Lakers Report Cards: Luke Walton
With conflicted feelings swirling in his mind, Lakers forward Luke Walton entered his exit interview ready to share his sentiments about playing for Coach Phil Jackson while honestly expressing his frustration over a diminished role.
Over the years, Jackson has often joked that he viewed Walton as his "son," with similarities running strong. They had both been hungry utility players, strong proponents of the triangle offense, and, in the eyes of many Lakers fans, the relationship resulted in Jackson elevating Walton to a role he didn't deserve. Too bad that didn't actually fit the reality of the 2010-2011 season, in which Walton played a career-low nine minutes per game, averaging just 1.7 points on 32.8% shooting even though his back was healthy. That's why Walton's exit interview was sentimental, because of the deep respect he has for Jackson, but equally frustrating because of his diminished role.
“It was very hard. I worked extremely hard this summer to get my back to a level that I could compete and play and help this team, and obviously getting hurt in training camp didn’t help, but I still felt like once I was healthy again and coach knowing what I could do, I’d be able to contribute a lot more than he let me," Walton said during his exit interview. "But [Phil] told me that his game plan was to have the second unit play at a much faster speed than the first unit. I’m more of a let’s bring it up, run the offense and execute, and it kinda left me out of the rotation a little bit, which hurt a lot. But the team was winning, so as long as the team was winning, that’s all that really matters.... So with the sudden loss in the playoffs, now it looks even a little worse. ... I talked with coach for a while, I felt like I had to get some stuff off my chest that had been bothering me, but all in a very respectful way. I told him he means the world to me.”
Walton's situation never created friction in the locker room because of his strong relationship with Jackson and Walton's team mindset. Nonetheless, Walton was delusional in thinking he earned more of an opportunity. I had long touted the value Walton had in running the triangle correctly and organizing the bench, a quality that often gets lost in the never-ending hysteria surrounding the six-year, $30-million deal he signed following the 2006-2007 season.
But Walton's shot selection and overall athleticism made him a less desirable option for much playing time. Besides, it was going to be hard for him to eat minutes from Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes, whom the Lakers signed last off-season in case Walton's back became an issue again. In fact, Walton's playing time actually would've diminished even more had Devin Ebanks had not injured his left tibia in the final six weeks of the season.
Surely, with the Lakers showing little semblance of the triangle and the bench continuing to play inconsistently, it would've been understandable if Jackson had given Walton a shot in the postseason. But Walton's strong work ethic and mastery of the concepts proved less important than his actual on-court abilities. That's why the 2010-2011 campaign proved frustrating for reasons beyond the Lakers' failed postseason run. Just when Walton finally became healthy, the Lakers had already acquired players around him that made him less useful. That feeling is certainly more painful than a pinched nerve in his lower back, leading to more uncertainty about whether his role will change much at all.
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Photo: Lakers forward Luke Walton during warmups before an April game against San Antonio. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times