How Luke Walton has the Lakers on the rise

Ask Luke Walton to cite something he’s been pleased with early in the season, and you might be surprised where he goes. He doesn’t point to Nick Young’s resurgence, Julius Randle’s emergence or Timofey Mozgov’s effective play. Not right away, anyway. No, the Lakers’ coach recalls Brandon Ingram’s final three minutes in Los Angeles’ win over Atlanta last week — minutes the rookie forward watched from the bench. Up three late in the fourth, Walton pulled Ingram for Young. When Young canned a game-clinching three-pointer minutes later, Walton smiled watching Ingram leap off the bench and holler at his teammate.

“When I took him out, you could see it in his face, he wanted to be out there,” Walton told The Vertical. “But he was right there, cheering for Nick. I think it’s good. Supporting your teammates late in games gives you perspective for what it’s like to be out there on the court.”

When Walton accepted the Lakers’ job last summer, he was under no illusions: L.A. was coming off a 17-win season and had not cracked 30 wins since 2013 — the last year Walton played in the NBA. Player development was critical, even if it came at the expense of winning games.

Luke Walton’s positivity has the Lakers looking better. (Getty Images)
Luke Walton’s positivity has the Lakers looking better. (Getty Images)

Yet something has happened: L.A.’s youngsters have shown an ability to win games. The Lakers are 4-4 to start the season and showing the kind of poise you wouldn’t expect from a young roster. A hallmark of youth is a failure to execute late. Yet through the first few weeks of the season, the Lakers have found ways to win.

“That’s happened faster than I thought,” Walton said. “It doesn’t surprise me that we’re in all of our ball games. We have got a group of guys that are very competitive. But it’s a new group together. Closing games is a tough thing to do at this level. We weren’t able to close out games early. The Atlanta game, they did it, and since then they have tried to sustain it. It’s going to be an up-and-down year, and we still are making a lot of mistakes. But they have found a knack and a belief in themselves and a team.”

As a coach, Walton arrived in Los Angeles as something of an unknown. He had a successful two-year stint as an assistant in Golden State, punctuated by a strong 43-game run filling in for Steve Kerr in the first half of last season. Yet little was known of Walton’s philosophies. Would he embrace the kind of free-flowing system run by Kerr? Or would the influence of Phil Jackson, Walton’s former coach in L.A., shape his coaching style?

Turns out, it’s both.

“A lot of ideas and philosophies come from Golden State,” Walton said. “And Steve took a lot of things from Pop [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] in San Antonio. All the spacing and cutting, that came from Phil’s influence on Steve and I. Now, we can’t play like Golden State because no one else has the shooters they have. But we can still play an up-tempo style. Everyone is getting opportunities because we are sharing the ball. We have a deep team. We want to attack for 48 minutes.”

To do that, Walton has spread out the minutes. No Laker is averaging more than 28 minutes per game, but eight are playing at least 20. The scoring has been equally balanced. L.A. is one of the league’s top scoring teams — and five different players have led the team in scoring.

Players have raved about Walton, about his system, his sideline demeanor, the positive attitude he has brought to the team. When Walton met with his coaching staff last summer, he made one thing clear: Coming off a brutal season, one consumed by controversy and the specter surrounding Kobe Bryant’s retirement, everyone had a clean slate. Building a winning culture was a top priority.

“That’s an ongoing process,” Walton said. “We’re on the right path. Our guys enjoy coming into work. All those things come into play and are beneficial, especially when you are trying to develop good habits. We have got guys who are excited about coming in the gym.”

Walton is, too. The highs of two historic seasons in Oakland linger, but Walton couldn’t be happier rebuilding the foundation of one of the NBA’s flagship franchises.

