Luke Walton's return to practice should help newcomers' grasp of triangle offense
Heading into his first practice since straining his right hamstring two weeks ago, Lakers forward Luke Walton on Monday took an evenhanded approach.
He participated in a full practice, and plans to increase the intensity in each ensuing day. Both Lakers Coach Phil Jackson and Walton are leaning toward his sitting out the Lakers' exhibition game Tuesday against Utah, and are hoping he could play Thursday against Golden State. And after going through an off-season in which he's rehabbed his back, Walton hopes to reach that fine line between continuing to strengthen it without causing negative effects.
"Probably," Walton said when asked if the back injury that limited him to 29 games last season related to his recently strained right hamstring. "Everything's related. The back feels great, but the hamstring went on me. So I don't know if it was too much doing back exercises that was putting too much pressure on my hamstring and what-not. The positive out of it is my back has felt great all training camp. Now the hamstring is starting to feel better again, so maybe it's about just finding that good balance between doing my back stuff, but not doing too much of it and doing hamstring work as well."
Walton's injury history shows he's met that approach with mixed success. But as far as taking that even-headed approach toward the triangle offense? Walton's nailed it. Before training camp began Jackson pointed toward Walton's absence as a significant factor in the bench's inconsistency last season, because the forward's team-first mentality and knowledge of the triangle would've helped keep the unit fluid and focused more on execution than individual production.
Although the Lakers surely face more pressing issues, such as how soon Kobe Bryant will fully rehabilitate his surgically repaired right knee or how soon Andrew Bynum will return to the court, Walton's return could help address another issue the Lakers face this training camp -- helping newcomers Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, Theo Ratliff, Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter fully understand the triangle.
"The most important thing is getting the terminology down because it's a reaction type of offense," said Walton, whose return will add more depth to the Lakers' frontline considering it's without Bynum and Caracter (back spasms). "If you don't have the terminology down, by the time it takes you to process what [Jackson's] telling you to do and you reacting, you're a second or two late already. You have to get that down. After that, a lot of it is just common sense and going to where what's open. [Jackson] always says, 'You can't make a mistake in the offense if you hit the open man or cut to the open area.' That's the truth. Feel the game out and learn the terminology."
Coach and player accounts as well as the five preseason games suggest Blake has picked up the offense the fastest. But even he agrees with the sentiment the other newcomers share, that the terminology and making the right reads are the most difficult aspects to master in the offense. To help reinforce those concepts, Walton says Jackson distributes a DVD that illustrates 10 similar plays off a certain set and encourages everyone to ask questions of him, his assistants and teammates. Even if his statistical impact has been marginal with the Lakers, Walton serves as the perfect teammate to help these newcomers get acquainted with the offense.
Walton illustrates this point by the picture he paints of himself: "It's not going out and feeling like I need to score a bunch of points but more as a playmaker and a facilitator." Illustrating this point, he finished last season with the team's best passing rating, which 82games.com determined by how many passes led to assists, including three-pointers, jumpers, close-range shots and dunks, divided by the number of passes that led to turnovers. And he illustrates it by the fact that he's going to play together off the bench with the newcomers.
They'll likely find it easier to grasp the concepts when they're playing alongside someone who fully knows how to execute them. Although the newcomers have maintained they've felt comfortable asking questions, surely it will be less intimidating asking someone of Walton's stature for help than perhaps a starter or the coaching staff. So fans shouldn't see Walton's return simply in terms of his injury uncertainty or his modest statistics. They should see his return as the addition of someone who can help extend Jackson's preparation for training camp.
"When the triangle works the way it's supposed to, it's beautiful," Walton said. "It's fun to watch. It's fun to play. When you've got guys working on the same play and making the right reads, it's great. It's the way basketball is meant to be played."
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Photo: Celtics forward Paul Pierce tries to power his way past Lakers forward Luke Walton in Game 1 of the 2010 NBA Finals. Credit: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times.