SANTA BARBARA — The young coach has returned to a familiar place full of fresh ideas on how to exert his influence and establish a culture. For Luke Walton, those concepts go beyond mixing in work and fun to create a positive environment. It does not just involve incorporating offensive concepts, such as fluid ball movement, balanced spacing and an up-tempo pace.
For as much as Walton learned in his two years as a Golden State assistant, the biggest lesson will perhaps emerge as soon as the 2016-17 season begins. Then an expected reality will emerge that shows a stark contrast in the talent level between the Lakers’ young core and the Warriors’ championship roster.
So as much as Walton will emphasize the same offensive concepts that made the Warriors such an unstoppable force, he will mostly rely on something else that drove Golden State’s success. Walton spent most of the first week of training camp emphasizing defense. But while Golden State finished eighth in team defensively efficiency, the Lakers ranked nearly last in every defensive statistical category.
Walton sounded confident when he said, “I think we will be a good defensive team.” He listed the acquisition of 7-foot-1 rim protector Timofey Mozgov. Walton touted the team’s “defensive versatility,” ranging from 12-year veteran Luol Deng, third-year forward Julius Randle, second-year forward Larry Nance Jr., third-year forward Tarick Black and rookie swingman Brandon Ingram.
“That’s where we can make a lot of progress,” Walton said. “If we can get after it on defense, that will allow us to get out and run. That’s what we want to do.”
Rarely did the Lakers show such a thing last season.
The Lakers finished 27th out of 30 NBA teams in points allowed (106.9). They ranked last in the NBA in defensive rating, allowing 109.3 points per 100 possessions. They fared 29th in defensive field-goal percentage (47.3%) and 29th in fast-break points allowed (17). They only fared respectable in defensive 3-point field-goal percentage (34.7%).
The Lakers also averaged only 12.2 fast-break points per game partly because the plodding Roy Hibbert slowed down the Lakers’ youthful speed. The Lakers have held out hope Mozgov can keep up with the pace.
“I think we can be good. It starts with one-on-one defense. You have to be hungry,” Mozgov said. “You have to compete. And you have to show what you can do by yourself and then it comes down to team defense and communication. We work on it everyday.”
It sounds like others are embracing the task.
Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson has sounded encouraged about Walton challenging him to become an elite defender. Walton has told Ingram to pride himself on cementing his effectiveness mostly on defense. And Nance vowed he will elevate his game as well.
“That’s something I’ll shoulder the burden on,” Nance said. “The defensive end will be my end of the floor.”
Yet, the Lakers’ identity for better or worse does not appear to rest on well each player performs on their respective matchups.
“Transition defense and team defense needs to be played as a unit,” Walton said. “It’s not individually having one good defender here and another one here.”
All of which begs the question: will the Lakers actually fulfill this job description? Former Lakers coach Byron Scott emphasized defense after former coach Mike D’Antoni often faced criticism for not spending enough time both teaching those concepts and holding those players accountable. But after the Lakers ranked nearly last in every defensive category during D’Antoni’s second season, the Lakers played nearly just as bad under Scott.
It did not help that the Lakers allowed their offensive inefficiency to affect their enthusiasm both for rushing back on defense and staying organized together.
“It’s about playing for each other on the defensive end. There’s five guys,” Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell said. “The more stops we get, the more we can get out and run. We can be as exciting as we want to be on the offensive end and in transition.”
First things first, though. The Lakers must first become exciting on defense, an area that will likely be the most realistic to emulate from Golden State. Hence, players appreciated Walton explaining in precise detail various defensive concepts, including closing out, rotating, defending off the ball and providing contact.
“That’s where they hung their hat on,” Clarkson said of the Warriors. “The scoring stuff will come. The more stops you get, the more opportunities you get to score.”