“I absolutely love it,” Walton said. “The guys that we have, their willingness to work, to want to be really good as a team, it’s great. If we had a group of guys kind of set in their ways, who weren’t hard workers, I think I’d be pulling my hair out and frustrated every night. I wouldn’t trade Golden State for anything. The relationships I had, I learned so much up there. In a completely different way, this is as good as it gets. It’s the other side of the spectrum. It’s a different satisfaction, a different reward. I’m just as happy as I was when we were 24-0 last year. What we are doing now, guys starting to have this belief in themselves, it feels great.”

DeMar DeRozan scored 40 against Detroit in his first game of the season. (Getty Images)
DeMar DeRozan scored 40 against Detroit in his first game of the season. (Getty Images)

THREE-POINTERS
1. No one expected DeMar DeRozan’s torrid start – except DeMar DeRozan

Last August, in Brazil, during breaks in USA Basketball’s schedule, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, teammates in Toronto, would huddle and talk about the future. Last season was a watershed year for the Raptors. The team won a franchise-record 56 games and advanced to its first conference finals. In rare, quiet moments, DeRozan and Lowry would discuss how they could be even better.

“For us to be a good team, we talked about how we have to cut down on losing the games we are supposed to win,” DeRozan told The Vertical. “Last year there were a lot of games we were supposed to win, and we either didn’t or we had to work too hard late. We didn’t always close out games. We have to understand that when we are up 12 or 13 points, we can’t be fighting for wins in the whole fourth quarter in games we should have closed out two quarters before.”

An All-Star last season, DeRozan was rewarded with a five-year, $139 million max deal in the offseason. For DeRozan, it was the only deal he wanted. “My mind was never anywhere else but here,” DeRozan said. “I was waiting for the day I could sign so we could get it over with.” Complacency wasn’t an issue, either. “That contract, it motivated me even more,” DeRozan said. “All I thought of was being better, being greater.”

So far, he has. DeRozan leads the NBA in scoring at 33.7 points per game, connecting on 52.4 percent of his attempts. He dumped 40 on Detroit and Washington, and is the first player since Michael Jordan to open the season with five straight 30-plus-point performances. Virtually all of his damage has been done inside the three-point line; DeRozan has attempted just 10 three-pointers this season, making just two of them, a remarkably low number for a dynamic scoring guard.

DeRozan can’t point to a specific area of improvement, just an elevated comfort level from last season. “There’s nothing I haven’t seen,” DeRozan said. “I know what teams are going to throw at me. No one is going to dictate what I do.”

Like many, DeRozan benefited from his Olympic experience. He studied the work ethic of Kevin Durant, absorbed the confidence of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, and took note of how hard Kyrie Irving works at getting better at finishing at the rim. He learned leadership, something he says he and Lowry strive to be better at every day.

“We are always trying to be better leaders,” DeRozan said. “We’re a better team because of last season. We were tested at the highest level. We fought through two Game 7s. We went to a Game 6 in the conference finals. Nothing came easy. To go through something like that, it builds you. We have a better understanding of what it takes to win.”

Mike D'Antoni does think about the Rockets' defensive ability. (Getty Images)
Mike D'Antoni does think about the Rockets' defensive ability. (Getty Images)

2 . Can a Mike D’Antoni team play enough D?

Thrust into an enhanced role, James Harden — Houston’s point guard in the absence of injured starter Patrick Beverly — has thrived in Mike D’Antoni’s up-tempo system. It’s no surprise. Harden has always been an elite scorer who can create offense off the dribble. Under D’Antoni, Harden has become more of a playmaker, averaging an NBA-leading 12.7 assists per game.

Those are MVP numbers. But MVPs come from winning teams, and for the Rockets to emerge as a conference contender, the team has to play high-level defense. So far the results have been mixed. There have been good nights (a 93-92 win over Dallas) and bad (a 128-120 loss to Cleveland), while overall Houston ranks in the bottom five in the NBA in defensive efficiency.

D’Antoni isn’t expecting the Rockets to be a great defensive team. But he believes there is a top-half-of-the-NBA defensive team in them.

