Where do the Lakers go from here?
A devastating series of 4th quarter collapses have shone a harsh spotlight on the Lakers’ young core and head coach Luke Walton
It only took four losses in five games without LeBron James to transform the Lakers’ heady optimism after trouncing the Warriors into fan and media calls to fire coach Luke Walton and give up on the team’s promising young core.
While nobody expects the Lakers will overreact and make a hasty decision, the pressure on Luke Walton and Brandon Ingram just ramped way up and as the team’s suddenly reached a critical juncture at the season’s halfway point. Looming in the background is the reality that the Lakers’ current front office of Earvin Johnson and Rob Pelinka were not the ones who hired Luke Walton as head coach or drafted Brandon Ingram #2 overall in the 2016 NBA draft.
In the past, Johnson and Pelinka have shown little hesitation to moving on from prior regime draft picks like D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle if they didn’t live up to expectations or fit in the team’s salary cap considerations. Whether the Lakers would fire Walton or trade Ingram before next summer is problematic. The big question is what do Luke Walton and Brandon Ingram need to do to redeem themselves and restore front office confidence in them?
- Luke needs to stop trying to make Brandon Ingram something he is not. Brandon’s strength and upside are as an elite wing defender who can be a secondary scorer and playmaker rather than a primary scorer and closer. He needs to learn to play and score off the ball to complement LeBron. It’s time for Luke to recognize and Brandon to realize trying to force him to be a go-to scorer is hurting him, the team, and his chances to fit with LeBron.
- The Lakers need to get back to pushing the pace and getting easier looks, especially in the fourth quarter when other teams try to slow them down. Since LeBron went down, we haven’t been running on made baskets and have been walking the ball up rather than forcing teams to backpedal. We need our wings to run to the corner to open up lanes for easy layups. Right now, we’re missing shots and turning over the ball due to poor spacing.
- Luke needs to force players to run plays rather than reverting to hero ball. That will require he and his staff to create a set of plays that can generate the types of wide open shot opportunities that will encourage teamwork. While pick-and-roll based offenses work great with LeBron or Rondo, the rest of the team need to be running some form of a read-and-react motion offense with weak side action to keep everybody involved in the play.
- The Lakers need to trust their defensive schemes and stop over helping, especially off corner threes. Stop ignoring the analytics and allowing defenders to leave opposing players open in the corners. Help on drives from the wings has to come from the bigs and rim protectors, who have to trust rotation help when opposing guards or wings penetrate the paint. The Lakers’ defenders need to get on the same page and trust each other.
- The Lakers need to hire a shooting coach to help with the free throw woes. Having players record their efforts on a sign up sheet or one of the existing assistant coaches take over the role of shooting coach is not the answer. There are qualified free throw shooting instructors out there who have proven track records for helping teams and players dramatically improve their free throw percentages. This is a move that has been long overdue.
The last time Lakers’ head coach Luke Walton was in the media crosshairs was earlier in the season when LaVar Ball proclaimed that he’d lost the team. The players immediately reeled off a series of wins to put that rumor to rest. Unlike back then, I don’t think Luke Walton or the Lakers’ young core can just flip the switch this time and solve the team’s problems without making the major adjustments I’ve outlined above. Not with LeBron and Rondo out.
How Luke Walton, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and the rest of the Lakers’ young core responds to the devastating series of 4th quarter collapses and the resulting crisis will have a lasting impact on the team’s plans this summer. The photos of an unhappy Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka, and LeBron glumly watching Paul George destroy the Lakers were chilling to Lakers’ fans who believed Luke Walton and the team’s young core were the team’s future.
Will Luke make any of the adjustments listed above or will he stand pat and continue trying to make Ingram something he’s not and allowing the team to slow the pace, play hero ball, over help on defense, and brick free throws? I’ve been a longtime supporter of Luke’s player management and relationship building skills although a harsh critic of his X’s and O’s and coaching staff but the time has come for Luke to prove he’s the Lakers’ coach of the future.