Lakers looking for improvement after franchise's worst season

October, 20, 2016
Oct 20

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- As the Los Angeles Lakers embark on the post-Kobe Bryant era, their most notable newcomer is one of his former teammates, first-year head coach Luke Walton.

The 36-year-old Walton, a player on back-to-back Lakers championship teams in 2009 and 2010, is tasked with changing the culture and ultimately restoring luster to the franchise.

"I think he is our best free-agent signing in a few years," Lakers president Jeanie Buss said.

But that isn't as impressive as it sounds, given that every marquee free agent the Lakers have pursued in recent years has spurned them.

And while Buss, the team's top official, and her brother Jim, executive VP of basketball operations, apparently see eye-to-eye on Walton, the state of the siblings' relationship adds Hollywood drama to the Lakers' unprecedented struggles on the court.

Jeanie, 55, and Jim, 56, attained their positions at the behest of their late father, Jerry, who won 10 NBA championships in 34 years as owner of the storied franchise. By the time he died in 2013 after battling cancer, the Lakers' slide had begun.

The club has since endured its three worst seasons ever, posting successive records of 27-55, 21-61 and 17-65.

Last season's debacle led to Jim and general manager Mitch Kupchak firing coach Byron Scott in April, a move that Jeanie says she did not know was coming. She told Outside the Lines it would "probably make me more comfortable" to be consulted on important basketball decisions, but "I have to defer to them, because I've empowered them to run the basketball operation."

Official job titles notwithstanding, the Scott episode "says that her brother is in charge of basketball operations and she has absolutely no say-so," said John Salley, who played 11 seasons in the NBA and won the last of his four NBA championships as a member of the Lakers.

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The odds are against Metta World Peace making the Los Angeles Lakers' opening night roster, but the Lakers have interest in keeping the veteran forward around as an assistant coach if they can't make room for him as an active player, according to league sources.

Sources told that World Peace's impact as a mentor to young players last season was a big reason they invited him to training camp again under new coach Luke Walton.

This time, though, competition is much stiffer for the Lakers' 15th and final roster spot, thanks to the post-Olympics signing of China star Yi Jianlian and the strong play of camp invitee Thomas Robinson.

Sources say World Peace's preference, at age 36, is to continue his playing career, even if the Lakers ultimately decide they won't keep him and that forces him to look elsewhere. L.A.'s decision must be made by Monday at 5 p.m., when all NBA teams are required to get down to 15 players in advance of the first night of the regular season.

Yi, who can operate as a backup center as well as a floor-stretching forward, is regarded as the favorite to win the duel for the Lakers' last roster spot, after L.A. signed him to a one-year, $8 million deal to lure the former Milwaukee Bucks lottery pick away from his native China and back to the NBA. But because of the unique way the contract is structured, only $250,000 of that total is guaranteed, with Yi required to earn $6.8 million in what the league deems "likely" bonuses to collect the full amount.

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Brandon Ingram turned a corner against the Golden State Warriors: Brandon Ingram laughed when he heard the lighthearted question. Should Lakers point guard Marcelo Huertas be concerned about the backup point guard slot, given what a great job Ingram did at the point for parts of Wednesday night’s exhibition? Then he collected himself and offered the kind of measured and serious response he generally does. -- Los Angeles Times

Changes could lead to a breakout second season for Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell: The barriers no longer stand in front of D'Angelo Russell. He has a coach who will develop him more with positive reinforcement than frequent criticism. He is now leading a Lakers team instead of deferring to a Hall-of-Fame teammate. He also has an extra year of experience that taught him various lessons in work habits, maturity and basketball expertise. But even if Russell feels empowered in his second season, he does not feel encouraged that unnamed general managers voted him fourth in an poll on which players are most likely to have a breakout season. -- The Orange County Register

