After the win against the Thunder Thursday night, the Lakers are now 5-7 after LeBron James’ injury and 25-21 overall. The team is currently tied with the Utah Jazz for the 8th spot in the Western Conference, and have had a top 5 defensive rating in the NBA since Lebron went down with injury.
Even with the win, Laker fans weren’t happy with the way the team won. Even though the team is coming off two straight losses – one of which was against the struggling Cleveland Cavaliers who are 30th in offensive rating – a victory is sometimes just not enough. It needs to be convincing.
To make matters worse, the Lakers also didn’t get their fans free tacos as the team allowed 10 points in the final 1:14 seconds to let the Bulls reach 100 points. The way the group played offensively, they didn’t look “desperate” in the win. Luckily, Lonzo Ball scored 11 straight points in the third quarter (19 overall for the game) and carried the team to the victory.
After their loss to the league worst Cavaliers, all the blame was pointed towards head coach Luke Walton and none directed at his assistant coaches, who I think deserve to be blamed as well. Why? Well, let’s break it down.
Before the Lakers hired Luke Walton, the team produced its worst record (17-65) in franchise history under then head coach Byron “The Tank Commander” Scott. They were dead last in offensive rating and second to last in defensive rating. During those 82 games (I watched most of it if not all. What was I thinking back then?) it was obvious that it was a coaching issue more than a roster construction issue. Scott didn’t want to shoot three’s but instead play an old style of basketball. He also played the veterans more than the then young core of D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., and Julius Randle.
Yes, it was the Kobe Bryant Farewell Tour and he deserved it but still, it was obvious that the team was not going make the playoffs. So priority should have been with the young core’s development for the sake of the franchise’s future.
LUKE WALTON AND HIS STAFF
Walton is the complete opposite of Scott; he prioritizes the young core and still manages to win, plays fast and plays defense. The Lakers appear to be headed in the right direction as they have improved every season since Walton has become the head coach. The team has been better especially on defense as they have improved each year in the two and half seasons since he’s taken over. The team’s defensive rating in Walton three seasons: 30th in his first season; 13th last season and now currently 6th.
Walton knows how to utilize his personnel’s strengths and hide their weaknesses. For example, last season they switched everything on defense because he had Randle, who had the ability to stay in front of guards. This season, he replaced that approach to a drop-coverage because that’s where JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler excel defensively. Having them defend guards one on one are their weaknesses.
Speaking of weakness, offense is obviously Walton’s weakness even with LeBron James this season. They are relying so much on their defense to win games and that’s not a good thing especially in the Western Conference. Luke wants to play fast and when the Lakers are playing fast and smart, it’s like Showtime 2.0, especially when both Ball and James are on the court.
But aside from the fast break, their offense is mostly horrible. That’s where Walton needs his assistant coaches to fill the void, but they don’t seem to be the right coaches for him. Rajon Rondo has even had to take a bigger role in this department as Ball cited “Rondo has been helping me with finishing around the rim after practice”.
Walton’s associate head coach, Brian Shaw, is a successor of Phil Jackson, who won a total of 11 championships as a head coach; six with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in the ‘90s, three with Kobe Bryant & Shaquille O’Neal in 2000-03 and two with Bryant and Pau Gasol in 2008-10.
The triangle offense obviously won games and championships back then but that era is over. The triangle is effective for a slow pace team and the Lakers’ style is on the other side of the spectrum. Shaw already tried to speed up the triangle offense when he became the head coach of the Denver Nuggets in 2014-15. It didn’t work, as he was fired after 59 games. The Nuggets finished the season 4th in pace but only 18th in offensive rating (it was expected considering what Shaw was trying to do offensively) and were actually six games worse than the previous season.
Shaw then became the assistant coach of the Indiana Pacers for two seasons and during those years, the Pacers with Paul George played 20th and 25th respectively in pace while the Lakers with a post-Achilles surgery Bryant and Robert Sacre played faster and it wasn’t even close.
So, who else CANNOT (yes, CANNOT) help Walton among his staff?
Well, let’s try his offensive coordinator, Jesse Mermuys. He became an assistant coach under Dwane Casey in 2013-14 with the Toronto Raptors. During that season, the Raptors played 23rd in pace. The year after, Mermuys was named the head coach and assistant General Manager of the Raptors 905, the G-league affiliate of the NBA Raptors. His Raptors 905 didn’t make the playoff during that season. After his stint in the G-league, Mermuys became one of Walton’s assistant coaches.
Two of the five assistant coaches that Walton employs are from the University of Arizona, where Walton starred as a collegiate basketball player. Brian Keefe (defensive coordinator), Shaw, and Mark Madsen do not have ties to Walton thru college but both Shaw and Madsen were once his teammates during his Lakers playing career.
Considering their coaching histories, it seems Keefe is the only one deserving of a job. Keefe was part of the San Antonio Spurs 2007 championship season as a video coordinator for head coach Gregg Popovich. He became the team’s defensive coordinator at the same time. Keefe was responsible for the development of the young players for two different teams: the Oklahoma City Thunder (with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden) and New York Knicks (with rookie Kristaps Porzingis).
Assistant coaches are important. Take for example Steve Kerr having Ron Adams on his side. Adams is huge for the Golden State Warriors’ dominance. Kerr wants to play fast and to share the basketball just like Walton and these are also Adams’ strength. Since 2013, all the teams that Adams has been a part of are either top 10 in pace or assist to turnover ratio. Except for the 2013-14 Boston Celtics.
I’m not saying to get Adams, I just want to suggest looking for assistant coaches that want to play the way your head coach wants to play. This is indented for you Magic Johnson.
As the trade deadline fast approaches, I want to see first what the young core are capable of in a good offensive system before trying to trade them. If there is a job to be done with these assistant coaches, I hope they do it as soon as possible. Hello Magic Johnson.
Now, back to Walton. I still believe in him. The way he turned this young team into a good defensive team, especially last season when both Brandon Ingram and Ball missed a ton of games but still managed to be 13th in defensive rating. The team won 35 games ( +18 wins within two seasons).
He is only 38 years old. The youngest coach in the NBA and has never once had a head coaching job before the Lakers hired him. He spent his first two seasons with the purple and gold without expectations and the priority the development of the young core.
Now, he’s coaching James and a team without enough proven and experienced assistant coaches next to him to fill the offensive void, which reflects on the team’s current offensive rating.
Written by: @LakersHoopsPH