Does Luke need help with X’s & O’s?
Why the Lakers should consider bringing in an experienced assistant coach to help upgrade the team’s play schemes
Let me start by saying I’m an unapologetic and unabashed supporter of Luke Walton as the Lakers’ coach. He has the perfect background and personality to solve the puzzle of building a championship team around LeBron James.
Son of Hall of Famer Bill Walton, Luke grew up surrounded by the greatness of the game, playing for coaching legends Lute Olson and Phil Jackson and getting his first coaching break as the top assistant for Warriors’ Steve Kerr. Drafted the same year as LeBron James, Luke was born to be an NBA coach. His strength is his ability to build rapport and chemistry with his players and get them to buy into the system and play the way he wants them to play.
There’s no doubt the two years Luke spent with the Warriors plays a huge role in what he wants from the Lakers but it’s a mistake to say he’s trying to make the Lakers a carbon copy of the Warriors. However, Luke’s basketball philosophy has taken several key tenants from his stint with the Warrior. Offensively, Luke believes in playing fast with ball and player movement. Defensively, he believes in switching everything and playing small ball.
What Luke has done great in his first two years is create a selfless culture and chemistry and an exciting wide open, up tempo fast paced style of basketball. While the Lakers have been near the top of the league offensively in pace and fast break points, Luke’s greatest achievement as a coach was transforming the Lakers defense from dead last in the league the year before to 12th last season. Every coach talks the talk about defense but Luke actually walked it.
While the Lakers have only played four exhibition games, there’s been some concern over their lackluster defense, especially their lack of ability to keep opposing guards out of the paint and chase them off the three-point line. Most of that concern will hopefully disappear once Lonzo’s back in the lineup. The addition of a rim protector like McGee and a break-out defensive year from Ingram should be all Luke needs to make the Lakers a top-ten defense.
A bigger concern has been the vanilla nature and subpar execution of the Lakers’ half court offense, which has struggled to protect the ball and create open shots and led critics to wonder if Luke needs help with his X’s and O’s. While the Lakers want to run on every play, including made baskets, they still need a dynamic offensive scheme with plays they can run after timeouts, when free-lancing breaks down, or to close out games or in the playoffs.
The major complaint about the Lakers’ schemes and plays in half court is they don’t create enough off ball movement and weak side action to occupy defenders, limit help, or open up additional opportunities. This criticism was there last season too as the Lakers struggled when forced play half court. LeBron will help that situation greatly but better play design could transform the Lakers. It’s the difference between shooting contested or wide open shots.
The big question is who is designing the Lakers plays? Luke’s strength was never X’s and O’s. Nor was that associate head coach Brian Shaw’s strength.
Best guess might be assistant coach Jesse Mermuys, who always sits next to Luke on the bench and in the air when they’re flying. Like most of Luke’s assistants, Jesse has long time ties that go back to the University of Arizona. The time might be right to bring in someone who wasn’t a long time crony.
At any rate, the recent hiring of Kurt Rambis and the team’s failure to hire a free throw shooting coach or replace their analytics director has opened the door to questions about the team’s coaching staff. Maybe it’s time for Magic and Rob to take a hard look at all of Luke’s assistant coaches. It might make sense to bring in a coach known for their X’s and O’s who can help develop a consistent half court offense to better take advantage of the Lakers’ talent.
With Lonzo slated to finally start against the Warriors Wednesday night, the Lakers will get a prime time opportunity to see how their half court schemes compare with those of the champs. While it’s an unfair comparison in both talent and continuity, there’s simply no excuse why the Lakers’ play design and schemes shouldn’t generate the same kind of ball and player movement and open shots that’ve become a standard hallmark of the Warriors’ offense.
If we don’t see better half-court play design as the season progresses, the Lakers should decide Luke does need help with X’s & O’s and bring in an experienced assistant coach to help upgrade the team’s play schemes.