Lakers sought national anthem protest that stresses unity without disrespecting others: The nearly 20 players stood side-by-side near center court. Behind them, 20 more players did the same thing. Every player on the Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers then performed one uniform gesture. They locked arms together during the national anthem before a recent preseason game at Staples Center. Since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the anthem before games during the NFL preseason, other pro, college and high school athletes have followed with their own gestures to protest social injustice. So, the Lakers huddled in recent weeks and brainstormed how they would protest with one specific goal in mind. -- The Orange County Register

Luke Walton and D'Angelo RussellJoshua Dahl/USA TODAY Sports

This story is part of ESPN The Magazine's Oct. 31 NBA Preview Issue. Subscribe today!

Los Angeles Lakers

Overall: 109

Title track: 29

Ownership: 73

Coaching: 72

Players: 109

Fan relations: 112

Affordability: 116

Stadium experience: 80

Bang for the buck: 120

Change from last year: -8

Coming off their worst season in franchise history and after missing the playoffs three straight seasons, is it any wonder the rebuilding Lakers continue their Ultimate Standings slide? The (somewhat) bright side: Kobe Bryant and Byron Scott are out, which gives Luke Walton and the Lakers' kids a chance to start anew.

What's good

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Brandon Ingram plays his best game, but Lakers fall to Warriors: Rookie Brandon Ingram played his best game of the preseason and led the team with 21 points. He also had four assists, seven rebounds and two steals. “I think I’m making progressions every time I step on the floor,” Ingram said. -- Los Angeles Times

Brandon Ingram has breakout game in 123-112 preseason loss to Warriors: The movement looked so natural as Brandon Ingram navigated his way around the court. He sank shots with balance as he set his feet and squared up in triple threat position. He scanned the court and found open teammates both in half-court and transition. He slid his deceptively thin frame into the lane to pluck rebounds off the rim as if they were apples on a tree. The Lakers fell in love with Ingram when he perfected all those qualities during his lone season at Duke. After seeing him experience some hiccups in summer league and training camp, the Lakers saw Ingram flash signs of promising growth in their 123-112 preseason loss to the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday at Valley View Casino Center. -- Los Angeles Daily News

Luke Walton visits father's statue before exhibition vs. Warriors in San Diego: The man’s outstretched arms and infectious smile capture his friendly personality. The bike represents one of his favorite hobbies. And the statue depicting Hall-of-Famer center Bill Walton shows how much his native city reveres him. Despite endless preparation ahead of him before the Lakers’ exhibition against Golden State on Wednesday at Valley View Casino Center, Lakers coach Luke Walton visited his father’s statue in the arena’s upper concourse. “I heard nobody wants it,” Walton said. “Is that true?” -- The Orange County Register


Timofey Mozgov impresses in the third quarter with a perfectly executed jam and a highlight-reel block at the other end.

Check out 35 seconds where the Warriors got it done on the defensive and offensive end to prevent the Lakers from getting anything accomplished.

Klay Thompson stops D'Angelo Russell, takes the ball down the court and finds Kevin Durant for the dunk.

Are D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram future stars? Are the Lakers headed in the right direction? Which trades should they make?

Our NBA Insiders preview Los Angeles' 2016-17 season.

Thomas Robinson working hard to earn a spot with the Los Angeles Lakers: Thomas Robinson was the last player off the court after the Lakers’ midday practice Tuesday, just as he has been after nearly every practice this fall. So if Robinson is the last player cut before next week’s regular-season opener, it won’t be for a lack of effort. “It’s out of my hands now,” Robinson said after slumping wearily into a folding chair, his uniform soaked in sweat. -- Los Angeles Times

Luke Walton considers return to San Diego 'more of a business trip': More than 40 friends and family members will greet Luke Walton in his hometown Wednesday. They will see the same man who helped University High of San Diego win a CIF State championship his senior year patrol the Lakers’ sideline. They get to watch Walton guide the Lakers (2-4) against his former employer, the Golden State Warriors (4-1) in a preseason game at Valley View Casino Center. And they will see the unveiling of a statue of Walton’s Hall-of-Fame father, Bill. -- The Orange County Register

