Following a 101-89 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, where the Los Angeles Lakers led by seven points at halftime before being outscored 31-13 in the third quarter, Lakers coach Luke Walton shared his unfiltered frustrations.
"I really thought we'd turned a corner a little bit," the 36-year-old coach said. "Obviously, you don't fix everything over night, but I thought we had made some big progress. I was disappointed to see that we had the same type of result again—a very similar game to what we've seen the last week or two."
With the defeat, the Lakers capped off December with their 14th defeat in 16 games to end off a miserable 2016, which witnessed the Lakers losing 62 of 85 games during the calendar year of 2016.
"As a team, we're going to be fine. We're going to figure it out," Walton shared his message to the team after the final defeat of the year. "'When?' is the question. How much does it mean to us right now, to figure it out this season? Or do we want to wait two, three years as natural development happens?"
Walton reminded his players, the media and probably most importantly, himself, "We've proven to ourselves that we're capable of beating anyone in this league when we're competing and playing defense and sharing the ball on offense. We have it within us to make that improvement and to make it sooner, rather than later, but a lot of it has to be individual desire to want it now."
Walton added, "Time will tell."
After Walton and the Lakers started the season 10-10, the team appeared set to be the surprise story of the season. Where would the Lakers rank in the Western Conference playoffs? What would a year of playoff experience mean to a young Lakers' squad? Would Walton win Coach of the Year?
A month later, the coach looked frustrated and sounded demoralized.
"No, it's not demoralizing," Walton corrected that observation. "It's frustrating. It's where we're at right now. I was hopeful and thought that we had learned from our past mistakes. The most frustrating part was that it happened again...the most frustrating part was our initial fight coming out of the half."
Walton shrugged helplessly as he shared that he thought his team had learned from its mistakes and that the beatings of December had taught the young Lakers the importance of staying focused and competing for the full 48 minutes.
"I was expecting a little more fight when we started the half, but I was wrong," Walton said, not pulling any punches.
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NBA coaches, though, are a fighting, optimistic bunch. Leaders of losing team, in particular, seem to be able to focus on the glass being half full, or even a quarter full.
"But I'm still very confident that our group is going to get it," Walton said. "It's just, unfortunately, it seems like we're going to have to take a lot of these lumps before it really kicks in to how hard it really is and how locked in we have to be as a young team in the NBA to get wins."
He continued, "It's part of the learning process, but after you get hit so many times, you would hope that you would start to see that change happening. Unfortunately, tonight wasn't one of those nights."
Certainly, the Lakers are taking their lumps. They've been taking them for some time, but under Walton, these lumps seem to feature far more learning that the lumps received under the previous regime. Thursday night didn't display that progress, but the coach seems to be accepting of the learning process and far less inclined to panic and change his approach due to the losing.
"Technically, we could start yanking players every time they make mistakes, but we're not going to do that," Walton said. "We don't want players playing, looking at the bench every time they're doing something. Taking lumps is a great way to learn...your parents tell you to do something. You don't listen. You go out and do something stupid. Then, you know, 'I shouldn't do that anymore.' So, we'll take our lumps. Hopefully, that lesson works and we don't keep doing whatever it is we shouldn't be doing."
Walton answered honestly, "I don't have a time table or formula to speed up the process."
The coach, though, did not think that team had entirely fallen flat in the face of learning. He contended that the players were slowly figuring it out, but his body language and speech suggested that the speed was testing his patience.
Walton said, "Through our failures and these times, we should grow and become a better team."
The coach made it clear that changing lineups, though, was not the answer.
"I want to keep it consistent," Walton said of lineups. "We can obviously make changes. The lineups aren't the problem. The lineups we have work. They're just not working for the whole game right now. The first unit's been playing much better than they were at the beginning of the year. The second unit has struggled a little since the beginning of the season, but they've been affected by injuries, what not, coming in and out. The lineups are fine together. It's just putting together a good first quarter, then a good second quarter, then regathering at halftime and coming out and playing well in the second half again."
Somehow, the Lakers ended Thursday night still only 4.0 games back of the Sacramento Kings for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Will the Lakers learn their lessons in time to make a run at the postseason?
As Walton stated earlier, "Time will tell."