A lot of what has made this season so thoroughly soul-crushing has been how obvious it’s been that all kinds of people associated with the Los Angeles Lakers are trying to position themselves for whatever is next.
The front office saw players as mere assets and lashed out when they were called out for it. LeBron James was pulling a few of those strings, too. Veterans signed to one-year deals were willing to commit to the team only so long as it benefitted them to do so. It was the kind of season that can make fans cynical about what they’re watching.
All of that is what has made these last few games, in which Alex Caruso, Jemerrio Jones, Johnathan Williams and the rest of the South Bay Lakers answered the call, even more refreshing than they would have been in a vacuum. Luke Walton has noticed this, and thoroughly enjoyed watching those guys try to carve out their spots in the NBA through team success.
“It’s great to watch the game being played when you just have guys out there giving it their all, and no agenda other than to try to win the game. We were down to eight players and a lot of those guys are getting opportunities they wouldn’t get, and it’s a lot of fun,” Walton told reporters after Sunday night’s win over the Utah Jazz. “It’s beautiful, actually, to watch the game as they’re leaving it all out there on the court.”
Walton then got into the specifics of the guys who helped screw up Utah’s chances at home-court advantage in the first round.
“You can go down the line again from Caruso, to Jemerrio, I thought [Williams] was great again. KCP. He’s in a different situation but he’s still fighting, and he had an absolutely brilliant game, especially down the stretch he kind of carried us. JaVale came back in and made some big-time plays,” Walton said.
“(It was) just the type of win where we needed everybody and everybody stepped up.”
Pointing out the various situations of some of these guys who stepped up on Sunday night feels important here. Yes, technically, everyone involved is fighting for a gig next season. It’s objectively true that neither Caldwell-Pope or McGee are under contract once Tuesday night’s game ends. But there’s a difference between fighting for the next contract and vying for one’s first. More on that in a bit, though.
Walton was then asked about what can be gleaned from this situation even if the Lakers aren’t technically playing for anything right now.
”There’s always lessons to be learned,” Walton said. “It’s good to see the type of edge that you need to play with, and whether you’re a young guy or you’re wherever you are in your career, if you’re watching, you can just see ‘okay, this team is playing for each other.’ There’s no agenda going on.”
That last sentence is hard to ignore, and gets back to the idea of trying to earn another contract versus a first. All season, Walton has been trying to get guys to commit to playing for each other despite the Lakers very obviously not committing to those players contractually. He’s had to do so for the entirety of his Lakers tenure, really.
Walton is by no means unique in having to manage these situations. The NBA is a multi-billion-dollar business, and with that kind of money on the line, of course everyone is going to do whatever they can to get their hands on as much of it as possible. Holding that against anyone is simply naivety.
Pointing out cynicism isn’t the same thing as enjoying its counterpart, though. It’s one thing to notice KCP (who did play well, mind you) firing up as many shots as he can to make his counting stats a selling point for his agent. It’s another to use that as an argument against Caldwell-Pope’s character. Don’t do the latter.
Similarly, defense shouldn’t be seen as some moral commitment. Caldwell-Pope is just better at offense than Jones, and so that’s his focus.
Where last night’s when feels refreshing is when all of those things come together for the betterment of the team.
Alex “The Bald Eagle” Caruso has in large part personified all of this. He’s become a cult figure on the back of his talent and hard work. Listening to him after yet another game adding to his mythical resumé makes it easy to see why.
“We’re just playing with a lot of joy. We’re playing hard and I think we’re playing really good defense. I think those three things make it easy to play,” Caruso said, when asked about what he and the other G League guys have brought to the team. “We’ve played well, and when you’re playing free and you’re playing hard, it’s easy to play hard for the guy next to him when you see him going just as hard as you. I think it’s just been us having fun and going out there and trying as hard as we can.”
Anyone can learn from that.