Luke Walton shares frustrations regarding his back injury
Plenty of episodes transpired this season that helped push Lakers forward Luke Walton into what he called a "dark moment."
He played in only 29 regular-season games because of a pinched nerve in his lower back. Even when he finally returned in mid-January, it took only a month before the pain returned. And then there's his father, Bill Walton, who went through similar problems with his spine, injuries that doctors believe aren't genetic in the Walton family but have been all too common.
Luke Walton's injury-plagued career with the Lakers inevitably raises questions about whether the Lakers should absorb the three years left on his $16-million contract. All those negative issues often became too much for Walton to bear.
"There were a lot of times this year where I was really down and out," Walton said. "I was struggling. I wasn't a happy man."
Walton enters this summer in what should be the most important off-season in his seven-year career. His exit interview this week primarily centered on how he'll treat his back this summer. Walton's back also influenced Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak in selecting West Virginia forward Devin Ebanks with the 43rd pick Thursday in the NBA draft. And how Walton recovers this summer will strongly influence his standing with the team.
"With Luke's back, we're not sure what the future holds for him," Kupchak said. "He struggled this year and to his credit, came back and was available during the playoffs. But he really struggled. He's going to devote the summer to rehabilitation. But if Luke can't really make a contribution next year, we felt we really had to get somebody who could back him up."
That's why Walton views it as critical that he tackles his off-season work the right way. He's visiting several "specialists" who will work with him to increase his strength so he can avoid surgery. He's refusing to dwell on his extensive injury history. And he's hoping to maintain a positive attitude, which helped him get through the season despite some dark moments.
Some Lakers fans roll their eyes at the following premise considering Walton's marginal statistical impact. But the Lakers coaching staff and players value Walton for his passing abilities, understanding of the triangle offense and fulfilling the team-first player that Coach Phil Jackson preaches. It's not a bold claim that had Walton been healthy this season, the offensive fluidity in the regular season would have been much smoother and Ron Artest's struggle with the triangle wouldn't have been as heavily exposed.
That's partly why the team embraced him, which helped Walton fight through his frustrations this season, described by him as the "toughest" and "frustrating with exception to winning the team championship." Walton enjoyed the rare moments he spent with his father. He cherished the opportunity Jackson granted him in helping out the coaching staff. And he relished traveling with the team.
"It gave me my sense of self-worth," Walton said, "even though I wasn't able to play."
Walton hopes his self-worth next season will be derived from playing, something that will be answered this off-season. He believes there will be a pay off so long as he keeps a positive attitude.
"I've got to be optimistic about it," Walton said. "I've got to be looking forward to the challenge in getting this thing better and letting it play out how it does."
Follow the L.A. Times Lakers blog on Twitter: twitter.com/latmedina. E-mail the Lakers blog at email@example.com