Nick Young hopes his new effort on defense earns him a spot in Lakers' rotation: As soon as the Lakers broke from a team huddle at the end of Monday’s practice, Nick Young shuffled to a spot in a corner of the court, behind the three-point line. His teammates were slow to clear out from under the basket, so Young blew on his hands to stay warm in the chilly gym. Then he got antsy, shifting his weight from side to side before beckoning for a Lakers staffer to throw him a ball. -- Los Angeles Times


Luke Walton takes his team through practice in his first season as head coach of the Lakers.

Brandon Ingram's confidence hasn't wavered as he adjusts to the NBA: The matchups won’t get much tougher for Brandon Ingram than one he faced Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Kevin Durant, another former second-overall pick, a seven-time all-star, the 2014 league MVP and new Golden State Warrior, metaphorically towered over Ingram during the Lakers’ 112-107 loss. -- Los Angeles Times

Lakers impressed with Thomas Robinson's hustle: The devastating force seemed unstoppable no matter how hard Lakers forward Thomas Robinson contested the shot. The Lakers became disorganized on defense once again, leaving Robinson with the thankless task with stopping Warriors center JaVale McGee. Instead, he threw down a one-handed dunk in the Lakers’ 112-107 exhibition loss Golden State on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena, a play that soon became fodder afterward in the locker room. -- The Orange County Register

Draymond Green says Julius Randle 'has potential' to be better than him: With the ball in his hands, Lakers forward Julius Randle stared straight ahead at one of his mentors, but he didn’t look intimidated by Draymond Green’s formidable presence. Instead, Randle charged past him. After drawing a foul on the Golden State Warriors’ All-Star forward, Randle shouted four words that quickly went viral. “He can’t guard me!,” Randle said, shaking his head dismissively. The Lakers play host to the Golden State Warriors in a preseason game Wednesday at San Diego Sports Arena nearly a year after that episode took place at the same venue. -- The Orange County Register

Laid-back Luke Walton looks to duplicate Warriors' culture with Lakers

October, 15, 2016
Oct 15
Holmes By Baxter Holmes

LAS VEGAS -- Luke Walton was late -- not for the game but the pregame media session. He wasn't late by a whole lot but just enough to technically qualify. And as the Los Angeles Lakers coach strolled into T-Mobile Arena on Saturday night, Walton was stopped by his old boss, Golden State Warriors GM Bob Myers, who offered Walton a hug and a few ribbings for being tardy. Walton laughed. He wasn’t exactly Mr. Punctual during his two seasons as a Warriors assistant, owing to his laid-back persona. So Walton at least proved to Myers that he hadn't changed much since, even if so much around him is different and new.

Walton soon headed to the Warriors locker room to reconnect with familiar faces, and head coach Steve Kerr spotted him. The two caught up. In an effort to go easy on an old colleague, Kerr told Walton precisely what play the Warriors were going to run to start the game. Walton objected. “No, don’t call that play first,” he told Kerr. “I want to be surprised.”

There wasn’t much surprise about what unfolded over the next 48 minutes, when the championship-contending Warriors toyed with the rebuilding Lakers for most of a not-nearly-as-close-as-the-final-score-indicated 112-107 preseason win in Walton’s first game against his former team.

“That was a good lesson for our guys,” Walton said afterward. “The way that the Warriors cut, how quick the ball moves from one man to the next, playing aggressive on the defensive end -- these are all things that we want to get better at. There’s a lot to be able to watch [on] tape and learn and hopefully grow from it as a group.”

In most cases, Walton said he won’t use film of another team as a learning tool, but the Warriors are different, in part because the Lakers are trying to borrow from Golden State's schemes and style.

