out some games) and I’ll be in constant communication with him all year long. If it’s a night off, if it’s a back-to-back, whatever it is. If it’s practice, preferably if he’s going to take something off, take a practice off to stay fresh.
But we’ve got him here for four years, and we want to be competing every single year that he’s here. If we do play him less minutes or he gets a night off, that’s a great opportunity for other players, some of the young guys so it’ll be an ongoing thing, a feel out thing as far as minutes or whether he’s going to take this game off or that game off.
At age 33, James is coming fresh off of his first ever full 82-game season and a historic eighth straight NBA Finals appearance. While built like a T-800, the eventual wear and tear that comes with shouldering James’ amount of offensive responsibility for 15 seasons will ultimately be something the Lakers will have to monitor, and prepare for.
Walton seems open to having this form of dialogue with James, and appears flexible with how the team will provide him as many opportunities to rest as needed. Whether it is through a “night off” after a back-to-back, or simply sitting out a practice, the organization seem keyed in on making sure James’ is at optimal health during his Lakers’ tenure.
Though seeing James on the bench or in street clothes is not ideal, there are positives to be had In these instances. There lies an “opportunity” in which Walton details that becomes available to the young core and other plays to seize more responsibility and take advantage of his absence to perform well in bigger minutes.
Last season, and in the playoffs, the Cleveland Cavaliers notably struggled in the minutes James was off the floor. If the non-James’ Lakers can not only survive, but perform well in these instances, everyone involved will benefit.
Walton, and the entire Lakers’ organization, will need to be at the peaks of their games in order to make this season work. The team is filled with talented, but possibly complicated, pieces. As the group’s head coach detailed, everyone must be willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team, and Walton seems prepared to make sure this happens.