LOS ANGELES — When Luke Walton agreed to become the next coach of the Los Angeles Lakers in April, he joined one of the NBA’s flagship franchises at arguably the lowest point in its illustrious history.
Yes, Kobe Bryant exited the stage in as brilliant a way as the future first-ballot Hall of Famer possibly could, scoring 60 points against the Utah Jazz in the final game of his 20-year career. But Bryant’s performance in that game was an oasis in an utterly miserable three-year stretch that saw the Lakers register declining win totals of 27, 21 and 17, marking their three worst seasons since moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in 1960.
Combine that with previous coach Byron Scott’s tough-love approach to the team’s youngsters, everything being geared around Bryant and a series of high-profile free agents either leaving or spurning the Lakers, and the result was the creation of a toxic atmosphere that hung low like the smog in the city on a hot day.
“The mood the last couple years, with Kobe coming to the end of his career, basically 20 years ago … it didn’t go smoothly,” General Manager Mitch Kupchak said.
Into all of that stepped Walton, fresh off two hugely successful seasons as an assistant with the Golden State Warriors. He won a championship in the first, and, after filling in for Steve Kerr for half of the second while leading the Warriors to a 39-4 record, he was set to try and restore the Lakers to their former glory.
“One hundred percent,” Walton said of restoring the franchise’s reputation being a factor in him taking the job. “I take pride in being a former Laker, and being a guy that was on a team that won championships and went through tough times and all of that.
“This was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to.”
Through his team’s first few weeks of the new season, Walton couldn’t be doing a better job of accomplishing that kind of restoration.
Things are very different in Lakerland. With three straight wins — including a blowout over Golden State in Los Angeles Friday night — the Lakers are now 4-3 and headed into a five-game stretch against opponents with a combined record of 7-24, beginning Tuesday night against the Dallas Mavericks.
Not many are realistically expecting this team to make a playoff push, even after its hot start. But there is an undeniable energy and excitement around the Lakers that simply hasn’t existed in years.
It’s no coincidence the feeling arrived with the reintroduction of Walton to Los Angeles. At 36, Walton still looks young enough to pass for a player and clearly has a knack for relating to them too. Both the young roster he’s inherited in Los Angeles and the star-studded one he left behind with Golden State are full of players who will rave about him.
But it’s one thing to praise a coach; it’s quite another to play hard for him. And as Walton has spread playing time around — the Lakers have 10 players who have appeared in at least six games, and all of them are averaging between 14 and 28 minutes per game — his charges have responded by playing inspired ball that’s already led the Lakers to achieve several unexpected results in the early going.
“I’ve been on teams where everyone’s involved, and I’ve been on teams where there’s division,” Walton said. “First hand, I know when you’re on a team and you feel part of it, and guys like each other and want to succeed together, it’s the greatest job in the world as a player.
“When it’s the other side, it’s still a great job, because you’re playing basketball. But it’s not the same, and you don’t get the same results.”
The shining — and in many ways, stunning — example of Walton’s impact on the team has been the emergence of Nick Young as a critical component. By the end of last season, as Young had seen his numbers dip for a third straight season and been embroiled in a controversy with teammate D’Angelo Russell involving Snapchat that ended his relationship with pop star Iggy Azalea, it seemed far more likely Young would be waived before the start of this season than playing heavy minutes.
But Walton gave Young a chance when resting other players during the preseason. He did so by challenging Young, who has famously built his career around being a gunner who wasn’t known for doing much of anything else, to focus instead on something else: playing defense.
“The year I did TV with the Lakers, he bought into playing defense, and he was good at it,” Walton said. “So I’ve seen him do it before.”
So Walton asked Young to do it again. And, remarkably, Young did. The result is a player who both Walton and Kupchak admitted was a potential cut as recently as training camp yet became the team’s starting shooting guard instead. Walton has repeatedly praised Young’s work ethic on the defensive end throughout the season.
“Luke has been unbelievable,” Young said. “For him to give me a chance through everything, and for me to still be here, that’s great. I’m just gonna go out there and give him 100 percent every night.”
That seems to be a common theme among these Lakers. There are going to be plenty of growing pains — five of their nine rotation players (Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance and Brandon Ingram) range from 19 to 24 — but they’ve already shown a willingness to battle back within games.
Through the opening seven games, the Lakers are getting outscored by 5.6 points per 100 possessions in the first half. But, after getting a chance to regroup at halftime, the numbers are shockingly better: At of the start of Monday night’s action, the Lakers were the fourth-best second half team in the league, outscoring teams by an even nine points per 100 possessions.
It’s one of several signs that Walton and his coaching staff are making quite an impact on their young charges even in the early stages of their time together.
“Every film session there’s a lot of good, and the good is getting more and more, but there’s still too much bad,” Walton said. “But as long as that ratio keeps going in the direction of … every team, look at the best teams in the world, they’re going to make mistakes. So as long as that ratio keeps going in the right direction, than we’re good.”
Right now, the ratio of everything in Los Angeles is headed in the right direction. The result is an organization that finally looks like a competent one. For that, the Lakers can thank Walton, and the newfound energy he’s injected into a team, and a city, that desperately needed it.