Obviously, a Grand Canyon-sized gap separates these teams: One won a record 73 regular-season games last season; the other posted a franchise-worst 65 losses. And it’s unreasonable to expect any coach -- let alone the NBA’s youngest coach at age 36 -- to close such a gap soon, if ever.

But creating a similar culture is a more feasible goal, even if it, too, will take time.

“The culture that we had up there is what I’m trying to build down here,” Walton said. “Obviously, [there are] different starting points. It’s a different plan of attack because of where we’re at and the youth that we have. Obviously some new coaches are coming in and some new [veteran players are] coming in. But the way they did things, as far as big picture, is something I’d like to see down here with the way our players develop and look forward to coming and doing the work today.”

Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesCoaching against the Warriors for the first time in Saturday's preseason game, Luke Walton was hoping some of his old team's winning culture rubbed off on his young Lakers.

Walton expanded on what was so special about the Warriors’ culture that he wants to replicate in Los Angeles.

“It was just a good work environment,” he continued. “It was a family atmosphere. Guys enjoyed coming in and competing every day. There was a value on doing things the right way. There was a value on the way that people held each other accountable.

"And I think that kind of provides the right platform for growth and players that want to come in and work every day, even on optional days. We had an optional day last week and every guy on our team was in there -- some longer than others -- but they were still all in there, which is what you want to see.”

Kerr didn’t mince words about how the Warriors were able to forge their culture in the first place. “Um, talent,” he said with a laugh. “Honestly, you can come in with all kinds of ideas, but the players have to be good enough to win games. And I think the Lakers are building a really good wealth of young talent. I think they’ll get there. They have to be willing to work, and our guys were willing to work right away. Luke and I are pretty similar in our approach to the game. We want the ball to move. We want guys to work, but we want to have fun. We understand that this is a game. This is sport. They’re going to probably play better if they’re enjoying the atmosphere, and Luke will create a good atmosphere for them to work in.”

Already, Walton is receiving positive reviews.

“I’ve talked to most of the guys over there,” said Warriors guard Stephen Curry. “They all love him and his approach to coaching their team. That says a lot about who he is and how he’s going to try to change their culture.”

“Very positive atmosphere,” added Lakers forward Julius Randle. “We know we’re going to take our lumps, but we’re just trying to get better every day. We just know that we’ve got a lot to learn.”

One of Walton’s greatest attributes is his ability to connect with players, and it certainly helps that his 10-season playing career ended just three years ago. That strength is magnified considering that the coach he replaced (Byron Scott) struggled mightily to connect with the Lakers’ young core for two seasons.

“He’s just got great social skills, interpersonal skills,” Kerr said. “Everybody who knows Luke just loves being around him. He’s smart. He’s funny. He’s a wise-ass, but he’s self-deprecating at the same time. He talks trash. It all comes across in a really fun, well-meaning manner. Everything he does. And it’s all genuine. There’s no facade. There’s no mind games. No trick questions. He’s a great communicator and he’s fun to be around.”

Added Warriors guard Klay Thompson, “He’s young and knows what it takes to be good in this league and have a great team. And it’s easy to listen to a guy who played a long time in this league, and Luke did that. He’s been around a lot of great teams. They’ve got a good, young core over there. They’re trying to make big steps to get back to where they were. I think Luke having been where the Lakers were in some of their best years, I think it’s huge for them.”

In terms of relating to players, Walton said that was one of the main traits he learned from Kerr.

“It was the first time I’d been around that type of open relationship [between] player/coach, and that’s naturally who I am,” Walton said. “I like being able to talk to the guys and include them in decisions and get their feedback. The way [Kerr] did that and the success we had and how much that helped in having players take ownership of what we were doing as a team is something that is a big part of my coaching style now.”

But Thompson relayed the obvious -- re-creating a Warriors-like environment won’t be easy. He said theirs came together because of hard work and selflessness, as evidenced by ex-Warrior David Lee and current Warrior Andre Iguodala both agreeing to come off the bench during key stretches in recent years, even though both players have been All-Stars.

