Los Angeles

Opinion: Lakers Prove They're Better Without Walton in Former Coach's Return to LA

Former Los Angeles Lakers head coach returned to Staples Center on Friday for the first time since he parted ways with the team in April.

Luke Walton is a Lakers legend.

Despite averaging less than five points in his career, he was a fan favorite, a role player, and a second son to Phil Jackson.

Following his playing career, Walton was hired by the Lakers as a player development coach for the team's G-League affiliate, the Los Angeles D-Fenders.

After a two-year stint with the Golden State Warriors, Walton returned to the Lakers when he was named the head coach in April of 2016.

Fans lauded the hire, and would greet Walton at Staples Center with chants of "Luuuuuuke," every time his name was announced during pregame introductions.

"It's always a special place when you come into the building," Walton said of Staples Center ahead of his return on Friday. "A lot of great memories in L.A. It was a great opportunity playing here and coaching here."

The great memories were sparse during Walton's time has head coach of the Lakers. In his three years in charge, the Lakers struggled, they went 98-148 and missed the playoffs in all three seasons.

In the summer of 2018, when four-time MVP and three-time NBA Champion LeBron James joined the Lakers in free agency, expectations went through the roof. Both fans and players alike believed LeBron and Walton would help return this historic franchise back to glory. But the team got off to a 2-5 start, and Walton was publicly admonished by his then boss, Magic Johnson.

Against all odds, Walton kept his job despite the Lakers falling in the standings faster than the sun stays out after daylight savings time. On March 27, after a loss to the Utah Jazz mathematically eliminated the Lakers from the playoffs, Walton said, "I fully expect to be coaching this team [Lakers] again next year."

Two weeks later, he was unemployed.

Walton landed on his feet, as the Sacramento Kings hired him two days later. He once again got off to a sluggish start with his new team, as the Kings began this season 0-5. 

On Friday, Walton returned to Staples Center for the first time since he was let go by the Lakers. Sacramento played scrappy, and nearly pulled off the upset. But ultimately, LeBron and his new running mate Anthony Davis, proved to be too much for Walton and the Kings, and they fell to the Lakers, 99-97.

"It was fun," Walton said after the game. "This job is fun, it's stressful, it's hard, but as a competitor this is what you love to do. To be back in your old building and playing against the team you used to coach and play for is exciting."

The Lakers victory over Walton in what was labeled his "revenge game," revealed what most of us in Los Angeles already knew: the Lakers are better off without Walton.

Sexual assault allegations from a former Spectrum SportsNet reporter that covered the Lakers aside, the team is simply better in all facets of the game under new head coach Frank Vogel, than they ever were under Walton.

Walton's tenure with the Lakers exposed many flaws. One of the biggest complaints against Walton was his game planning and rotations. His odd combinations on the floor rarely complimented the talent he had at his disposal.

In Walton's three seasons as Lakers coach, the team lacked the consistency, especially on defense, to compete with the upper echelon teams in the league, let alone make the postseason. The Lakers were ranked 12th in the league in defense in Walton's final season. This year, they are ranked first.

As a player, Walton learned under the tutelage of Phil Jackson and Byron Scott. The former, an 11-time NBA champion as a head coach, was famous for teaching the mental aspect of the game of basketball. Known as the "Zen Master," Jackson rarely dabbled in X's and O's, but instead was an expert on how to manage personalities, assuage egos, and inspire players.

Unfortunately, that unique skillset does not appear to have been passed down from mentor to pupil. Walton often struggled to get his team motivated and energized for games against inferior opponents, specifically during his final season with LeBron James on the roster.

The Zen Master always remained calm under pressure, famously not calling timeouts when other coaches would, preferring his players overcome obstacles and adversity on their own. While Walton remained calm under pressure on the sidelines, he appeared to struggle at in-game adjustments and inspiring comebacks. The Lakers trailed by double-digits countless times throughout his tenure, but Walton repeatedly failed to make the adjustments necessary to rally his team and get them over the hump to secure a come-from-behind win.

Under Walton, the Lakers had just 11 come-from-behind victories when trailing by double-digits at any point in the game. This season, the Lakers already have four such wins in only 12 games played.

All of this is not necessarily a knock against Walton as a person, or even a final judgment on his abilities as a head coach. The 39-year-old is still in his coaching infancy, and may very well turn out to be a tremendous head coach in the years to come. Nonetheless, the Lakers have already proven in just a short time, they are better off without him.

The Lakers replaced Walton with veteran head coach Frank Vogel. In just a small sample size, Vogel has already proven that he excels in the areas Walton struggled. Vogel has preached defense since Day 1, and it has showed on the court. Even when the Lakers have lacked offensively, they've proven the ability to buckle down on defense, create stops, and close out games.

Vogel's penchant for making in-game adjustments has been on display all season, but none more so than on Friday against Walton's Kings. In the first quarter, Sacramento deployed a strategy similar to what the L.A. Clippers did in the Opening Game at Staples Center. Point guard Cory Joseph, a strong defender, picked up LeBron James full court on defense, forcing the ball out of the hands of the Lakers best playmaker.  

With LeBron suffocated, the Lakers went down by double-digits, and by as many as 13 points in the second quarter. Vogel adjusted. He inserted Alex Caruso into the game to close out the second quarter, and then started him in the second half. Caruso gave the Lakers another ball handler and playmaker to take the pressure off LeBron. The move worked brilliantly, and the Lakers rallied to close the first half, and took the lead for most of the second.

"They were trying to junk the game up a little bit. They had Cory pick up LeBron full court," said Vogel of the adjustment. "You can either wear him out the entire game doing that, or put in another ball handler, and that's what we did."

In Walton's defense, the Lakers have a much talented roster this season than in any of the past three. The additions of Anthony Davis, and veterans like Dwight Howard and Danny Green, have been integral in the Lakers success to start the season.

However, one could easily argue that Walton had a talented enough roster with LeBron last season to at the very least make the playoffs. Instead, they finished 10th in the Western Conference, and 11 games behind the Clippers for the eighth and final playoff spot.

"Throughout everything that was going on, we tried to remain positive and patient," said James about last season before facing Walton for the first time on Friday. "We were right where we wanted to be on Dec. 25th.

We went up to Golden State and played a very good team, and then the injury happened and I missed six-and-a-half weeks. Nobody could have predicted that, including myself and Luke. That put us behind the eight ball. Throughout it all, we just tried to remain positive. I think he did as great of a job as he could do under the circumstances."

Walton is not entirely to blame for the Lakers struggles the last three seasons. He did do a good job of developing younger players as is evident by the emergence of Kyle Kuzma, and Brandon Ingram in New Orleans. Nevertheless, he was not the right coach for the Lakers at this point in their history.

On Friday, in his return to Staples Center, the customary chants of "Luuuuke," were instead drowned out by a chorus of overwhelming boos. A sign that fans understand that Walton underachieved as head coach, and that for the Lakers to return to glory, it was necessary to move forward without him.

Update: The sexual assault charges against Luke Walton were dropped, and the case was dismissed "with prejudice."

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