“If we want to be a good team, top 15,” D’Antoni told The Vertical. “To be a be a very good team, top 10. We’ll see. Winning is hard. We have to go out and show we can do it.”

In recent stops, D’Antoni has tabbed an assistant coach to run his defenses. In Los Angeles, it was Steve Clifford; in New York, Mike Woodson. In Houston, D’Antoni has brought in ex-Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik and charged him with improving that end of the floor.

“Jeff does a great job with attention to detail,” D’Antoni said. “He says he needs 30 minutes [at practice], I give him 30 minutes. He needs an hour, I give him an hour. Whatever he needs.”

Scouts say the Rockets’ defensive strategy is to lean heavily on a handful of defensive stoppers. Trevor Ariza often draws the toughest defensive assignment. K.J. McDaniels is being groomed to take on a similar role. When the defense breaks down, Houston frequently relies on Clint Capela to clean up mistakes.

For D’Antoni, an improved Rockets defense is a simple matter of consistent commitment.

“Sometimes we get lulled into the fact we score a few times in a row, so we’re OK,” D’Antoni said. “We’re up eight, and we keep scoring. In their mind, they think they can’t catch us if we keep scoring. We’re trying to break that. We had to guard against that in Phoenix. Because it comes pretty easily, especially with James out there. He’s dropping all this stuff, everybody is celebrating and suddenly it’s time to go to work. We have to be about what’s next, we have to keep getting stops. Sometimes we need to be a little more ferocious.”

Two years ago, Harden was an MVP runner-up in part because of a stronger commitment to defense. Last season his reputation suffered when that commitment appeared to lapse. With Harden assuming a bigger role offensively, it’s natural to wonder if he will have the energy to make the commitment on the other end of the floor.

“He’s been great so far,” D’Antoni said. “I don’t think [it will be a problem]. Winning a championship is hard. Being on a great team is hard. He’s given everything. He’s talking, he’s encouraging, off the court is good. In all areas, I think he has improved.”

Phil Jackson's Knicks tenure hasn't been successful. (Getty Images)
Phil Jackson's Knicks tenure hasn't been successful. (Getty Images)

3. The reshaping of Phil Jackson’s legacy

In some pockets of the country, Phil Jackson’s legacy is secure. In Chicago and L.A., Jackson is a hero, arguably the greatest coach of all time and responsible for multiple championship banners. But as we get further removed from Jackson’s last coaching stint — 2011, remember —and more immersed in his role as an executive, the glow on him everywhere else has faded.

The Knicks — 2-4 in Jackson’s third full season running the team — are a mess, and once again the dysfunction has Jackson’s fingerprints on it. The triangle offense — an outdated system few other than Jackson believe in — is once again at the forefront of New York’s problems. The latest wrinkle: The commitment to running the triangle in practice has hurt the team’s ability to better prepare to defend other offenses. Players — including the usually soft-spoken Courtney Lee — have voiced this concern, and head coach Jeff Hornacek has tacitly agreed with them.

The solution: The Knicks announced that Kurt Rambis, Jackson’s longtime lieutenant who was thrust on Hornacek’s staff, will run the defense. The lukewarm response from players (“Whether we’re comfortable with it or not, it is what it is, so we have to buy into it,” Carmelo Anthony told reporters) says a lot about how the Knicks feel.

Recently, questions have swirled about Jackson’s long-term commitment to the franchise. The call back to L.A., to Jeanie Buss, was always thought to be an alluring siren song. But if this season continues to go off the rails, would the Knicks do anything to stop him from leaving? Jackson’s record in New York is unremarkable: 51-119, with no playoff appearances and a bloated payroll reminiscent of the Isiah Thomas years. Second-year phenom Kristaps Porzingis is Jackson’s crowning achievement, but his inability to put the right pieces around Porzingis and his unwillingness to let go of an offensive system only he is qualified to coach has set the franchise back. Jackson’s coaching record will always define him. But his lackluster run as an executive is finally starting to overshadow it.

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