“They didn’t have to [do that], but they did it for the betterment of the team,” Thompson said. “So [Walton will] probably bring that same attitude to the Lakers, just about selflessness and [a] team-first [mentality].”

With that said, Walton has had the pleasure of being around plenty of winning in recent years, especially when the Warriors won a title during his first season and then fell one shy of repeating this past summer. The Lakers, meanwhile, have set a franchise-record for most losses in a single season ... for three straight seasons. In short, this process will no doubt test his patience.

“They’ll be a lot better this year,” Thompson said. “A lot of those guys are young. They’ve got another year under their belt, and that’s huge. I think [Walton is] smart, and he knows that it’s not going to be built overnight, and he understands that it takes time to be great. He’ll lose sleep over losses, because he’s competitive, but he won’t be killed if they don’t have great success early on, because he knows it takes time, especially with such a young team like that.”

Walton again stated that the priority for the Lakers is not necessarily winning right now, but learning a system and creating a culture. “And if that ends up costing a couple wins here or there, I think that’s something that we have to live with as a group,” he said, “because in the bigger picture, it’s more important that we have those basics down, those fundamentals down.”

He acknowledged, though, that maintaining a big-picture view while enduring losses will wear on him.

“It is very hard, yes,” Walton said. “But you have a big-picture plan, and I have a staff that I trust and we talk about things like that and we know the approach that we’re going to take. I’ll have them remind me of that when times are tough.”

Walton will face countless adjustments not only because he’s in a different organization but also because he’s a rookie head coach. Kerr reflected back on his first year as a head coach, which culminated with a title two seasons ago. The biggest challenge in that inaugural season, Kerr said, was finding time to teach.

“You have all these grand plans and then you draw up the practice plan and you’ve gotten halfway through and realize that you’ve got to get the players off the floor because it’s an 82-game season and they're tired,” he said. “So it’s surprising how little practice time you have that first year.”

Walton said he’s already experiencing that exact challenge.

“Even during the games, there’s only so much you can call out because there’s only so much you can put in, and there’s a million things you want to put in, but you can’t get to it,” Walton said. "I like getting in there and going really hard for a short amount of time and keeping the attention of the players throughout the whole time. But obviously with a new group, you have to be patient and you can’t just come in and do that.”

Kerr is confident in Walton, someone he described as a “great guy” and “one of my best friends.” Kerr continued, “We’re all going to miss him, but we’re all happy for him. And I know he wouldn’t have taken any other job but the Lakers job to leave Golden State. So I’m glad they’re in the same division so we at least get to see each other four times a year, plus preseason.”

Kerr then shared a favorite story about Walton, one that captures his personality well.

“I don’t know if you guys know this, but he rarely made it out for the national anthem in the last two years,” Kerr began. “Luke is the most laid-back guy on Earth. The rest of the coaches would be showered and ready to go with 15 minutes on the clock, and Luke would be in a towel with his legs kicked up on the table and there’d be seven minutes on the clock before the anthem. He’d have a dip [of chewing tobacco] in his mouth. [The] most laid-back guy ever. He’d hop in the shower [with] about six minutes left. The anthem would finally come to a close and the starting lineups would be announced, and here comes Luke, big smile on his face.”

On Saturday, Kerr asked Walton if he was making it out in time for the national anthem this preseason, and Walton said just barely -- another sign he hasn't changed, even if so much around him has.

ESPN’s Arash Markazi contributed to this report.


Jalen Rose and David Jacoby discuss Joel Embiid and D'Angelo Russell's stellar performances, and Russell Westbrook's tussle with Marc Gasol to decide whether these stories really mean anything.



Kobe Bryant
17.6 2.8 0.9 28.2
ReboundsJ. Randle 10.2
AssistsM. Huertas 3.4
StealsD. Russell 1.2
BlocksT. Black 0.5