Report Card - Luke Walton
On the heels of signing a generous - many thought overly so - six-year, $30-million deal after a solid 2006-07 campaign, Luke Walton came into camp this season with the increased expectations that came with the new contract and couldn't deliver, unable to find a groove on the floor as his role with the team changed and he battled health problems. And though by some of the comments on this site you'd think he was solely responsible for everything from each regular season and playoff loss to global warming to the weak dollar (all while clubbing baby seals in his spare time), there's no question Walton wasn't the player L.A. needed him to be for the majority of the season.
There were some mitigating circumstances, as I alluded to above. The first was an ever-changing role on the team, leading to ever-fluctuating minutes. Sometimes he was a starter, sometimes he came off the bench. Some nights he'd play 30 minutes, others 12. That can be a tough adjustment for any player, and Walton was clearly no exception. The second was injuries. Walton dealt with ankle problems at the start of the year that dogged him throughout, and also had some hip issues. Never the most athletic of players, Walton struggled to get lift inside, making him a much easier cover and leading to an inordinate amount of his shots blocked close to the basket.
More than that, though, Walton's biggest problem was confidence. The season before, Walton came out gunning, developing his long-range game and forcing defenses to respect his outside shot. His three-point percentage was a career-high 39% and was particularly good in the opening weeks of the season. This gave him room to operate, opening passing lanes he was able to exploit. This year, however, the shots didn't fall with quite as much frequency, and Walton often became hesitant to pull the trigger. The results from distance only exacerbated the problem. The 33.3% from downtown in December made his February (20%) and March (16.7%) averages seem robust by comparison. Worse, his passing skills, the big foundation of his floor game, were off. Walton too often tried too hard to be too perfect. He wasn't, and his assist-to-turnover ratio suffered as a result. In November, for example, it fell to an abysmal 2.6-1.7. Mistakes hurt his confidence, which led to more mistakes, and impacted his playing time. You see where this is going.
It wasn't all bad. Over the season's final weeks, Walton's play improved. His A/TO ratio began trending in the right direction, as did the overall consistency of his play. His shot even came back toward the end of March and into April, and Walton found a measure of redemption with a strong first-round series against the Nuggets.
In the end, when you look at Walton's final numbers, they're not awful. Yes, they're lower than what he produced the year before, but that's to be expected given that he went from a starter to a sub. 7.2/3.9/3.0, shooting 45% from the field. But the stats don't really tell the story. Walton is a guy whose impact is often felt on the margins. A good pass here to facilitate the offense, a quick outlet to start the break, etc. The overall quality of his play just wasn't there, and as a result there was little consistency to his contributions. Ironically, his oft-maligned defense was often the most consistent part of Walton's game. As he said in his exit interview, it was a very positive year for the team, but on an individual level it wasn't good. Take the year as a whole, and Walton simply didn't play well.
Grade (Remember, I use C as average, based on my expectations for the particular player): D+